US Men's National Team Makes a Statement in Honduras: Bring Back Landon Donovan!
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It's not time to panic. It's not time to start scrambling for a refund on your trip to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.
No, this is the time for Jurgen Klinsmann to calmly pack his bags. To calmly make his way to the nearest airport. To calmly walk in a controlled manner to the appointed gate and then board a plane. A plane to wherever Landon Donovan is.
And then do everything in his power to convince Donovan to rejoin the United States Men's National Team before its next World Cup qualifier. And while acting calmly, Klinsmann should do all of this as fast as humanely possible.
Aside from Landon's freshly woven game uniforms, Klinsmann needs only to bring along a recording of the team's game on Wednesday in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with him to meet Donovan. A recording that represents the team's first action in the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Known popularly as the Hexagonal, only six teams remain. Three may pass. There is a special playoff between the fourth-place team and another region's winner, but let's table that discussion until necessary (i.e. hopefully never).
A special screening of the game would most likely do plenty to convince Landon Donovan that his country needs him. It would be obvious for a player of his talent and experience that without him the team faces an uphill battle to qualify for Brazil, much less have a realistic chance of winning the trophy.
A review of Wednesday's game tape would reveal what everyone else saw live on the pitch in San Pedro Sula—a mostly uninspired effort.
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Although there were flashes of excitement, the U.S. national team's performance was largely void of creativity and imagination. And in soccer, the difference between success and failure is often very subtle and intangible. It's part effort, tenacity and courage, but it's also part vision, anticipation and creativity. Together, these forces create the brilliance that makes high-level soccer at times so fascinating.
While the American side did show a flash of brilliance against Honduras, it would have been nice if their few clever thoughts had brought some friends. In the 36th minute of play, with the score locked at 0-0, Jermaine Jones sent an excellent chip over the Honduran defenders and placed it onto the striking boot of forward Clint Dempsey.
The precision of this play was unbelievable, and the result left the home crowd stunned. The United States had drawn first blood in Estadio Olimpico, a place renown for its deflating affect on visitors.
Unfortunately, this would be the nearly the final act of brilliance on the field that day, rather than the start—at least for the visitors.
The Jones-Dempsey connection thus became the single highlight from an otherwise bland canvas. For the remainder of the day, it seemed that even stringing together several passes was an unreachable goal. Overall, it seemed difficult to ascertain the strategy of the team, players constantly orbiting the ball—but to what end? Similar to a book with a vague plot and no discernible conclusion.
What will be the Americans' final ranking in the Hexagonal?
To make matters worse worse, within a few minutes of their only goal, the U.S. defense appeared to lose its intensity. The result was a Honduran strike seemingly born for the highlight reels.
The play was started with an insufficient clear by Michael Bradley. On the resulting corner kick, the ball sailed over the danger zone, only to be put right back into the mixer from the opposite end.
Then came the magic.
After the ball was chested into the air by Maynor Figueroa, Juan Garcia spun like an acrobat and punched a perfect bicycle kick into the back of the net. Forty minutes into the contest, the score had been equalized at 1-1.
What should have awakened the U.S. players from their brief slumber seemed to have the opposite effect. After this play, the Honduran side seemed to grow stronger and play better.
Maybe it was the 90-degree heat that wilted the Americans' resolve. Or maybe it was simply the strong will of the home side. But after the halftime break, the Hondurans continued to press their case. It was clear through several near-misses that their attack was growing momentum and power, like a musical crescendo nearing it's climax.
The final strike arrived with just over 10 minutes left in regulation. And again, this appeared to be largely due to lax play on defense by the Americans.
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One of the shrewd Honduran attackers managed to dribble through a couple careless defenders in the danger zone and pass the ball directly in front of the goal about seven yards out. A place one might think would be carefully monitored.
Unfortunately, Jerry Bengtson had been left free and easily re-directed the ball past a diving Tim Howard. Although the entire team was responsible for the letdown, it clearly looked like Omar Gonzalez was a significant culprit; the Honduran finisher having left Gonzalez and his last-ditch slide tackle about a full second behind.
In 60 minutes time, the United States team and their fans went from dreaming of victory, to praying for a draw. And ultimately left with the sting of defeat. As well as zero points in the standings.
Even more humiliating is that after the completion of the first round in the Hexagonal, the U.S. is the only of the six teams without a point.
Without question, this defeat is difficult to stomach. Even more so by the style in which the team fell. It's clear at this point, that the American players have the gifts necessary to execute on the field. What isn't clear, is their ability to take individual skills and combine them into a collective effort. Something that has plagued the team for a long time.
There is something missing from the flow and tactics of the group—like taking the secret ingredient out of an award-winning recipe. That little something also happens to be the ingredient that Landon Donovan occasionally brought to the table. A spark that raised the team to a higher, more majestic level.
The current rendition of the United States Men's National Team without question needs tinkering. And we can only hope that Landon Donovan's current sabbatical from the team will soon reach an abrupt end. His return, along with some regulars on the defensive side could help restore belief in the team's 2014 campaign.
However, with or without Donovan, it seems obvious Klinsmann needs to settle on his final XI relatively soon. Mixing and matching different combinations of players to discover the different chemistry between them is a valuable experiment. But cohesiveness and anticipation are integral components of a successful team—and these things take time.
Right now, the team looks exactly as they are—individually skilled players who have little experience playing together.
In the near future, hopefully Klinsmann will nail down his starting XI and then put them through the gauntlet of team-building activities. Trust falls, weekend lock-ins, summer camp—whatever it takes and more. By the end these activities the players should know everything there is to know about each other—a vital aspect of trusting and anticipating each other on the field.
This team still has the time and potential to be great, with or without Landon Donovan. Let's hope that the right buttons are pushed such that the team's next effort is a pleasant surprise, as opposed to the somewhat disappointing feeling we are currently left with.
Getting Landon Donovan involved with the team again should only improve the likelihood of a positive outcome.
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