Even without injured star forwards Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, the Americans were artful and dominant in the second half. And in just his second appearance with the senior squad, Pepi scored from close range in the 49th and 62nd minutes.
“We’re just sitting there, and we’re on the train,” Berhalter said of Pepi’s impact since he joined the squad late in the summer. “We’re just observing everything that’s happening. It’s amazing. An 18-year-old gets an opportunity and takes advantage of it. What you see and what I really like, he has this instinct, and it’s really hard to teach, and he has an instinct to score.”
Pepi, a dual national who chose the United States over Mexico for his international career, became the youngest player to score in consecutive qualifiers.
It was a much-needed victory after the United States settled for a draw against Canada last month in Nashville in its first home date on the 14-game qualifying schedule. The general rule in qualifying is to win at home and scrap points here and there on the road. A triumph in Honduras, thanks to Pepi’s heroics, compensated for the Canada misstep.
“It was a special moment for me and the team,” the FC Dallas star said of Thursday’s victory. “We needed these three points.”
The United States (2-0-2) maintained its place in the top three of an eight-team group that will send three nations to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. A fourth will advance to an intercontinental playoff.
The squad will now turn attention to matches in Panama on Sunday and against Costa Rica on Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio.
“The trap is going to be us thinking we’re great and us thinking we’ve qualified for the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “If we do that, we’ll get our [butt] kicked in Panama.”
Jamaica (0-3-1) arrived winless and missing two key forwards, both from the Premier League: Leon Bailey (Aston Villa) is injured, and Michail Antonio (West Ham) withdrew for logistical reasons.
The United States wasn’t taking the Reggae Boyz lightly, especially after sputtering through the first three qualifiers.
“It was really just nice to watch that type of output of energy and running and competing, besides the soccer side of it,” Berhalter said.
New York-born and Spain-based, Musah carried great expectation after choosing the United States over England, Italy and Ghana last spring. He did not feature in the Nations League in June and missed last month’s qualifiers with an injury.
On Thursday, he was terrific.
“We talked about his quality of driving at the defense and unsettling the defense,” Berhalter said. “And he did that constantly.”
Ten miles north of the Texas Capitol, waves of fans in red-white-and-blue attire streamed into the green-splashed MLS stadium, which opened in June and already has hosted two U.S. men’s games and one women’s match.
Twenty seconds after the opening whistle, Jamaica’s Kemar Lawrence probably should have received a red card for dragging down Paul Arriola, who had a clean run on goal from 25 yards. Perhaps leery of making a game-altering decision so soon, referee Reon Radix flashed a yellow instead.
A video assistant referee could have settled the matter, but Concacaf does not use VAR in qualifiers because of technological limitations in Central American and Caribbean stadiums.
The Americans kept coming but lacked the final pass. All the defensive work seemed to fatigue Jamaica, and less than four minutes into the second half, Musah and Pepi were in the middle of things.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner rolled the ball out to Dest in stride for a clear run to midfield. He supplied Musah, who took the initiative with a powerful central run. As he encountered resistance, Musah touched the ball wide to Dest, who let the ball do the work before he one-timed a cross to Pepi for an angled, seven-yard header into the back corner.
The Americans also had taken the lead in their previous home match, only to concede Canada’s equalizer moments later. This time, they extended their advantage, and they again used the length of the field.
At the end of it, Aaronson made a hard run and collected Antonee Robinson’s pass. Allowing the ball to roll, Aaronson surveyed his options. There was a certain one: Pepi, who made a central run and met the cross with a sliding finish at the edge of the six-yard box.
“I don’t even think we think of ourselves as young guys anymore,” Aaronson said. “We’re put in a situation where the whole country is looking at us and we need to perform. Everyone takes on this challenge.”
With two games approaching, the two-goal lead allowed Berhalter to pull Pepi and Aaronson in the 68th minute. The ovations were deafening. Soon, Dest, Musah and captain Tyler Adams exited to roars.
Several close calls prevented the score from truly demonstrating the U.S. dominance after intermission.
“Everything,” Aaronson said, “just clicked tonight.”
Notes: With a 23-player maximum, goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defender DeAndre Yedlin and midfielder Gianluca Busio were not in uniform. All seem likely to travel to Panama as Berhalter plans to shuffle game-day rosters and lineups. …
The United States is 6-1-6 against Jamaica in qualifiers, 5-0-2 at home.