Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras– It is the worst possible start for the U.S. Men’s National team as they embark on gauntlet that is the Hexagonal Round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but the good thing about turning in such a flat and uninspired performance in their HEX opener is the fact they have nine more matches to turn things around.
The bad news, however, is that now that they have started this round of qualifying with a loss, their margin for error has shrunken considerably as they face two more road games in their next three qualifiers.
Jurgen Klinsmann turned to an inexperienced back-line, and it looked it, but the loss was about more than some defenders facing the pressure of the HEX for the first time. The squad looked flat and less fit than the Hondurans, who buzzed around them for large parts of the match.
As much as the Juan Garcia wonder goal helped turn the tide, the reality is Honduras was the better team for significant stretches. That said, Garcia’s goal was crucial for its timing and ability to bring the crowd back into it after Clint Dempsey’s strike. Without that goal, the U.S. just might go into halftime leading and feeling good about things.
Ultimately, the Hondurans were more fit, more creative, more energetic and more deserving of the win, while the Americans have to go back to the drawing board and start thinking about some changes because what we saw on Wednesday wasn’t anywhere good enough to take points in the HEX.
Here are some observations from Wednesday’s match:
THE BACK-LINE’S BAPTISM BY FIRE
When Jurgen Klinsmann chose to start Omar Gonzalez at centerback ahead of Carlos Bocanegra, he committed himself to start a back four that had played in a combined zero Hexagonal Round qualifiers before.
You can’t really pin the loss entirely on the defense, but a look at the Honduras winner leaves some room for criticism of a back-line, and particularly a centerback pairing that looked shaky at times against Honduras.
Klinsmann made the point after the match that he believes Gonzalez is ready for the next level, and that he needs experience in games like these, but you can certainly ask the question of whether Klinsmann might have cost his team a point by trying to gain an inexperienced player some important big-game experience.
Will Klinsmann stick with this inexperienced quartet with the hopes of molding it into a cohesive unit? It sure sounds like that’s the plan, which doesn’t bode well for Bocanegra, who looks like he’ll be phased out unless Klinsmann decides he needs his experience against Costa Rica and Mexico on March.
LANDON DONOVAN WAS MISSED
There is no getting around the fact that the U.S. midfield lacked a spark, and while you can point to the lineup Klinsmann went with (not starting Graham Zusi or Sacha Kljestan), you can also point to the absence of Landon Donovan, who missed his first meaningful HEX game since the summer of 2001, a span of 20 HEX matches.
Donovan is expected to eventually return to the national team, which U.S. Soccer president suggested on Wednesday morning, and given how flat the U.S. team looked on Wednesday it is a safe bet he will be welcomed with open arms.
No, Donovan isn’t the player he once was, but he still brings enough unique attacking elements, and a boat load of experience. It is very difficult to picture Donovan not being in the starting lineup when the United States takes on Mexico on March 26th, if not sooner. While he may or may not need the buzz of playing for the national team anymore, it was clear on Wednesday that the United States still needs him.
THE U.S. MIDFIELD JUST DIDN’T HAVE IT
It was a forgettable day for the American midfield. With the exception of Jermaine Jones’ stellar pass on Clint Dempsey’s goal, there were few bright spots for any of the three players in midfield (four if you don’t count Dempsey as a forward).
Danny Williams was particularly poor, and his lack of playing time at Hoffenheim is clearly taking its toll (though some might argue he has had bad games even when he was playing regularly). Maurice Edu came on and provided significantly better quality at the position.
The game was a disappointing one for Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, who were nowhere close to winning the battle in the middle, letting Honduras’s playmakers exploit the space in front of the U.S. defense. Klinsmann’s strategy to pack the left wing forced Oscar Boniek Garcia inside and the Houston Dynamo caused all sorts of problems for the American midfield.
Graham Zusi helped provide some energy when he came into the match and Klinsmann will have to think about some changes to his formation and midfield. Whether it is the return of Landon Donovan, or going back to Zusi as a starter, Klinsmann seems likely to make changes for the March qualifiers because can’t be happy with what he saw from his midfield on Wednesday.
CHANDLER’S CAP TYING SAGA IS OVER
One of the few bright spots for the Americans was the fact that Tim Chandler was cap-tied, but it wasn’t exactly a memorable night for him. It’s safe to say that, at least for now, STeve Cherundolo remains the best option at right back when healthy.
HONDURAS CONTINUES TO IMPRESS
When the ‘Catrachois’ turned heads at the Olympics by reaching the knockout rounds and pushing Brazil to the brink, it was clear they had a special generation of talent coming up the ranks.
On Wednesday they showed that quality, and the exciting young players who are driving their new generation. It is safe to say that they have cemented their status as one of the favorites to qualify for the World Cup from this HEX group.
QUIET NIGHT FOR THE U.S. FORWARDS
Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson won’t want to spend much time looking at video of Wednesday’s match. You can point to lack of service, but for someone like Altidore, who has failed to impress with the national team for a good while now, it gets tougher and tougher to accept that excuse even though it’s a legit one.
Johnson was active and more involved than Altidore, but you have to wonder if Herculez won’t return to the starting lineup in March.
WHERE WAS THE FITNESS?
Remember when the U.S. Men’s National Team was always the most fit team on the field? That certainly wasn’t the case on Wednesday. For a coach like Klinsmann, who stresses fitness and health so much, that has to be a serious cause for concern. He will have to think about what he’s doing, as will his players.