On Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. endured a hot and steamy game against stiff opposition, as they returned to World Cup Qualifying play with a 2–1 loss in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It was a game where both teams were quite evenly matched, and the U.S. should feel chagrined to have let a point slip through its fingers due to individual errors.
The U.S. lineup had a couple of surprises, with Omar Gonzalez taking the place of usual captain Carlos Bocanegra alongside Geoff Cameron in central defense. Jermaine Jones also started, alongside both Michael Bradley and Danny Williams, but as a withdrawn wide player, with Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore switching around up top, and Eddie Johnson on the wing.
The first half was notable for early Honduras pressure, and nerves showing in the U.S. back line, but the U.S. soon settled, and the game, while not end to end, was evenly balanced. Honduras had a couple of half chances midway through the period, but nothing that unduly troubled Tim Howard in goal. The U.S. slowly grew into the game, and it was the Americans who struck first. A good passing move through midfield saw Jermaine Jones, of all people, loft a delicate chip over the Honduran defense, where Clint Dempsey was making a late, untracked run. His first-time volley was deceptively deft, and flashed across the face of goal and into the far-post side netting.
After that, the U.S. looked to assert its dominance, but Honduras responded swiftly. A Honduran corner flew harmlessly over the U.S. box, but Honduras collected the ball and sent it back across. The U.S. defense, while well-positioned, did not challenge the ball as it fell into the box and was chested down to Juan Carlos Garcia, who seemed harmless, facing away from goal. But, as Geoff Cameron strode forward to challenge, Garcia executed a textbook-perfect bicycle kick, sending an unstoppable volley past Howard and into the U.S. net.
Honduras had all the momentum, but the U.S. did well to marshal things and get to the break without conceding a second.
The second half continued the pattern of the first, with neither team seeming dominant offensively, or likely to give up a goal. The day was hot and the field, with it’s long grass, was playing slow and heavy, and as the half wore on, it was clear that fatigue was affecting both teams. Timmy Chandler, a starter at right back and finally cap-tied to the United States, was perhaps the most obviously tired, getting turned several times, but Jurgen Klinsmann left him on, replacing Williams, Jones, and Eddie Johnson with Maurice Edu, Graham Zusi, and Sacha Kljestan. The game was there to be won, and Klinsmann clearly wanted all three points.
As it was, the substitutions could work no magic, and it seemed, even as early as the 75th minute, that a draw was on the cards. Unfortunately, even if both teams are content with a draw, if one team stops playing, the other is under no obligation to stop, too. In the 79th, a ball was sent through the U.S. defense. Geoff Cameron, the closest defender, could have tackled the ball away without incident, but instead chose to let the ball run on to Howard. Whether Howard called for it or not, he was too far away, especially considering how slow the surface was playing, and Oscar Boniek Garcia stole in and poked the ball across goal as Howard ran out to close him down. Gonzalez, otherwise steady, had let his own man pass him by, perhaps thinking (with reason) that Cameron and/or Howard had things under control. In control they were not, however, and Honduras’s Jerry Bengtson stole in to poke the ball home. The U.S. had a few late chances from set pieces, but nothing came of them.
This one is difficult to take. The team played well enough to get a draw and, under other circumstances, might even have won. Instead, individual errors led to an entirely preventable goal, and the U.S. starts the Hexagonal with predictable drama. Yes, the conditions were difficult—the heat and the field combined to make for some very tired legs—and Honduras pressured the U.S. all game long, but those aren’t worthy excuses. The truth is that, at this level, errors get punished, and the good teams don’t make them in important situations.
While Cameron and Gonzalez are better athletes than the missing Bocanegra, if there was a problem with the U.S. defense all game long, it was a lack of organization, something Bocanegra’s vocal style might have helped correct. Cameron also no longer plays in central defense (or defense at all) for his club team, and that may have contributed to his decision making in the decisive moment.
In the end, getting no points instead of one is no crisis, but with two of the next three games also away from home, the U.S. could see itself with a mathematical hill to climb, and every point matters.
Tim Howard: 6. Had little to do, but performed when called upon. At no fault for the first goal, but perhaps partially culpable for the back-breaking second.
Fabian Johnson: 5. Provided width and attacking intent, but with little end product. Tired late, and couldn’t help back very quickly.
Geoff Cameron: 3. Didn’t look in sync with Gonzalez for much of the night, and has to take the lion’s share of the blame for the second Honduras goal.
Omar Gonzalez: 5. Outside of the winner, he looked relatively comfortable, more so than Cameron. Had he stayed awake, though, he might have prevented the Honduras win.
Timmy Chandler: 4. Well, he’s cap-tied, which is good news, I guess, but didn’t do much to warrant all the excitement about him.
Danny Williams: 6. Hardly noticed him, which is to say, he did his job of protecting the back four, and then gave the ball to Michael Bradley, as he should. Ran a lot.
Michael Bradley: 6.5. Played well, but not his best game. Had a couple shots, but nothing on target. Passing wasn’t too crisp, at times.
Jermaine Jones: 6. Played his best game for the U.S. in quite some time. Broke up play well, but never in an overzealous or rash way, and contributed meaningfully to the offense—and not just the assist, either.
Eddie Johnson: 5.5. Came close to making good things happen several times, but couldn’t quite connect on anything telling. Was removed just as he seemed to be getting into a groove.
Clint Dempsey: 6. Scored a peach of a goal, but did little else of note. Worked hard and almost combined well with Bradley several times, but nothing materialized.
Jozy Altidore: 5. Looked solid, and worked hard for the team. His hold-up play has improved, but had few touches, in the end.
Maurice Edu (sub): 6. Like the man he replaced, was essentially invisible, in a good way.
Sacha Kljestan (sub): 5. Tried to make things happen offensively, but, like everyone else, had a hard time of it. Covered well for Fabian Johnson’s upfield runs, but is obviously not much of a defender.
Graham Zusi (sub): 5. Looked fine, but couldn’t influence proceedings.