McKennie, Pepi and the USMNT's biggest winners and losers from the first set of World Cup qualifiers

McKennie Pepi GFX
Getty/Goal composite
The U.S. earned five points from their first three games, putting them in a decent place despite a chaotic week

For 225 minutes, it didn't look like there would be many winners from the U.S. men's national team's World Cup qualifiers.

It began with a drab draw against El Salvador and then a frustrating 1-1 match against Canada that saw the U.S. squander the lead. And then, through 45 minutes, the USMNT found themselves down 1-0 to Honduras with their World Cup qualifying hopes already feeling like they were on the brink.

But things change, sometimes rather quickly.

Article continues below

A four-goal explosion in the second half of Wednesday's 4-1 win over Honduras was exactly what the U.S. needed to end this international window on a high. It was a win that restored some faith in the process and, more importantly, it's a win that earned the U.S. a respectable five-point haul from the first week of qualifying.

It's not the dream start by any means. And, given what the USMNT had to deal with on and off the field, it was a week that was less than ideal. But they survived it. Job done, at least for now.

With that said, here's a look at the biggest winners and losers for the USMNT from the first set of World Cup qualifiers.

Loser: Weston McKennie

McKennie USMNT 2020

We'll get the obvious one out of the way, but we'll also talk about it with a bit of nuance.

Weston McKennie's time with the USMNT is not over. In fact, it's only just beginning. This week's events don't change that but, in order for McKennie to reach his full potential, this week has to change him.

McKennie is on strike two when it comes to Covid-related protocol breaches, which shows that the young midfielder still has a lot of growing up to do. If McKennie wants to be a leader for this team, if he wants to be a star, if he wants to live up to his unlimited potential, he has to learn that there are things you can do and things that you can't.

The USMNT will hope that this week made that lesson loud and clear and that McKennie will return to the team as a more accountable and focused player. For McKennie, this week could just be a speed bump to learn from or it could be a sign of things to come. Let's hope for his sake that it's the latter and that the young midfielder can continue to grow into a true leader with this young group.

Winner: Ricardo Pepi

Pepi USMNT 2021 Honduras

You can't debut much better than that.

Ricardo Pepi had a hand in all four of the USMNT's goals in the win over Honduras as he staked his claim to be the team's No. 9 in his first 90 minutes as a senior international. It was a complete performance from the young FC Dallas star, who was energetic, aggressive and, most of all, dangerous in front of goal in his debut.

The U.S. has been looking for that dangerous forward for quite some time. Josh Sargent has had his chances but has never quite had the output. Daryl Dike looked good for a while but was slowed down by injuries, and probably fatigue this summer. Matthew Hoppe and Jordan Pefok are still relatively new.

Heading into October's qualifiers, Pepi may just be the guy and, if not, he's certainly in the conversation.

Loser: John Brooks

Brooks USMNT 2021

For years, John Brooks has been a pencilled-in starter for the USMNT. If this week was anything to go by, though, that may need to change.

Brooks was caught out on both goals the USMNT conceded this week, and the way in which it happened was most frustrating of all. Against Canada, he was stuck in no man's land defending a whole lot of nothing on the equalizing goal. In Honduras, his half-hearted challenge opened up the space needed for the hosts to open the scoring before he was taken out of the game after just 45 minutes.

It wasn't just that Brooks made mistakes, because slip-ups happen even to the best defenders. It's that the two goals were the result of some combination of laziness and a lack of awareness. That shouldn't happen to your top defender.

But the reality is that Brooks has almost never looked like a top defender in World Cup qualifiers. He's always struggled in CONCACAF games, for one reason or another, and this window didn't ease any doubts about his issues when playing outside of Europe.

And so the debate begins on whether John Brooks is the USMNT's No.1 defender. That title probably now belongs to Miles Robinson, who didn't put a foot wrong all week. 

Heading into the break, the question was about who should start next to Brooks. Now the question is if Brooks is the guy to start next to Robinson in the big games to come.

Winner: Antonee Robinson

Robinson USMNT 2021

Antonee Robinson has had a few extremely tough moments with the USMNT. But, after a strong week highlighted by a much-needed goal, the Fulham star has seemingly locked down the left-back spot.

There's no need to experiment with Sergino Dest on the left anymore, especially after seeing how bad that experiment looked against El Salvador. Robinson is the guy on the left and now looks like the clear starter after two great performances.

The Fulham defender was among the team's better players against Canada, setting up the goal in the 1-1 draw, before scoring against Honduras to help the USMNT move away from the panic button. Robinson looked more confident than ever during this window and he should head into October knowing that he's the USMNT's top left-back going forward.

Loser, but then winner: Gregg Berhalter

Gregg Berhalter

Gregg Berhalter got the USMNT's starting XI wrong on Wednesday. Very, very wrong.

But, when staring down a potential disaster, Berhalter acknowledged his mistake and made changes that were pivotal in securing all three points after a tough start to qualifying.

As the first half wore on, Berhalter's mistake was obvious. James Sands and George Bello were not quite ready. Tyler Adams wasn't able to impact the game like he wanted to. Sargent was just sort of there, not really making any mark on the game. Those were easy to see, but Berhalter does deserve credit for diagnosing the problems and fixing them.

His fixes were great, as DeAndre Yedlin, Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget all contributed to a goal. With the team's issues solved, the U.S. got all three points.

Coaches, like players, don't always get things right. Sometimes they make mistakes, and coaching mistakes are often glaring and easily punished. After seeing his side struggle against El Salvador and failing to make the necessary adjustments against Canada, Berhalter corrected his mistake against Honduras.

He won't get much credit for it but he should. Berhalter and the USMNT survived a chaotic week and are now in a perfectly OK position heading into the next set of games.

Close