USMNT keeps World Cup hopes alive with shutout win over Honduras

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United States' Weston McKennie (8) celebrates a goal with teammates Kellyn Acosta (23), Reggie Cannon (4), Antonee Robinson (5), Tim Weah, (21) and Ricardo Pepi (18) during the first half of the team's FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against Honduras, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)
United States' Weston McKennie (8) celebrates a goal with teammates Kellyn Acosta (23), Reggie Cannon (4), Antonee Robinson (5), Tim Weah (21) and Ricardo Pepi (18) during the first half of the team's FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Honduras Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn. (Andy Clayton-King / Associated Press)

The U.S. national team proved Wednesday that it’s possible to play soccer at the North Pole. What it didn’t establish, however, is why you would want to.

Playing in weather more suitable to polar bears, penguins and popsicles, the U.S. warmed its cooling World Cup hopes with a 3-0 win over Honduras that kept it second in the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament with three games remaining, placing a ticket to this fall’s competition in Qatar well within its grasp.

Weston McKennie, Walker Zimmerman and Christian Pulisic stormed across the frozen tundra at Allianz Field to score on three set pieces, sending the U.S. to its most one-sided shutout win since last spring.

But it wasn’t attractive, it wasn’t artful and it probably wasn’t all that smart to be running around in shorts in 2-degree weather and a wind chill of -13, temperatures which made the kickoff the coldest for a U.S. qualifier this century by a wide margin.

And those were the highs Wednesday night. By the time the game ended, the temperature was -1 and the wind chill -17.

“This didn’t work. It wasn’t normal,” Honduran coach Hernán Darío Gómez said in Spanish. “This wasn’t a spectacle of football.”

How cold is a temperature of -1 degrees?

So cold that the 19,202 fans brave enough to risk hypothermia found disposable hand warmers in the cup holders at their seats while medical teams circulated throughout the stadium checking on the safety of the paying customers. Additional medical stations were set up to treat those who needed help.

How cold is a wind chill of -17?

So cold that infrared heaters hung from aluminum frames over both benches, hot air was pumped in at players' feet and the substitutes and coaches sat on heated seats, wore heated vests and drank hot apple cider and tea. But even that couldn’t entice two Honduran players — among them starting goalkeeper Luis López, who reportedly had hypothermia — to leave the warmth of the locker room for the second half. The players, Gomez said, were in “bad shape.”

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter had little sympathy.

“When we go down to those countries and it's 90 degrees and it's unbearable humidity and guys are getting dehydrated and cramping up and getting heat exhaustion, that's the nature of our competition,” said Berhalter, who said U.S. Soccer provided Honduras and the officials with cold-weather gear. “When we scheduled this game in this location, you have to go by average temperatures. The cold spell came through and it's something we can't control.”

Players on both teams wore compression shirts and tights as well as Nike hypertherm headcovers and gloves. U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner, who looked more like a cross-country skier than a soccer player, took the field with a quarterback-style handwarmer provided by the Minnesota Vikings.

Playing in the Artic conditions, U.S. Soccer said, was meant to give its team a home-field advantage. Being the much-better team, apparently, wasn’t advantage enough: The U.S. started Wednesday ranked 13th in the world by FIFA, 50 places ahead of Honduras, who is winless in the qualifying tournament.

United States' Weston McKennie heads in a goal past Honduras' Rommel Quioto and Juan Delgado.
United States' Weston McKennie (8) heads in a goal past Honduras' Rommel Quioto (12) and Juan Delgado (6) with United States' Walker Zimmerman (3) and Honduras goalkeeper Luis Lopez (22) looking on during the first half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying match Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn. (Andy Clayton-King / Associated Press)

The match would have been a mismatch regardless of where it was played. But while the Americans (6-2-3 in qualifying) struggled — especially with their continued inability to score from the run of play — they got what they wanted when they decided to play in the coldest of the country’s 51 largest urban centers, beating Honduras by the same three-goal margin they won by in the heat of humidity of San Pedro Sula in September.

McKennie put the U.S. ahead to stay in the eighth minute, heading a long Kellyn Acosta free kick from the right side just inside the near post for the team’s first set-piece score in 11 qualifiers. It would get another 29 minutes later when Zimmerman got on the end of another Acosta cross and redirected it in with his right foot.

The two goals doubled the number of first-half scores for the U.S. in qualifying. Pulisic then got the final score two minutes after coming off the bench, banging in a loose ball that fell to his feet following an Acosta corner in the 67th minute.

“In the big picture our goal in this window was to stay in second, if not move to first place. And it looks like we'll do that,” said Berhalter, whose team opens the three-game March qualifying window in Mexico. “So [we’re] happy as we move into the next window. Now we're in position and it's about closing out in the next window.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.