Playing on a rock-hard surface, and against many rock-hard Honduran elbows and shins, the U.S. Men’s National Team showed spirit and drive in defeating Honduras 3–1 on Wednesday night in the semifinals of the Gold Cup. Jürgen Klinsmann made some unexpected changes to his starting lineup, allowing Clay Goodson to retain his place, giving Stuart Holden (instead of Mix Diskerud) a start beside Kyle Beckerman, and benching Chris Wondolowski for Eddie Johnson up front. Alejandro Bedoya also started in place of Joe Corona.
In minute one, Honduras let the U.S. know just what sort of game it was going to be, with Jose Torres taken down on the sideline. It was only the first of what would be many, many Honduran fouls on the night, with the referee only too happy to allow their physical play.
The early pace was frenetic, with very high pressure from both teams, but the first shot didn’t arrive until minute eight, when the U.S. managed to string a few passes together, giving Holden a look from distance, which he put high and wide. Neither team could hold the ball for more than a few moments at a time, but in the 11th minute, the U.S. found a way to goal.
Eddie Johnson did well to dummy a pass toward him from midfield, which bamboozled his defender, and allowed Donovan to receive the pass and put the ball into space. Johnson turned and made for that space, picked up the ball behind the defense, and finished with aplomb. It was a lovely sequence, and exactly the sort of start the U.S. needed. Honduras would be unable to sit back and soak up U.S. pressure. They’d have to come out and play.
The U.S. was being very aggressive without the ball, closing down Honduras at every opportunity, and it was creating chances. In the 14th, Johnson teed up Beckerman, after taking down a lofted pass into the box, but the midfielder’s chip wasn’t good enough. In the 16th, Holden was played into the box with several deft first-time touches, but before he could strike the ball, a Honduran defender got his body in the way, throwing an elbow into Holden’s chin. It may have been unintentional, but the ref gave nothing, either way.
On 21 minutes, Honduras made its first foray into the U.S. box, forcing a sliding block of a cross by DaMarcus Beasley. The first corner was punched out for another, and the second fell to the floor in the box and was cleared by Johnson. Honduras was undeterred, and began forcing its way back into the match, but in the 27th, they went further behind.
A clearance from the U.S. defense was flicked on by Johnson. Bedoya ran after it, alongside two Honduras defenders. It looked a lost cause, but he got his toe to it first, flicking it central into the path of the onrushing Donovan. Donovan took it down off his chest, then poked it home to the keeper’s left. The U.S., without seeming to break a sweat, was simply overrunning Honduras, matching their energy and effort, and allying it with greater skill and invention.
In the 29th, though, Honduras served a reminder that there would be no rest for the U.S. A Honduras free kick on the U.S. left was headed out, but the second ball was driven in fiercely at goal. Rimando’s hands were sure, though, and made the save. And Donovan almost made it three immediately after, flicking a cross from Bedoya wide of goal.
The U.S. continued to hold firm, pushing forward and crossing into the box. In the 34th, a well-made U.S. break gave Bedoya a shot from the right of the Honduras box, but it was blocked. The U.S. also continued to suffer fouls, with Jose Torres one of the primary recipients.The physical treatment was clearly frustrating him, and baited him into an ill-advised chip-shot in the 38th that went wide when other options were available.
Few good chances emerged in the final minutes of the half, but the U.S. went into the locker room very happy.
The U.S. made no changes at the half, and picked up right where they had left off. In the 49th minute, Donovan and Johnson almost did a swap of the first goal, with Donovan dummy-ing a ball for Johnson, but Johnson was fouled on the turn and never received the ball.
In the 50th, Johnson did well again to flick on a long ball into the path of Bedoya, who took it into the box. His strike was well saved at the near post. Following the corner, the U.S. had the ball wide left. Beckerman served it in for Johnson, but his header was off target.
In the 52nd, Honduras pulled one back. Beasley was nutmegged, and brought down his man. The resulting free kick was powered home without a marker nearby. It was again a story of a goal resulting from lack of concentration and poor marking from the U.S. Both the service and the run and finish were good, but no team should give away free headers.
It was a low moment, but as they’ve done all tournament long, instead of moping, the U.S. just went up the other end and scored another. From the restart after the Honduras goal, the ball was played back to the defense. Goodson sent a long ball up the right, into the box. Bedoya ran onto it and did very well to softly play it across goal with his first touch, where Donovan was waiting to poke it into an open net. The goal was a phenomenal reassertion of control by the U.S., and Honduras never had a chance to build any momentum.
In the 55th, another promising U.S. attack went bursting into the box, and the Honduran captain took the ball out of the air with his arm. The infraction was just about as close as one can be to inside the box without being in it, and the U.S. was awarded a free kick instead of a penalty. Torres took it, but put it over.
The ref was letting quite a bit of heavy play go, and in the 58th, Holden required treatment after taking a hard shot to the body. He walked away unscathed, in the end, but it was indicative of the kind of night the ref was having. Countless times, U.S. players were fouled by the sideline, only for the ref to signal just a throw-in.
In the 60th, Honduras managed a shot, but it was from 30 yards, and curled just wide of the upper corner of Rimando’s goal.
In the 66th, Andy Najar ran over DaMarcus Beasley, but the ref kept his card in his pocket. During the stoppage, Brek Shea came on for Torres, and Mix Diskerud came on for Beckerman.
There was a nervous moment in the 70th when an attempted U.S. clearance rebounded behind the defense, and Rimando had to be quick off his line to snuff the chance out at the edge of his box. It was so close to the line, in fact, that he had to let the ball go and stand up and beat two Honduran attackers with the ball at his feet before kicking the ball away. It was some cool goalkeeping from the Real Salt Lake man.
On 72 minutes, in a somewhat surprising move, Klinsmann replaced Donovan with Wondolowski, perhaps wanting to save his star man from any further physical punishment.
In the 75th, another rash challenge took Shea to the ground, but yet again, the ref gave nothing.
In the 77th, the U.S. nearly put it away. Shea drove up the left and served a ball into the box that eluded Johnson, but Bedoya was there. His cutback gave Johnson an open look, but Johnson put his shot just past the far post.
In the 81st, Honduran substitute Marvin Chavez did very well to flick a pass down into the U.S. box, where fellow sub Jerry Palacios had a shot on the turn, but it deflected over off Matt Besler. The deflection may have been vital, as the shot appeared goal-bound. Following the resultant corner, Honduras had another shot, but Rimando handled it.
In the 85th, Wondolowski could have gone down for a penalty, having received the ball in the box and made a good turn while under close watch by a Honduran defender. He was being manhandled, frankly, but fought for a shooting opportunity, which became a crossing chance as the end line loomed. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a teammate with the pass.
In the 87th, after Beasley was yet again hammered on the sideline with the ref giving nothing, a livid Klinsmann was actually tossed from the sideline after arguing the call and throwing a ball to the ground. The decision was farcical. While the U.S. went on to win the game, the team may be without its head coach for the final of the tournament (pending the decision of a tournament disciplinary committee). The ref’s decision-making throughout the game was baffling, and the U.S. should be upset with their treatment by him.
Honduras pressed hard, perhaps sensing a U.S. wobble, but the feeling was short-lived. Even with the ref giving call after soft foul call against the U.S.—going so far as to give Johnson a yellow card for not moving away from a free kick—the best chance Honduras could muster was a free kick into Rimando’s arms with the last kick of the game.
Landon Donovan is really, really good: What else can be said? He scored two more goals, giving him five and a share of the tournament lead, and with six assists to go along them. He is simply the best player at the Gold Cup. Maybe that whole sabbatical thing was just what he needed, because Donovan hasn’t looked this exciting and effective in a very long time.
Bedoya breaks out: Alejandro Bedoya assisted on both Donovan goals, nearly had a third assist when Johnson just missed the post in the second half, had two hard shots on target, and generally played his best-ever game for the national team. It was a real turnaround for a player who’d been fine so far, but definitely was outshone by Joe Corona until Wednesday.
Johnson too strong: Donovan was the driver, but Johnson was the point of the spear and a constant menace to the Honduran defense. His strength and quickness was just too much to handle, and his understanding with Donovan and Bedoya was finely tuned.
Holden goes 90: Stuart Holden was given a surprise start, and even more surprisingly went the full 90. It was an important milestone for the player, and while he didn’t quite have the fitness to run full-bore by the end, his probing passing and constant movement set up several U.S. chances. Now he just needs to dial in his shooting, which was pretty wayward. Baby steps.
This was an excellent performance by the U.S., and they rightly advance to the final to face
the winner of Panama v Mexico Panama, which defeated Mexico 2–1 on Wednesday night. Even considering the quality of the opposition throughout this tournament, the U.S. has earned its plaudits and simply has not had a bad game. The biggest knock against the team was that it started games too slowly, but that flaw was fixed against Honduras, with even Beckerman, oft-maligned for his speed of play, taking part in quick-tempo passing from the opening whistle. It bodes well for the final game of the competition, regardless of the opponent.
A word about the referee. The games leading up to this one, while not exactly perfect refereeing performances, have been for the most part acceptable. The referee’s performance on Wednesday was most certainly not acceptable. That Honduras was called for only one more foul than the U.S., and the only card issued was to Johnson for a non-foul-related infraction, is laughable. Klinsmann’s ejection was also ham-fisted and unnecessary. U.S. fans’ sense that CONCACAF refs are out to get them is generally just paranoia, but one could be forgiven for thinking Wednesday night’s ref was biased against the guys in red and white.
But enough of that, on to the final!