At the start of this international window, Luca de la Torre had played slightly more than 12 minutes total in the US men’s national team’s Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, having been left off the roster for their five matches in September and November.
Walker Zimmerman, too, had not always appeared to be central to Gregg Berhalter’s plans; he was initially omitted from the squad called for October’s qualifiers, then added to the group late after Tim Ream withdrew for family reasons.
And Kellyn Acosta, while regularly called in and used as a substitute, had started three matches in this cycle, but none since a subpar showing (this outlet gave him a rating of 3/10) in the ugly loss at Panama on Oct. 10.
It’s a tribute to the depth and competitiveness of the USMNT player pool – and Berhalter’s open-mindedness, perhaps – that all three of them started and turned in match-winning performances during Wednesday’s vital, nerve-calming 3-0 Concacaf Octagonal victory over Honduras in extremity-numbing cold at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Any specific decisions that we make in one window don't reflect the person’s standing in perpetuity; that can change,” Berhalter said postgame while offering up praise for all three contributors.
“The national team is extremely competitive for spots. And when guys come in and perform, they keep their spots, and Walker’s certainly done that. And not only that, but his demeanor, his mindset on and off the field is really helpful for the group. He has experience. But he's also calm, and he has a calm intensity to him that really helps the group perform.”
Even when stars like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie or Tyler Adams have been injured, suspended or out of form, at least one player or another has found a way to contribute in key moments for these young Yanks.
It’s been a huge factor fueling their current position in the Ocho standings with three matchdays to go – and it’s likely to remain so when they visit Mexico at mighty Estadio Azteca to start their tricky March window against an El Tri side with whom they currently share second place behind runaway leaders Canada.
“The hope is that it gives us a lot of momentum, just not because we got three points, but the way that we got three points,” said Zimmerman, Wednesday’s captain; the USMNT are 4-1 when he wears the armband.
“I thought it was a statement in the way that we competed, the way that we went about the game, went about our business, and it definitely looked like the most dynamic performance that we've had, especially this window. So hopefully, we can take a lot of positives from this game, keep up the things that we did well and carry that into the next window and be ready to go in Azteca.”
Asked about the approach to that iconic venue in Mexico City, where the United States have never won in qualifying, Zimmerman projected confidence. The USMNT will host Panama at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium in the second game of next month’s window, then close out the Ocho with a traditionally testing trip to Costa Rica.
“No, we're definitely going into Mexico going for three points, going for a win,” said the Nashville SC standout. “I'm sure we'll be aware of the points it’s going to take to qualify. But it's one game at a time. And that first one against Mexico is going to be important and that's what our focus is on. So we're going to be trying to pick up max points there.”
Zimmerman scored the USMNT’s second goal of the night from one of Acosta’s many incisive set-piece deliveries, and the quality and precision shown by de la Torre next to McKennie in central midfield was striking given that this was the Heracles Almelo man’s first-ever World Cup qualifying start.
“Really big opportunity for me. In some ways, I've worked my whole life for this,” said the San Diego native. “So I was just really happy to get the chance to start. And everyone was focused. It was definitely a must-win game, and we executed the plan, they really didn't have a chance to come into the game; 3-0.
“A lot of the guys I had played with quite a bit before, like Weston, Christian, we've been playing together [on youth national teams] since we were like, 13. So it's quite easy to fit in with those guys. And yeah, when we play like we did today, it's enjoyable, it’s attacking football. I was on the ball a lot, so I just had a really good time.”
Meanwhile, Zimmerman has risen from one of many center backs vying for callups and minutes to something along the lines of a veteran inspirational presence for Berhalter’s group.
“It starts with just desire, competitiveness and that's kind of been my DNA my whole way through,” said the former LAFC and FC Dallas defender. “Leading by effort and competitiveness and communication and making sure that on nights like tonight, when your mind can sometimes wander, go other places, think about how it's cold outside, it's breaking guys out of those thoughts and encouraging and pushing forward, constantly on top of everyone to make sure the intensity stays at a high level.
“I take a lot of pride in representing this country, especially wearing the captain's armband, that is truly a goal of mine from a long time ago,” he added. “It really is a dream come true and I don't take that responsibility lightly. So really proud any time I represent this team and certainly wear the armband, and so proud of the effort tonight from the entire group. And it's definitely a performance that we can build on and look forward to March.”