The U.S. maintained its two point lead over Costa Rica after both teams’ Tuesday night victories over Honduras and Panama, respectively. While the U.S. struggled at times against the pesky Hondurans, they ultimately came together in the second half and earned a vital three points that capped off an impressive four game winning streak and catapulted the U.S. into prime position to qualify for the World Cup.
Now, let’s discuss the game play. On a hot Salt Lake City evening and in front of a packed crowed, Honduras began the game with numbers behind the ball in an attempt to shrink the field of play and force the U.S. to navigate through a compact, narrow Honduran defense. Honduras’ line of pressure was extremely withdrawn, oftentimes employing all 11 players behind the midfield line, and the Honduran players tackled strongly to thwart any U.S. attacks and any attempts to establish a rhythm.
This strategy worked well for the majority of the first half, as the U.S. only created a few half-chances, mostly via Fabian Johnson early crosses into the box and some dangerous set piece deliveries from Graham Zusi. Although Honduras did not pose any serious threats to the U.S. backline in the first half, they effectively stymied the American momentum and fluidity cultivated during their previous victory over Panama.
During the second half, Honduras picked up their level of play and continued to frustrate the U.S. team. However, the U.S. settled down after the first 10-15 minutes and began to take control of the game and dictate tempo to the Hondurans. Graham Zusi sparked the U.S. offense with some nice runs and crosses into the box that opened up the Honduran defense and allowed the U.S. to find more dangerous spaces. Once the U.S. established its rhythm and came into the game, they created several goal-scoring opportunities before Jozy Altidore opened the score sheet on a nice finish to the corner and extended his goal scoring streak to four consecutive games, tying the American record.
It is amazing what confidence (and some much needed service) can do for a player. The oft-criticized Altidore looks like a different player since the Germany game. He is playing like a forward brimming with confidence who expects to score every game and is not satisfied with just one goal. We are witnessing him blossom before our eyes and I shudder to think of the nightmares he will be giving CONCACAF defenders for the next decade. To all the doubters, Altidore is an absolute force, and, given proper service, can eviscerate opposing defenses. Do not forget the disallowed goal that showcased his poise, touch, and finishing ability. Jozy has arrived and is only getting better.
After the Altidore goal, the U.S. seized control of the game and played more conservatively to secure the all-important home victory. The nine points earned during this three game trifecta have almost definitely (not quite, but it’s close) sprung the U.S. into the World Cup next summer in Brazil. With two tough games upcoming against Costa Rica in Costa Rica and home to Mexico, these points reduce the pressure of having to earn top results in these challenging matches. For now, let’s go to my match grades.
Tim Howard – 6.5 – On a night where Howard was rarely tested, he did come out strongly on the save against Najar and on several tricky crosses into his penalty box. Howard has not appeared to be at his best lately, but he still is the leader of our backline and is very experienced. He is and should remain the #1 throughout the qualifying cycle and the upcoming World Cup.
Brad Evans – 5.5 – Brad Evans delivered another sturdy performance at right back but has certainly come down from the high of scoring the game-winning goal versus Jamaica. While Evans did not make any major mistakes, he did not display the strong service from the back that he demonstrated versus Germany.
Omar Gonzalez – 5.5 – Omar Gonzalez continued his trend of making a glaring mistake in his own defensive third when he cheaply gave away the ball to Honduras early in the first half. Gonzalez still plays like an enigma – dominant at times, careless at others but not consistent enough for a player of his caliber
Matt Besler – 6.5 – My affinity for Matt Besler has not waned. While he also had a bad giveaway (in a less dangerous location than Gonzalez, albeit), he continued his steady play and made some timely tackles in the box on low Honduran crosses. Besler has put a stamp on the #1 centerback position in the U.S. player pool.
Fabian Johnson – 7.25 – In replacing the suspended DaMarcus Beasley at left back, Johnson played very well and demonstrated that he can successfully play either left back or left midfielder for the team. Johnson defended well but also got forward effectively and delivered some promising crosses.
Graham Zusi – 7.5 – Zusi was the catalyst for the U.S. in the second half and was involved in a handful of dangerous build-ups, including the one that led to the goal. Zusi has certainly staked his claim on a starting position for the near-term future and has been a welcome addition to the team during this qualifying campaign.
Jermaine Jones – 6.0 – Coming off a concussion suffered against Jamaica, Jones had a very uneven performance wrought with ups and downs. Jones made some strong runs forwards and a few nice cross-field passes, but exhibited rust as he made some uncharacteristic (some would not use this word) miscues in losing possession and missing tackles.
Michael Bradley – 7.5 – What more can you say about Bradley. He leads the midfield, and the U.S. is simply a better team with him on the field (take a look at the U.S. record with and without Bradley under Klinsmann*). While Bradley and Jones did not display the same cohesion that Bradley shared with Cameron, Bradley was the better of the two and raised his level of play considerably in the second half, particularly when Jones exited. Bradley tackled well, worked tirelessly, and pinged the ball around the field throughout the game.
Eddie Johnson – 6 – My opinion continues to be split when it comes to Johnson. He has shown a knack for scoring goals, in key moments I might add, however, I often feel he plays a half-step slower than his teammates and disrupts the rhythm of numerous build-ups each game. I think Johnson is a useful player to have in the squad but should be used in specific situations. In a game versus a disciplined, compact opponent, like Honduras, Johnson is less effective because there is less space available for him to navigate the playing field or get behind the defense. Johnson excels against teams that allow him time on the ball and allow him to run in behind the backline.
Clint Dempsey – 6.5 – Dempsey, again, was not at his sharpest but still got into dangerous positions and nearly connected on some good deliveries into the box. Dempsey has not showcased the flair and skill that he flaunted against Germany in the previous three games. While he appeared a step off and looks like a player ready for a summer break, Dempsey, even off his best form, still threatened the Honduran defense and occupied their attention throughout the game.
Jozy Altidore – 7.5 – Altidore, whom I glowingly praised above, has turned the corner and elevated his game to the next level. His finish was a tricky one, as he placed a bouncing, short-hopping cross into the corner. Early in the game, Altidore outwardly expressed frustration as he lacked service and the Hondurans clipped his heels at every turn. But once he got going in the second half, Altidore terrorized the depleted Honduran centerback tandem and linked up well with the midfield.
*For those who are curious, the U.S. is 11-2-5 (with losses to Brazil & Honduras) with Bradley in the lineup under Klinsmann and 5-6-1 without Bradley.
**Tactical Breakdown with more praise for Bradley
What We Learned:
1. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have emerged as the centerback pairing of the future
Before this three game qualifying slate began, USMNT fans were hoping that Gonzalez and Besler would take the reins of the centerback pairing logjam. While Gonzalez was unsteady at times and made mistakes, he and Besler showed that they are a formidable duo and should only improve as they gain more experience. Hopefully, Gonzalez can learn to eliminate his unforced errors before the Hexagonal ends and in time for the World Cup.
2. Brad Evans is not a permanent solution at right back
Brad Evans saved the game versus Jamaica with a heroic game-winning goal, which should not be forgotten, and turned in an inspiring performance in a terrific victory over Germany. That being said, Evans has some limitations that are apparent at this level and has not supplanted Steve Cherundolo or Timmy Chandler of their places on the right back depth chart. However, given Cherundolo’s age and Chandeler’s frequent injuries, Evans is a reliable safety valve for the U.S. team.
3. A number of players solidified their positions in the squad
Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, and, to a lesser extent, DaMarcus Beasley staked a claim on starting positions on the U.S. team going forward for the remainder of the qualifying campaign.
4. There is a Geoff Cameron conundrum
Geoff Cameron’s versatility is both his gift and curse. Cameron has shown that he can be effectively deployed at three different positions – Center Back, Right Back, and Center Midfield – both for club and country. On the one hand, his coaches love his flexibility and insert him into the line-up whenever there is an injury or a suspension. However, his lack of dominant position and frequent rotations often leave him without a secured spot at any one position. I really enjoyed his relationship and chemistry with Michael Bradley in the center of the midfield versus Panama, but Klinsmann has not hidden his adulation for Jermaine Jones. It will take several more impressive performances (or perhaps and injury or yellow car suspension) for Cameron to replace Jones. Cameron is another option at Right Back if Cherundolo or Chandler are not fit.
5. Jozy Altidore has arrived
It goes without saying, but I am a huge fan and advocate of Jozy Altidore. He has grown and developed tremendously at AZ Alkmaar over the past two seasons, but, much to the dismay of USMNT fans, had not produced at the same level for the U.S. team. Without going into those reasons, it is safe to say that Altidore has arrived and in a big way. Altidore, who is primed to move to a bigger club this summer, combines power, speed, technique, and a great finishing touch in one tantalizing 23-year old package.
That is all from me. Soccer fans, watch the Confederations Cup and the U-20 World Cup.