Fresh off their ninth consecutive victory, a 5-1 throttling of El Salvador at “The Bank” in Baltimore, aka “Baltzteca”, the Yanks head to Jerry’s World in Dallas to play the Gold Cup semifinals Wednesday evening to face the team they seem to be playing every few weeks- Honduras. When one thinks of Jerry’s World, one thinks of American sporting excess at its finest, no? A megatron high-definition scoreboard larger than most high school football stadiums, luxury boxes in rows, three-gallon hats and oil tycoons, the best amenities a stadium could possibly offer, Tony Romo throwing interceptions… you get the idea. What you don’t tend to think of is a field that is a disaster. Unfortunately, based on the photographs Grant Wahl and others on the scene are tweeting from Jerry’s World, it appears as if that is what the US and the Catrachos will have to deal with for tomorrow night’s semifinals: a hastily laid down “natural” grass surface with concrete underneath it that, in the words of Kasey Keller is, “hard, real hard, like there is concrete on top.” You can view a photo of what they’ll play on- and judge for yourself, on Grant Wahl’s twitter feed, here.
Tip of the hat to CONCACAF then– another sign that they prioritize player safety and pristine pitches above profit and the almighty dollar.
The bad news about the field is that it limits (or should limit) the ability of Jurgen Klinsmann to play a guy like Stu Holden, who shouldn’t be put anywhere near a temporary, concrete, hastily laid down grass pitch coming off a knee injury. The good news? Well, there isn’t any. But every team in the semifinals will have to deal with the best they can, and it might be worse for Mexico-Panama, which kicks off after the US-Honduras match.
Lousy field or no, the United States will look for win # 10 in a row against a B +ish incarnation of Honduras that thus far in the Gold Cup has struggled in attack but looked resolute in defense. Mostly, this has been by design, with Luis Fernando Suarez’s side playing with a very deep-lying double pivot midfield, absorbing pressure and waiting patiently for chances to counter. They’ll be a great deal tougher, both in terms of tactics and talent, to break down than El Salvador, and it will be a tough ask for the US to dominate the way they did Sunday. Look for a match more similar to the Costa Rica session, with the US controlling most of the play, searching for a breakhrough in the final third.
Let’s serve up the usuals and kick-around a few more particulars, shall we?
Series: 21st meeting. The United States lead 13-4-3. In the Gold Cup, the Yanks hold a 4-0-1 edge. Honduras has lost in its last two semifinal appearances in the Gold Cup. The Americans have lost twice to Honduras on home soil, a friendly in Carson, California in 2010, and a World Cup qualifier– the last the US lost on home soil– in Washington D.C. ten days prior to September 11, 2001.
Weather: Unless Jerry Jones wants to add heat and humidity to horrendous pitch in his list of amenities for this year’s Gold Cup semifinals, the roof will be closed, and it will feel like 73 degrees inside. Outside, highs in Arlington should approach 100 degrees tomorrow and it will be about 90 degrees by kick.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
The Americans are unlikely to reinvent the tactical wheel in this match, but they will have a few different tactical duties. As noted, prior to the news about the horrendous pitch this afternoon, it was tempting to put Stu Holden in our projected starting 11 in place of Mix Diskerud, just to give the Americans a player who has a bit more edge and weight to his searching and final ball distributions in the final third. Now we don’t even think Holden will be utilized as a substitute. Expect a central midfield pairing of Diskerud and Kyle Beckerman, with Beckerman shielding a central defender pairing of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. On the wings, Joe Corona and Jose Torres should get another run out, with consistency being the name of the game.
Corona has improved more than any other Yank as the tournament has moved forward. For this, Jurgen Klinsmann deserves a great deal of credit. He has simplified things for Corona, tasking him with simple overlaps and diagonal support runs, not asking him to do too much in terms of off-ball movement and tracking back to initiate buildups. This is good for a player who is “Dempsey-lite” (no true set position, gets himself into pretty good spots, can shoot from distance, “tries stuff”). Corona seemed overwhelmed when asked to do more against Guatemala and Belize– Klinsmann has protected the youngster by tasking him with less. Honduras will be a bigger challenge-he’ll be marked by Krakow’s Osman Chavez, a sturdy and strong fulback who has looked dominant at times this tournament– one “standing up” of Alvaro Saborio on the edge of the area stood out Sunday evening. This is a step-up in opposition for Corona and he’ll need to work hard to remain influential.
Jose Torres’ issues have been a bit different– he’s played two of his finer halves in an American shirt against Costa Rica and El Salvador respectively but has tapered in the second half, looking tired and less incisive. When he’s less involved in attack, he’s less responsible defensively. It would be nice to see a strong, full shift from JFT.
Landon Donovan will continue playing his drift to width, free up the overlap, attack role tucked behind Eddie Johnson, who we think will finally get a run out as the tip o’the spear striker in this match, replacing Chris Wondolowski, who labored against a better opponent Sunday in Baltimore. For more on Johnson’s renaissance, read Neil W. Blackmon’s piece from Tuesday, which makes a very salient point about the man with the Sisqo hairdo– he’s always been a cerebral player, but to his credit, he’s figured out to play around his limitations, and he’s eagerly accepted every role Klinsmann’s thrown at him. Playing alone up top should be no different.
Nick Rimando had a monstrous game for the US in goal Sunday. He made a series of saves that really jump-started the rout. As noted, we think it is “A” team CB’s Besler and Gonzalez in front of him with Parkhurst, who has “survived” this tournament more than he’s impressed in it, on one flank and Run DMB on the other. DaMarcus Beasley will have the most responsibility defensively tomorrow night– he’ll be dealing with Mario Martinez, Andy Najar and Osman Chavez overlaps on the left side. He needs to make sure he stays in safe positions when he gets forward, so as to not get caught out, and needs to communicate flawlessly with Kyle Beckerman, who will likely be shading left to help him out.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Beckerman’s increased responsibilities to help Beasley with what is clearly the more dangerous Honduran flank were another reason to start Holden, who is out-and-out a better defender than Diskerud– but the pitch conditions mean it is almost certain to be Diskerud, and that makes this a huge match for Mix.)
And what will we see out of Honduras?
Like the Gold Cup version of the USMNT, this Honduras squad looks vastly different than the World Cup Qualifying team. Honduras; however, is a more traditional “B team.” There’s no Honduran Landon Donovan on this team, and the makeup of the roster itself isn’t packed with more attackers than the full national team traditionally fields. Thankfully those characteristics are unique to this US squad, but that doesn’t mean Honduras isn’t dangerous. “A” team mainstays Mario Martinez, Marvin Chavez and Roger Rojas are present, but beyond that, it is a combination of gritty vets and youngsters trying to break through before Brazil.
With the same mindset, minus a lot of the quality, Gold Cup Honduras has been finding ways to win when they need to. To put it simply, they’ve been grinding. That’s not what we usually see out of Honduras, and it might speak to a mental toughness in this side that the “A team” should aspire to. Los Catrachos manager Luis Fernando Suárez will have learned a lot about this squad from both the group stage match against rival El Salvador, and the quarterfinal win over Costa Rica. In the El Salvador match Honduras stifled the Salvadorian attack while remaining patient and finally getting a late goal to win the match. Kind of the Bob Bradley formula for WC qualifiers on the road. Costa Rica was a different story on Sunday. Honduras allowed so many chances that we all saw the entire range of Alvaro Saborío “upset expressions,” a new sad face for each opportunity the Costa Ricans squandered. Credit to Honduras though, who weathered a number of storms and finally took their chance when they got it. A fine ball from Alexander Lopez, a 21 year old with a limitless ceiling, found the head of Andy Najar, a 20 year old with a limitless ceiling, and that ended up being all that the Catrachos would need.
As noted above, the Catrachos will primarily attack the American left flank, manned by DaMarcus Beasley. Mario Martinez is on that side, and while he loves to fire from distance, he also has been tasked by Suarez with being the point man for Andy Najar to find on overlaps with Osman Chavez. San Jose Earthquakes speedster Marvin Chavez should be the flyer on the other flank, and if Suarez wants to continually prove Beasley’s side to wear the veteran out, he could switch him with Martinez as the match goes on. Given Chavez’s speed, however, it is unlikely he’ll do that. More likely is that Honduras will attempt to switch the point of attack through the smooth distributing Jorge Claros and see if they can get Chavez in behind Michael Parkhurst. This would be particularly wise to try on the counter when Parkhurst is involved in support and further up the pitch. Chavez can pick his spots to attack too, as Claros is as no-nonsense a defender as they come– he plays in Scotland and is essentially Kyle Beckerman for his club. He’ll provide enough cover for Chavez to gamble a bit.
Up top, Roger Rojas is another young player who Los Catrachos were really hoping would take a step forward in this tournament. With Jerry Bengston disgruntled with the coaching staff and Carlos Costly continuing his lifelong battle with consistency, Rojas has been asked to play a critical role in the World Cup qualifying campaign, and probably a cycle too early. Suarez was hoping a good Gold Cup would give him confidence for the autumn qualifying stretch. Instead, Rojas has been continually frustrated holding the ball up, has just one assist (against Haiti), and is searching for a goal. Frequently used substitute Rony Martinez remains the only Honduran forward to score a goal in the competition. Tomorrow would be a good day (if you’re into Honduras winning and stuff) for the strong youngster to get off the snide.
Honduran Player to Watch: Andy Najar
When the former MLS Rookie of the Year made his choice to represent Honduras rather than the US we all knew this was coming. An important match in which hot Andy Najar comes to try and break American hearts in yet another way. Granted, we did not know that Najar’s first international goal would be the game winner in a quarterfinal match right before the team plays the USMNT in the Gold Cup semi’s, but we might have guessed that as well.
Here at TYAC we’ve been following Najar for a while, and even more closely since he was a centerpiece in Neil W. Blackmon’s terrific look into the tough choice that some kids get to make, and others have made for them. When we first posted that article Najar was a great young player for DC United who had a choice to make between the USMNT and the Honduran national team. Since then all he’s done is choose the latter, earn a move to Anderlecht (the Belgian champs), play well in the 2012 Olympics, and fire his team into a Gold Cup semifinal matchup with the States. Not too bad.
And while I noted that this Honduras squad doesn’t have any equivalent to Landon Donovan or Stuart Holden (guys who wouldn’t be on any US “B team” if not for their long absences), it does have Najar, and he’s a guy that can now lay rightful claim on a spot in the true Honduran side. He’s gone from “promising mercurial prospect” to “one of the most talented players on the team” pretty damn quickly. Najar was brilliant against rival El Salvador, consistently piercing La Selecta’s defense only to be let down by poor finishing in front of him. Like American counterpart Joe Corona, he’s gotten better as the tournament has gone on.
If you’ve watched Najar play for DC United you know what Jurgen can expect from this guy. Speed, ball-tricks, feints, and a willingness to track back on defense that had to be forcefully injected into his system by DC United legend-come-manager Ben Olsen. (And that will only improve at Anderlecht, where you defend or don’t play– ask Sacha Kljestan) He’s also got a knack for being in the right place at the right time, which he displayed on his headed game winner against Costa Rica. Oh yeah, and he can shoot from distance too.
One big hope for the Yanks will be that Andy’s run himself into the ground, or become satisfied with his performances in this tournament thus far. I’m not sure which, if either, of those maladies affects Najar, but he does have a habit of following up inspired performances with relative stinkers. Here’s hoping for one of those on Wednesday night.
US Player to Watch: Kyle Beckerman
I couldn’t be happier to be writing this section. The Dread Pirate Beckerman is back, and better than ever. Excuse the cliché, but it’s absolutely true. Beckerman was the hub of the team on Sunday in Baltimore, moving the ball left, right, and middle, facilitating the attack. This was Kyle as we’ve never seen before. A dead-on Xabi Alonso impression. He stayed back and let they attacking players do their work, after helping create those opportunities in a significant way, and picking a pass to the player with the best shot at creating a scoring chance.
Last week Central Winger posted a great analysis of Beckerman vs. Diskerud with respect to secondary passing that showed what we all know, Diskerud is naturally a more offensive minded guy. I’d like to see Beckerman’s secondary passing chart for the El Salvador match, because he bossed the match like we haven’t seen him do in a USMNT shirt. The positioning inherent in his slightly more offensive/ball-moving approach did result in a break or two for El Salvador, but that’s something Beckerman, a true defensive midfielder, will clean up.
If Beckerman’s semifinal performance matches what he did in the quarter, it might be time to reexamine which defensive midfielders Klinsmann’s planning on using in his final World Cup qualifiers. Geoff Cameron’s a utility guy to Jurgen, and he might have similar feelings about Maurice Edu, but Mo needs to start getting games at club level before we explore that option further. Danny Williams has thankfully fallen out of favor, and Klinsmann erroneously plays him at seven different positions anyway. How far up the depth chart could Beckerman climb with a couple more good Gold Cup performances? Jermaine Jones shouldn’t be worried, but he’s hurt or suspended half the time anyway.
Regardless, because the Catrachos will consistently assail the American left flank, the onus will be on Beckerman to shade left and provide “help” defense to DaMarcus Beasley. Assuming the “A” team center halves start the match, this task will be a bit easier, because Beckerman won’t have to worry as much about protecting the center– but it is a large amount of responsibility for Beckerman to shoulder and he’ll have to do against two pacy players in Najar and Martinez. How Beckerman plays (and whether Diskerud can handle the coverage on the other end and in the middle) will go a long way in dictating what type of night it is for the United States.
Prediction: USA 3 – 1 Honduras
Don’t let the scoreline on this prediction fool you, this will be the toughest match of the tournament since that chippy one-nil win over Costa Rica. Put me down for another Brek Shea goal too, probably another late tally on the break, this time to put the game away.
Bonus Prediction: I’m Julio Dely Valdés and I get respect, ya cash and ya jewelry is what I expect. A smash-and-grab like the Beastie Boys did to that bar in Paul Revere and Panama goes through Mexico and on to the final. Panama 2, Mexico 1.
Enjoy the match(es), and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.