The United States started off their 2014 World Cup Qualifying Hexagonal campaign with a 2-1 loss in Honduras Wednesday afternoon. After taking a lead late in the first half off of a cool Clint Dempsey finish, Los Catratchos took advantage of lax marking on a corner to tie the game soon after on a nifty Chilena by Juan Carlos Garcia. A tired US team finally broke in the 79th minute when a series of defensive lapses led to a wide open goal for Jerry Bengston.
A lack of organization, communication and intensity from the defense contributed to both Honduras goals. While the Yanks created chances on offense in the first half, they were unable to hold the ball for even short periods in the second half and looked tired, disorganized and overmatched for much of the game.
The initial impressions were concerning. A loss to a team that will be fighting for the 2-4 spots in the final standings like Honduras is not a good thing. The way the team lost was actually more troublesome as either flat or inexperienced players were simply not up to the challenge. The decision to play Omar Gonzalez over Carlos Bocanegra was either a mistake by the coach or a frightening wake-up call that one of the main veterans on the squad no longer had what it took to play for the US in games that matter. Whichever of those is true, the experience and leadership that Bocanegra traditionally brings to the team was clearly lacking and it needs to return for the US to succeed in this round of qualifying.
But then the evening games unfolded, and the results were decidedly helpful – ties all around. Other than Jamaica getting a point off of Mexico on the road and the confidence that may instill, it all means that other than Honduras, no team has taken a three point lead on the US. As far as the results go, the black and white of it is acceptable.
The lingering concern, though, is how the team played. Yes, it is too soon for the MLS players to be in shape. Yes, it was in the afternoon on a really hot day. But this is a team that thought of itself as a top-20 side and you simply cannot play in such an unorganized, unfocused, and flat way against another team that made the World Cup in 2010. The comments about the captaincy and defensive organization have already been made. The other thing that was drastically missing is the speed, pace and composure of Landon Donovan. He alone would have made the game significantly more comfortable for the Americans even if it didn’t change the result. But after looking at all the places where Donovan would have had influence on the game, the analysis ends with the conclusion that in all likelihood, Donovan on the field would have either added a goal to the US tally or significantly minimized the chance of either of Honduras’ goals, with the probable end result being a tie with a chance at a win rather than what was produced this afternoon.
Taking a wider view, the results from Panama and Mexico are positives. Panama, Jamaica and Costa Rica will be fighting tooth and nail to be get out of the bottom of the group and into the middle with Honduras and the US. There is no way to predict how they will shake out, given the immaturity of Panama and Jamaica, along with the funk that Costa Rica is in.
How Honduras and the US finish will depend on whether they have any slip ups against the bottom half of the group or what they can take off of Mexico. It is quite possible that Panama or Jamaica might push past one of those two.
Do not be fooled by the result from Mexico. There is too much pride, talent and desire in that Mexico side to let the game tonight be anything other than a kick in the rear, and we will go so far as to predict a win by Mexico in Honduras on the 22nd. El Tri might drop another tie at home to either the US or Honduras, but will win their remaining home games, and they will get road wins in at least two other contests. Throw in another tie or three and Mexico will be sitting comfortably atop the group at the end of the Hexagonal.
The next pair of qualifiers in late March will be incredibly important for the US. The home game against Costa Rica is an absolute must-win, and then there is the road game against Mexico. Lose both and the Americans are staring at the very real possibility of not qualifying for the World Cup dead in the face. Even a tie against Costa Rica is problematic. The technical result against Mexico is not as important as the momentum of the game and its context in the overall campaign. A win against Costa Rica paired with a well played game against El Tri is what the US needs, even if they lose the game at the Azteca. A tie or loss against Costa Rica coupled with anything other than a tie or win in Mexico spells big trouble.
There is reason for optimism for those two games for the US. Come March 22, more of the MLS-based players will be fitter and more able to have an impact, and the two-game set will give all of the players more time to work together. Just like with Mexico, the US has a lot of pride, talent and professionalism in its ranks and they will respond.
But the Yanks need to be better on the ball, less careless in their marking and more sure of their finishing. They simply cannot let the funny bounce of the ball or other unknown variables that float around in an international soccer match to matter in these next two matches, or they could very well be flirting with being the team that sees the US out of the World Cup for the first time in almost 30 years.