Jurgen Klinsmann’s first taste of CONCACAF’s final qualifying round was a disappointing one. USA, who are regularly competing with Mexico for the region's crown, surrendered a lead and lost on the road to Honduras.
The German coach and former playing idol was selected in 2011 to replace former boss Bob Bradley, with the charge of making changes. And he has. Klinsmann, who told FIFA.com of his desire to make the team “more proactive and less reactive,” guided the Americans to their first win on Italian soil as well as at Mexico’s Estadio Azteca.
But those were friendlies. The overheated, competitive, and occasionally hostile ‘Hexagonal,’ brings different challenges across its ten matches. The 2-1 defeat in San Pedro Sula was unwelcomely historic for the Americans as it marked the first time they had lost a qualifier on the road in Honduras. It was also their first loss in a Hexagonal opener since the format was adopted during qualifying for the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ in France.
“The backline is not the reason we lost the game,” insisted Klinsmann at the post-match press conference. "The reason tonight was that too many players were below their usual performance."
Some pundits disagreed, pointing fingers at the chosen defensive quartet, all under the age of 30, of LA Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez and English Premier League-based Geoff Cameron, who partnered in the centre, and Germany-based full-backs Fabian Johnson, 25, and Timmy Chandler, just 22, playing in his first competitive outing. The decision to bench long-time team captain and two-time FIFA World Cup veteran Carlos Bocanegra, whose 110 caps total more than all four starters combined, also drew criticism.
“We believe Omar [Gonzalez] is ready for the next step at international level,” said Klinsmann, standing behind his decision to use the centre-back, who helped guide LA Galaxy to an MLS title this season. And he calls Johnson, of German side Hoffenheim, “one of the best backs in the Bundesliga…who can be one of the best in Europe.”
Klinsmann's analysis of his player's underperformance was accurate as there were very few highlights in his team's loss to a youthful and fast-moving Honduras, but Tottenham Hotspur’s Clint Dempsey produced one of them. He opened the scoring after 36 minutes. Getting on the end of a brilliant scooped pass from Jermaine Jones, an impressive revelation of Klinsmann’s lengthy and expansive player search, the striker poked home an elegant volley to silence the home crowd.
The Americans, hunting their seventh straight berth at a world finals, celebrated, but they were having trouble keeping the ball in midfield and their shirts were soaked with sweat. The game was played in mid-afternoon, in scorching temperatures, and eight members of the starting XI play their club football in Europe, where it is the dead of winter. It took only four minutes for them to capitulate. It was the fourth consecutive road qualifier in which they lost a hard-earned lead.
The Honduran equaliser, a stunning bicycle kick, came from an unchallenged cross. The ball pinged around the box, no US player able to clear the danger. The Catrachos grabbed the winner with 11 minutes to go, when confusion between veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard and Cameron allowed Houston Dynamo’s Oscar Boniek Garcia to pass the ball across an open goal. Jerry Bengtson, who also plays his club football in the United States, reacted faster than the flat-footed Gonzalez to poke home.
Road woes and the route ahead
“When you take an early lead on the road, you have to finish it off,” said Howard. “You can’t waste the chance. When you leave a team hanging around, they will usually punish you.”
Roma midfielder Michael Bradley, son of Klinsmann’s predecessor, summed up the current situation, choosing to take the long view. “We need to stick together no matter what happens,” said the hard-working midfielder, who has taken the lion's share of midfield responsibilities while Landon Donovan continues to mull over his international career. “Games on the road aren’t always the prettiest.”
While it is hardly time to ring the alarm bells, things will not be easy for the US on the horizon in the Hexagonal, which Bradley calls: “no doubt, the best six teams in CONCACAF at this moment.” The first home test comes on 22 March against Costa Rica, who last month edged Honduras to the Central American cup of nations title. Los Ticos have shown they can cope playing away from home, clawing back to draw away in Panama in their Hexagonal opener after going down by two goals.
Four days after that must-win meeting in Colorado comes a trip to arch-rivals Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, where the US have never won a qualifier. Then it’s on to Kingston, Jamaica, site of a loss last September, where the Americans took the lead only to eventually surrender it. Bradley, the consummate professional, has the final word: “what’s important is what comes after a bump in the road, because there will always be bumps.”