In retrospect, it wasn’t such a bad development that Tuesday night’s United States 1, Honduras 0 result in Sandy, Utah, was played head-to-head against Game 6 of the NBA Finals. All that matters is that Jurgen Klinsmann’s bunch took home three points and now sits atop the CONCACAF Hex with 13 points – two clear of Costa Rica, five in front of Mexico and six ahead of Honduras with four games left to play. You can probably take out a pen and write down the U.S. is going to Brazil.
The game itself? Outside of the next day or two, it’s doubtful anyone, except those who attended it at Rio Tinto Stadium, are going to remember it. After two strong performances vs. Jamaica and Panama, the U.S. reverted back, if slightly, to the team that struggled to create chances and looked mistake-prone on defense during much of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as coach.
Credit to Honduras, which fielded some very dangerous players in attack and implemented a smart, disciplined game plan that left little room in the middle of the field for the Americans to do much of anything. Had Andy Najar taken a better shot midway through the first half, following a brutal giveaway at midfield by Matt Besler and slack defending going backward by Omar Gonzalez, instead of blasting it right at Tim Howard in a 1-v-1, maybe the story is different.
There’s no sense in debating the merits of ‘What ifs.’ Jozy Altidore got the crucial goal in the 71st minute and that’s really all that counts, as the U.S. clinched all nine points on offer this month.
A couple quick takeaways:
SERVICE WITH A SMILE: The big headline from the three June qualifiers is the roaring return to form by Altidore, who also scored in the friendly vs. Germany in late May and became the sixth American to score in four straight international matches. It means we can probably put to rest the idea Altidore can only score for his club team in the Netherlands.
The key for Altidore? Service. His thumping volley vs. Germany came on a pinpoint cross from Graham Zusi. The Sporting Kansas City man again provided the assist for Altidore’s soaring header vs. Jamaica. Fabian Johnson was the provider last week in Seattle vs. Panama, and the Hoffenheim winger again came through with the crucial ball for Altidore against Honduras after foray up the left flank.
Feed Altidore the ball inside the box, where his improved touch has proved lethal, and he’s going to produce. Isolate him alone up top as a lone striker asked to hold up the ball and play 40+ yards away from goal and he’s going to look ineffective and lost. If Altidore is able to carry his June 2013 form to June 2014, the U.S. might be a team that can do more than struggle to get out of the Group Stage.
JURGEN’S GUY: The rollercoaster of emotions U.S. fans ride with Jermaine Jones is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. He’s good. He’s bad. He’s good. He’s bad. He’s got a ‘Sno-Fro.’ He should’t be on the field. Tuesday night the German-born midfielder was at his worst, giving the ball away numerous times in bad positions and conceding a very bad foul just outside the box on Roger Espinoza in the first half which earned him a yellow card. Klinsmann is an avowed Jones supporter, but the play of Geoff Cameron vs. Panama and later vs. Honduras as a sub make this an open debate as to whom should partner with Michael Bradley in the center of the field.
Jones does offer some positives, but teams do seem out to exploit his aggressive tendencies. The future of Cameron is likely tied to what happens at Stoke City, which has a new manager in Mark Hughes. Last year Cameron played mainly at right back, if at all. If he doesn’t get minutes at his club, it’s hard to plunk him back into a central midfield role and expect him to play a full 90 minutes for the U.S.
CONCACAF GONE CONCACAF: Referee Enrico Wijngaarde took horrible CONCACAF officiating to another level of ineptness Tuesday, but that’s par for the course. In the second half their was one comical sequence in front of the Honduran goal where it appeared to be a handball in the box that wasn’t called. Later, a Honduran player ran into Howard at full speed as he went to punch a ball away in stoppage time and it wasn’t called a foul, again par for the course in CONCACAF.
More baffling is the decision by the federation where two cards, spread out over 10 games of qualifiers equals a one-game suspension, which seems beyond penal. Three yellows adding up to earn a ban makes sense or two yellows in consecutive games, not this. As it stands if Jones, Altidore, Bradley, Besler, Cameron, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans, Howard and Fabian Johnson pick up a yellow card at Costa Rica on Sept. 6 they’ll have to sit out vs. Mexico four days later in Columbus. Dumb.
GUARDED OPTIMISM: Here’s maybe the best way to sum up the U.S. over these last couple games. Brad Evans, a journeyman MLS player, came from out of nowhere to play right back and score the important stoppage time winner in Jamaica. Tuesday against Honduras he had the chance to put the U.S. ahead 1-0 on a header from a Zusi set piece delivery. It went wide. Living the charmed life only gets you so far.
The U.S. has taken many positive steps forward in the wake of all that transpired during the first year and change of Klinsmann’s tenure. They’ve made some strides, but there’s still a long way to go if it wants to be a team that goes to Brazil with the chance to do damage, rather than simply make up the numbers.