The US enters the Honduras match at Rio Tinto Stadium on the best run of consistent form under Jurgen Klinsmann thus far. Granted, that’s not saying much given the stop-start nature of American performances over the course of the past couple years, but consistency provides a much more stable foundation to build on than the one-off marquee victories that have dotted Jurgen’s USMNT resume. And we don’t need to throw the new(ish) progressive manager under the bus for the rollercoaster nature of his first year and a half either, inconsistency was always going to be a growing pain as he indoctrinated the Yanks.
As you’ve probably read, heard, or thought about while bored at work or school, this home match against Honduras presents an amazing opportunity to put a stranglehold on this final CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Group. And if Ted Nugent’s taught us anything, it is that a stranglehold is often prelude to crushing someone’s face. The USMNT could do with some face-crushing– good for morale isn’t it?
For more on finishing the drill, applying said stranglehold, and the very real US need to finally put a foot on someone’s throat, check out Neil W. Blackmon’s fantastic piece from a couple days ago on this here website. The Yanks are facing a seriously shorthanded Honduras team, and as we’ve noted, the USMNT has been a maturing squad over the course of the last couple years, but they’ve just reached the age of no alibis. It’s time to be ruthless. It’s not just time to win. It’s time to stack back-to-back comfortable home wins against teams that we should beat at home. It has happened before.
On Labels: Consider this a side-note aimed at the large contingent of USMNT reactionaries (you’d also be justified in calling them over-reactionaries). Count this blog as one that didn’t think the loss to Belgium was as bad as you did, feel free to check our intro to the Germany match for verification and hopefully a decent read. And even if the US looked scintillating in Seattle against Panama, which they did, we’re also going to check ourselves there before branding this an “entertaining attacking team.” The boys are definitely starting to “get it,” but we’d all be wise to acknowledge the Panama performance as the type of thing Jurgen’s looking for, not the current identity of a powerhouse soccer team. They may be getting there, but they’ve got to prove it before we start making definitive statements about how this team plays.
And from the “not quite yet, but maybe soon” file, does anyone else get the feeling that Rio Tinto Stadium could become a fortress for the Yanks? I know they’ve got a wonderful record in Columbus, and I heard the rapturous singsong Seattle crowd just as loudly as y’all did last week, and I know Real Salt Lake’s home ground is still a new venue for the US, but I just get the feeling that Sandy, Utah could be a theater of dreams for American soccer. That RSL 2009-2011 home unbeaten streak might be skewing my judgment. Of course this paragraph is going to make me look like an idiot if the boys lay an egg on Tuesday night. As always, we’ll wait and see.
How about the usuals before we kick the particulars with the footwork of Freddy Adu.
The Series: 20th meeting. The United States lead, 12-4-3. The Americans have fared pretty well against Los Catrachos in World Cup qualifying, sporting a record of 4-2-1, including the infighting is rampant, sky is falling defeat at the San Pedro Sula this winter. The Americans have lost a qualifier to Honduras on American soil, at RFK in 2001. Because we know you wanted to know– Earnie Stewart (now technical director at AZ Alkmaar) had a brace. Landon Donovan started. 9-11 happened ten days later.
Weather: Fabian Johnson misery index: 8. HOT!! Whatever upper 80’s– possibly even 90 at kick– feels like. Upper 60’s later in the evening but that’s probably after the whistle.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
To begin with, the first twenty minutes. The Yanks have played spirited football out of the gate in each of the two qualifiers in this trifecta thus far– will they do so on a hot evening against a depleted opponent on a night when they should win and the entire country more or less thinks they will win? That’s heady stuff, and an invitation to come out flat.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s team should be plenty motivated. Nine points in three games would put the US in a position where failing to qualify would take a collapse of pre-Rivera walked Millar, Roberts stole second Red Sox proportion. Throw in the fact that the Yanks were embarrassed by Honduras to begin the Hex- a tactical lowpoint for Klinsmann’s tenure— and you have every reason you need to come out motivated and grab the game by throat.
Klinsmann also has depth on his side, which means he has choices to make that aren’t necessarily poor choices. Graham Zusi returns from suspension, and Jermaine Jones has been cleared to play after missing the Panama match with a concussion. DaMarcus Beasley is suspended, which means a choice will need to be made at left back, but even in that spot, Edgar Castillo, who could naturally plug in at left back, coupled with the improved play of Fabian Johnson and the emergence of Brad Evans, who could flip sides if needed, gives Klinsmann options. So what will Jurgen do?
Best guess is that Castillo is plugged in at left back, an “addition by subtraction” move that allows the USMNT to keep the added width and movements of Fabian Johnson in the midfield that have aided the attack a great deal in the past two matches. Castillo has not, by any stretch of the imagination, had a great run-out in a US shirt, but he has played brilliantly for his club and he did take part and play well in the US win at the Azteca last year.Marvin Chavez will be a tall challenge for the young fullback, but giving him a run out at home in a match where the US should dictate possession and play is the logical move. Moving Johnson back risks regression in attack, as the US would become more narrow and predictable, especially if Brad Evans, who doesn’t offer a great deal at this level getting forward, took that spot. Eddie Johnson does provide width, but what he offers tracking back is not worth the risk when we already have empirical evidence indicating Fabian Johnson can provide width and help Castillo if that is where Luis Fernando Suarez decides to attack.
Joining Castillo in the back four should be the central pair of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, and Brad Evans, who wasn’t particularly good against Panama but did enough to keep his spot for the time being.
In the midfield, the assumption seems to be that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will resume their partnership, despite the man-of-the-match performance by Geoff Cameron against Panama. There is excellent work about why that should remain the US midfield pairing over at The Shin Guardian, and in the long term, we agree. Cameron excelled largely because Panama’s effort at a high-line lacked ball pressure, and Cameron had time to read the field and distribute to space more often than not. We don’t know what will happen if a team plays Cameron with a great deal of pressure. Plus, he’s still naturally a central defender. So Jones and Bradley it is, right? No. Not Tuesday night, at least. Jones is recovering from a concussion, and it seems entirely too risky to the player’s future to play him despite medical clearance. Let him rest. Make sure he recovers. If this were a World Cup elimination game, or a “must win” (meaning, actual, must win) qualifier, Klinsmann could rightly roll the dice. That’s not the case Tuesday night, and when you factor in the tactical reality that with a patchwork back four, Honduras simply can’t afford to play the type of high pressure they utilized at home this past February, Geoff Cameron seems more than capable of deputizing Jones a second consecutive match and performing at a very high level.
There’s no guarantee Klinsmann will take the cautious approach. Indeed, his comments indicate he might roll the dice with Jones. “This game against Honduras is a big, big game,” Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer’s website on Friday “For me it’s almost a six-pointer. You want to win this game badly.” That might be the case. But he can win it and protect Jones’ health.
Out wide, it will be difficult to sit Johnson after his maestro performance in Seattle Tuesday night, but Graham Zusi has been a dynamo for the US of late and Fabian Johnson, who can track in narrowly should Honduras try to slip Espinoza into wider spots and seek to catch the US flat-footed on the break (read: target Marvin Chavez 1 v. 1 on Edgar Castillo)– is the smarter defensive play. We like a Zusi-Fab Johnson pairing where EJ can influence the game, if needed, from the bench.
Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey have done a spectacular job of moving off the ball (for different reasons- but it’s all deadly) in the previous two matches, and if the US plan is to work the flanks, forcing a patchwork backline to communicate and cover, the space will be there in the midfield for the two to exploit if they continue to move well off the ball. Dempsey in particular should relish a game where, if Zusi is playing well, he’ll have plenty of chances to play two-touch football with MB 90 and Jozy Altidore, and force inexperienced Honduran central defenders to pick their poisons. We know MB 90 can play quickly, but Geoff Cameron should have the time to make the quick passes required to execute this plan too, because Honduras won’t play with great pressure. All in all- there’s a great attacking recipe for the Americans Tuesday night.
And what will we see out of Honduras?
How about what we won’t see first. Maynor Figueroa will miss the match. Victor Bernardez is suspended. So is Luis Garrido. Boniek Garcia will be touch and go. Osman Chavez is a gametime decision. Ditto Emilio Izaguirre. It got so bad this week that internationally-retired, oft-capped old man Ivan Guerrero, plying his trade for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, was told to be on “standby” until late Saturday evening. Vancouver Whitecaps defender Johnny Leveron ultimately got the call, but either way- that’s a defensive dire straits.
In attack, Jerry Bengston and Suarez stopped getting along and Bengston left camp, leaving Honduras with one stand-up striker, Roger Rojas, and the elderly Carlos Costly. Costly seems to have nice games against the Yanks– more on that later– but as a whole, this is not as strong a team as the United States faced in February.
The question, of course, is does it have to be? Honduras absolutely dominated that game in the midfield thanks to the spectacular play of Olympic hero Roger Espinoza. The (at the time) newly-minted Wigan Athletic man was pushed forward by Luis Fernando Suarez and was an absolute terror in the midfield passing channels. His ability, in particular, to pressure Jermaine Jones and Danny Williams (whose passing completion percentage was the most misleading, and remains the most misused, statistic from that match) into turnovers allowed Honduras to quickly initiate attack, either through Marvin Chavez barreling down the flank with Castillo in tow or to Mario Martinez, a winger who “tries ^$@!” the way some people simplify Clint Dempsey to do. That may matter– too– Panama didn’t really test Howard period but Jamaica’s plan was to fire from distance early and often– that’s a good scouting report and one Espinoza, who will trail the distribution, Martinez, or even a late-running Wilson Palacios, are equipped to execute.
Roger Rojas has been Suarez’s choice up top, but he’s only scored twice in seventeen matches for Honduras, and at this altitude in a match where one quick goal is all Honduras might need to grind out a result, our call would be Carlos Costly, which leads us to…
Honduran Player to Watch: Carlos Costly
Yes, he’s not the guy who caught fire and helped Honduras qualify in 2010, but then again, he caught fire and helped Honduras qualify in 2010. Second-place honors behind Jon Bornstein mean something, don’t they? Of course they do! They mean Costly has played in these games and in these environments, and while the old argument about youth is they have to learn sometime– a game at altitude in scorching heat against a team hell-bent on revenge might not be the best learning process for Rojas.
Enter Carlos Costly. He’s not as pacy as he once was, but he’s still crafty enough to have netted six goals in 25 matches for his club last season and he still puts himself in good positions to score, moving well off the ball. Dynamo fans will tell you that his first touch left him somewhere in South Africa, and that would be half-right, but as noted, he’s always put in a strong shift against the Americans and given the unlikelihood of a high-pressure scheme from Los Catrachos Tuesday night, Costly on the counter might be the only Honduran recipe to a result.
US Player to Watch: Omar Gonzalez
It’s been an up and down four matches for Omar, but he seems to be rounding into form for the USMNT, albeit he seems to be doing it by taking two steps forward and one step back. Still, that’s progress.
Let’s sum up Omar’s performances in each of the last four matches in one sentence apiece.
Belgium: He played well against a great attacking team aside from a couple stupid avoidable errors which led directly to goals, so not a great performance in the grand scheme despite doing the hard stuff well.
Germany: Got twisted and turned by the German attackers and lost his man on a corner for a goal, but he did cut out the simple mistakes from the previous match.
Jamaica: Played a great game on foreign soil; never looked threatened or out of his depth, and was no more culpable than any other Yank in conceding on a late free kick.
Panama: A good solid performance with a few nervy moments, but moments dealt with well enough.
Another good note by Taylor Twellman, who also seems to be rounding into World Cup form, came during the Panama match. Omar “Bromar” “Gonzo” Gonzalez is settling into his roll with the Yanks, but the LA Galaxy had been hardly able to defend without him. Maybe a similar lesson about value above replacement that the OKC Thunder learned in the NBA Playoffs this season when Russell Westbrook was injured?
Omar could be a great international central defender in the making, or he could be a guy that struggles to diagnose complex attacks and can’t get out of his own head. I’m banking on the former, and saying a great performance against Honduras will restore his confidence to what it was during the Mexico match at Azteca. We’re also betting that Gonzalez’ aerial supremacy will be needed on a night when the Yanks will need to avoid set-piece disaster more than most.
Prediction: USA 2 – 1 Honduras
Last week’s “dos a cero” prediction felt great to write, and it was even better to watch. And a big giant TYAC hero beer is in order for whoever started the “We Are Going To Brazil” chant after that second goal: what a moment. But as you see directly above, I’ve got the confidence to predict another win, but not a second clean sheet in a row. Here’s hoping that Honduras goal comes in the 92nd minute while we’re on a comfortable lead (if it comes at all). Jozy on target as per the new usual? Yep.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.