SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS
If World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region is a marathon, the US men’s national team started off the fourth and final phase of the process at a saunter, suffering an ugly 2-1 loss to an eminently beatable Honduras on Wednesday.
There were mitigating circumstances to be sure. In a heaving stadium assaulting all the senses – the incessant thrum of drums and hum of air horns, the deafening howls and cries of some 30,000 Hondurans, the humid 90-degree air, the smoke and smell of burning meat, the permanent hive of activity all around you – the field appeared to play heavily, quickly sapping the Americans’ energy.
But the US plainly underperformed; mustering no pressure, no sharpness, no urgency, no cohesion, no imagination, no width and no depth. A litany of jittery or simply unacceptable errors, meanwhile, put a modestly talented Honduran side in the driver’s seat in a tortuous and unsightly game. The Catrachos were given such ample time and space to get acquainted with the ball by the deep-sitting Americans that they could both design and execute their attacks at will. And if they didn’t foster danger of their own volition, yet another American turnover would accomplish it for them. Some savvy interventions by Tim Howard stemmed the tide for much of the first half, however.
That made the United States’ opening goal a surprise. In just the second promising American attack of the game in the 36th minute, Jermaine Jones sprung Clint Dempsey with a delicate ball over the top of the Honduran defense. The Texan, well-versed in converting such golden opportunities, deftly side-footed the ball over Noel Valladares and into the netting behind him to briefly hush the crowd.
Just four minutes later, however, the Americans’ sloppiness caught up with them. They conceded a cheap corner and more defensive malpractice gave Honduras two further opportunities to serve the ball into the box. On the last one, Juan Carlos Garcia smacked a magnificent bicycle kick past Tim Howard, who had no hope of intervening this time.
All manner of liquids and the containers holding them sailed towards the Americans as they headed back into the player tunnel at halftime, but their body language had blended exhaustion with dejection long before then.
Frustration was apparent not only from the American players but from head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. It never went away. Matters didn’t improve much for the US in the second half: rather than closing their ranks, they continued to let the Hondurans run at them.
That yielded a slew of chances for strikers Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly, who gave right back Timmy Chandler fits all afternoon. Oscar Boniek Garcia, meanwhile, was free to pelt Howard’s goal from afar. In the 79th, Honduras got the winner. Boniek easily broke through the disjointed defense and tapped the ball square for Bengtson, who ran away from the underwhelming Omar Gonzalez and slotted into the empty net. The US was well vanquished by then, and had no reserves of energy of inspiration to turn to.
All game, the US suffered from a dearth of quality possession and rhythm, stranding on the tightly packed Hondurans time and again when they ventured forward. This must be blamed at least partially on Klinsmann’s deployment of three defensively-minded midfielders in Danny Williams, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. The choice was somewhat understandable, given that this approach was bedrock to the US grinding out their first ever win on Mexican soil in a friendly back in August. But it was also the cause of the US’s unimaginative and feckless attacking. Not until the final third of the game did Klinsmann start inserting more able ball-distributors in the form of Sacha Kljestan and Graham Zusi but by then, their cohorts had run themselves ragged.
Much has been made of the number of Americans now playing for good clubs in Europe, but however far the may have come individually, a disconcerting collective regression was on show on Wednesday.
If the Americans are to negotiate the road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil successfully, they will need to travel it a lot more swiftly.