There are ready-made excuses for why the United States Men's National Team lost, 2-1, at Honduras on Wednesday, but none of them should matter.
Yes, it was nearly 90 degrees at game time. Yes, the grass on the field was thicker than any of the players are used to. Yes, it was a tough CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on the road. Yes, the lineup didn't have much time to work together. And, yes, there are still nine matches left to go in the Hex round, making this result relatively inconsequential to the greater goal of reaching the 2014 World Cup.
Yes, all of those excuses are true. No, none of them really matter.
The USMNT lost because Jurgen Klinsmann chose a team that was ill-prepared for the circumstances, turning those excuses into reasons why the United States was burned by a late Honduran goal in a match that looked destined for a draw at the halftime whistle.
The back line was atrocious, so overmatched by Honduras that there is little hope to expect this group to handle the likes of Mexico or, if they even make it to Brazil, some of the best offensive teams in the world.
We spent nearly two years waiting, hoping and begging for Timmy Chandler to finally get cap-tied, and less than 90 minutes into his official USMNT tenure at right-back, we're left waiting, hoping and begging for Steve Cherundolo to get healthy as soon as humanly possible.
Fabian Johnson wasn't much better on the left side, yet neither were as overmatched as the center-back tandem of Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez. Cameron played well at times, but he was late to the ball on Honduras' first goal (though he may have been covering for another defender) and his man did set up the second goal after Cameron let him slip right by him, leaving Tim Howard out to dry.
Gonzalez was certainly more to blame on the game-winner for Honduras, completely losing track of his man on the match-defining goal. He was horribly out of position and panicked when he should have been able to clear the ball, instead left watching any chance of a point disappear with the rest of us as the ball crossed the line for Honduras.
Gonzalez's performance the entire match has everyone wondering why Carlos Bocanegra didn't start this match, on the road, in the heat, on thicker grass and whatever other excuse we can remember. Gonzalez may be the future at center-back for the U.S., but if a more seasoned player were in the game, those excuses may not have turned to reasons.
Truth be told, it wasn't just the back line's fault. The midfield failed to maintain possession and the forwards seemed shot-averse. This incarnation of the USMNT is structured to let Michael Bradley run the show, and when Bradley is at his best, the team can thrive. When he plays the way he did against Honduras—tentative, reactionary and very un-Bradley-like in his lack of aggressiveness—the team is going to fail.
The team failed. Klinsmann failed. Everyone failed.
There was some hope after the first stanza, a session that was indicative of many halves in the Klinsmann era. The U.S. barely held possession, seemingly content with defending on a razor-thin line time and time again until the chance for a counterattack arose. The counterattack came as Jermaine Jones took a drop pass from Jozy Altidore and flipped it expertly over the Honduras back line for Clint Dempsey to bury in the opposite corner with a world-class one-timer. A lead in a game the USMNT has no business winning.
Four minutes later, Honduras tied the match with an amazing bicycle finish by Juan Carlos Garcia, surrounded by no fewer than five U.S. defenders. The Honduras goal exposed the risk Klinsmann was willing to take in this road qualifier. First, Chandler created the chance by trying to control the ball on the right side of defense instead of harmlessly clearing it for a throw, resulting in a corner for Honduras. A complete lack of experience led to the chance.
As the corner kick went long, Honduras retained possession for the cross inside because no one from the United States tracked over to get the ball, in part due to the inexperience of Johnson working with Jones and Eddie Johnson, a forward who was penciled in at left midfield. As for the goal, well, that was pretty simple. Nobody covered the damn guy trying to bicycle the ball into the net.
I'll admit, I missed the goal the first time around, as I was blinded by all the blue shirts standing around doing nothing. Perhaps they were blinded by the gravity of situation, or the heat, or the length of the grass or their complete lack of experience playing together.
The entire match, the U.S. was a step behind the Honduran attack, unable to connect more than one or two passes together. Dempsey, who had one brilliant first-half touch for the goal, had at least a dozen others that were utterly lackluster.
That's the best way to describe the first match of the Hex for the USMNT: It lacked luster. Hell, it lacked more than luster. Most importantly, it lacked the one thing Klinsmann and his team needed moving forward: It lacked points.
The USMNT will go home and lick its wounds from a tough road match and prepare for the rest of the Hex, starting with a home match against Costa Rica on March 22. The U.S. only needs to finish in third of the six teams to qualify for the World Cup, a goal this loss to Honduras hasn't derailed. But this match was more than that. This match was the first real test for Klinsmann's system, with many of the players he brought in responsible for the biggest breakdowns.
The soccer sky isn't falling. All isn't lost and Chandler and Cameron and Gonzalez and Johnson will all be better off for having gone through this experience. They need time on the field, both individually and together, if they are going to work as a viable defensive unit.
That said, they weren't the answer in their first big test, and there are fewer chances left for Klinsmann to take these kinds of risks. This match, and those choices, left Klinsmann—and the faithful USMNT followers—with more questions than answers. At this stage, there's no excuse for that.