The Honduran Soccer Federation did a fine job of setting up the U.S. for a 2-1 loss in the opening match of the final round in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The Honduran president declared a national holiday for the day of the game, and you can bet that many of those people who had the next day off spent the night before doing their best to keep the U.S. players from getting any rest.
The U.S. has dealt with that kind of attempted disruption before, so it was the Hondurans' decision to play the game in the middle of a steamy afternoon that really made the difference. Every U.S. player flew to Honduras from a place where it is still winter, and thus there was little doubt as the game progressed that the heat and humidity would sap the American's strength.
The Hondurans are now celebrating three points and a fantastic start to the Hex, and the U.S. is once again looking at an upward climb to qualify for the World Cup.
I was surprised to see Klinsmann deploy a formation similar to the one that was so ineffective in Kingston against the Jamaicans, with two hulking center backs playing behind three midfielders with defensive reputations.
This had the desired effect of taking space in the middle away from the Hondurans, but it also meant that the U.S. was playing without a designated holding midfielder, as both Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones took turns running the offense while Danny Williams sat in front of the back line.
Klinsmann put his speed on the wings with Clint Dempsey starting on the left, Eddie Johnson on the right, and Jozy Altidore in the middle of the front three. Fullbacks Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson were supposed to provide support and overlapping runs for the wings.
Klinsmann made all three of his substitutions at nearly the same point in the second half with Maurice Edu taking Williams' spot in front of the defense, Sacha Kljestan coming in for Eddie Johnson on the left, and finally Graham Zusi subbing for Jones.
These subs shifted the American formation from a 4-3-3 to more of a classic 4-4-2 with Altidore and Dempsey as strike partners, Klestjen and Zusi out wide and Bradley playing a traditional No.10 role.
The formation worked better for the Americans in the second half, but no formation could have overcome the Americans' uninspired play. I don't think that either formation is what was "wrong" with the Americans' game, but rather the individuals in the formation.
Timothy Chandler looked like he was playing a pick-up game rather than a World Cup qualifier, and it was rare to see him in the final third of the field either supporting or overlapping. He was beaten several times on the wing and he failed to pressure any crosses. He may now be cap-tied to the Nats, but I didn't see any sign of commitment in his play.
I keep expecting Sacha Kljestan to show us all the skills he's been developing as a starter for a European pro side, with plenty of Europa League experience. Instead, he looked like the same old Sacha, unable to deliver when the U.S. really needed him. In stoppage time he had two opportunities to be a difference maker but delivered two dreadful balls with plenty of American bodies inside the 18 and the U.S. needing a goal to tie.
Michael Bradley was his normally well-positioned self regardless of the formation, but his passing in this game lacked the crispness and accuracy he developed playing in Serie A. Like Kljestan, he looked more like he did four years ago and not like the guy who has even the Italians giving him props.
Given the style of play the U.S. should have expected and the muggy playing conditions, I am perplexed that Klinsmann didn't bring in a crew of Mexican league players rather than the Germans. Who would have fared better in that style of game in those conditions?
The U.S. struggled to maintain possession or build up anything going forward. The three forwards did some good work getting down the wings and providing service to each other, but the forays were too infrequent and created only a couple of half-chances.
The defensive midfield posture did keep the Hondurans from combining through the middle but it also kept the best American midfielder further and further from linking up with its forwards. I generally appreciate Klinsmann's willingness to ignore criticism and continue trying to implement the tactics he favors, but I'm curious why he went back to a formation that yielded a road loss the last time he tried it.
The U.S. goal in the 36th minute gave the impression that the U.S. had found its rhythm and would now dominate the game. After a good spell of possession, Altidore received the ball at his feet and patiently waited for his teammates to find channels. He then laid a pass back to Jones, who picked his head up and found both Johnson and Dempsey making perfectly timed runs through the Honduran defense. Jones' lob pass could have put either forward in on goal, but Dempsey got there first and made a nice volley on the run and into the far post.
Then the sleepwalking started.
It was like the U.S. players had somehow determined that the game was now won and they could walk the rest of the way. The Hondurans made them pay for this when an overhit corner kick sailed way beyond the box and only Honduran players chased it. No American pressed out, the unchallenged cross found a Honduran chest, and was finished with an incredible bicycle kick by Garcia.
No one can blame the U.S. defense for that spectacular finish, but the lackadaisical play that allowed the Hondurans two unchallenged touches before the goal is most certainly on the heads of the defenders.
The Americans finished the half demonstrating little initiative or energy, and it was starting to look like the heat and humidity was taking its toll.
Maybe, I wrote in my notes at halftime, Klinsmann will read them the riot act in the locker room.
The U.S. torpor continued at the start of the second half but they did do a better job of maintaining possession, even if it was just lazily knocking the ball around the back. Unfortunately, this forced Bradley to drop deeper and deeper to find the ball, which in turn meant that he was not able to inspire the offense in the final third.
The Cameron/Gonzales combo at centerback worked well most of the day with the two hulks winning everything in the air and slowing down the Hondurans' runs. In the 56th minute the U.S. gave up a cheap turnover that could have turned out worse if not for the pair timing their onside trap perfectly and catching the Hondurans' break offside.
I was fairly impressed with the centerbacks' work in this game, but Gonzales will not sleep well for a while after he was caught ball watching and letting his man Jerry Bengston run past him and onto a lonely ball that eluded Tim Howard. Bengston completed the sidefoot sitter for the game winner.
Gonzales is no rookie and he's played in his share of big matches, so it boggles the mind that a player of his caliber was just standing near the penalty spot while his wingman and his keeper fought to block a shot. The play was clearly not over, and with Howard out challenging the ball the goal was wide open.
Sometimes one play decides a game, and that play gave the Hondurans all three points—all because a high-caliber player decided to take the rest of the play off.
At this point it was clear that the American motors were overheating. Altidore looked absolutely gassed, and even the tireless Bradley was jogging and walking more than usual. It was going to take a play of individual brilliance for the Americans to claim any points, and the usual suspects were not up to it this time.
We probably shouldn't even complain about CONCACAF officiating any more, just assume it and move on.
Even so, this referee allowed the Hondurans to scythe down the Americans over and over again. Even if the Hondurans somehow managed to touch the ball in the course of their slide tackle, the challenges were coming from behind and clearly took out the player. An EPL official would have given a handful of cautions in the first half. This referee gave none.
The no-calls only encouraged Los Catrachos, who picked up the frequency of these attacks in the second half. Every American who received a ball with his back to the defense found himself on the ground and dispossessed.
My final complaint about the officiating is an old one for me that, like the slide tackling, is beginning to be addressed in UEFA competitions. I will never understand how a referee can let players waste time so blatantly. Maybe the referee doesn't need to caution or get after a player who is faking his own death on the field or strolling up to a dead ball, but at the very least they can add on an appropriate amount of time to penalize the time wasting.
The referee gave three minutes of stoppage, one minute of which was spent waiting for a Honduran player to take a corner kick, and the final minute used on a substitution and U.S. dead-ball opportunity that the Hondurans dragged out.
Three minutes is what referees normally append to any game, just allowing for substitutions. If FIFA wants to stop time wasting, skip the yellow cards and instruct the officials to add a bonus minute or two at the end. That will stop players from dragging the game out.
I give the Nats a D+ for this game. The plus is only because the lone U.S. goal was set up and taken very well.
Our new centerback pairing looked pretty good and will get better with age.
I'm waiting for Klinsmann's postgame presser to explain his tactics, because right now I am confused by his use of the Kingston formation and passing over his south of the border players for his northern European players for a game played near the equator.
The U.S. is up against the wall once again and cannot afford any mistakes against two tough opponents in match days two (v. Costa Rica) and three (at Mexico). The U.S. could easily find itself with fewer than three points after the first three games.
Klinsmann has managed to rally his team in the past; he absolutely must do so right now.
And somebody find Landon Donovan and give him a shirt.
We need him.
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