Game one of the Hex has come and gone in disappointing fashion for the United States, who now find themselves at the bottom of the standings after the first round of matches. However, the results of the other two games, particularly Jamaica’s shocking 0-0 tie with Mexico at the Azteca, may take some of the sting out of the result for the U.S. In the other first round match Panama took a 2-0 lead at home, only to allow Costa Rica to storm back and do what the U.S. could not, secure a valuable road point.
The Honduras loss hardly dooms the U.S. chances of advancing to Brazil, after all there remain nine games for the U.S. to play, including all five home games. 15 home points would put qualification within reach with just a few away points. Not that home perfection is guaranteed, or even likely.
As for Wednesday, let’s take a look back at what went wrong, before we try to determine the ramifications for the U.S. team going forward. First it has to be said that this was no fluke. Honduras were by far the better team on the day. Faster, more skilled on the ball, even more energetic. The afternoon heat may have been one factor, the long grass was sighted as another. To his credit Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t use those factors as excuses. Klinsmann simply felt that too many U.S. players failed to play up to their abilities.
The coach is certainly correct in that judgement, but what about his own performance? The U.S. group has spoken about the difficulty of playing these Concacaf qualifiers on the road, the travel, the fans, etc. But as American football coaches are fond of saying, it is up to the coach to give his team their best chance to win.
Quite simply, replacing the vastly experienced Carlos Bocanegra with national team novice Omar Gonzalez, failed to meet that test. Bocanegra may be on the decline and Gonzalez, or perhaps someone else, will have to replace him eventually, but why the rush?
Klinsmann said of Gonzalez that, “at some point you have to throw him into the cold water.” Was the first game of the hex, on the road, against a decent opponent really that point? With Bocanegra sitting in the relative cool of the dugout, the back-line leadership role fell to Geoff Cameron. Cameron has been the junior partner in the national team centerback pairing, and it may have been too much to ask the Stoke right fullback to take on the leadership role just yet. I thought Cameron actually played fairly well, but there was a communication breakdown of some sort on the Honduras winner, between Cameron and goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Klinsmann can also be questioned where the U.S. lineup and tactics are concerned. The coach continued with three defensive minded midfielders and played Eddie Johnson as wing in a 4-3-3, or 4-3-2-1. Fullbacks Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson were left to try and conjure some width for the U.S., but all too often Chandler in particular was sucked into the middle. Several times cross field passes from Boniek Garcia found Mario Martinez open, while Chandler scrambled to cover.
At first glance the team Klinsmann selected versus Honduras looked like an attacking one, up front at least. Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson can all find the net. Then Johnson ran himself ragged defending, Dempsey had to fight for scraps and Altidore was isolated up front. With the midfield struggling for possession and the defense back on their heels, the front three, or more often lone striker Altidore, couldn’t make much happen.
With two of the next three games to be played on the road, the Costa Rica match March 22 in Colorado, suddenly becomes huge. The Ticos showed fight in that comeback at Panama and they are not to be underestimated. The U.S. travels to Mexico four days after playing Costa Rica, and they don’t want to be pointless going into Azteca.
The nightmare scenario would be an upset loss at home to Costa Rica, followed by away defeats to Mexico and Jamaica, who you’ll remember beat the Americans in Kingston, in the semifinal round. The far more comforting plan for the U.S. begins with righting the ship at home, on March 22 in the cool mountain air of Colorado. Klinsmann has said that beating Mexico 1-0 in an August friendly, would stand to his team at a moment like this. Perhaps more important than that, Jamaica’s taking of a point from Mexico at their fabled fortress, may give the U.S and all of El Tri’s opponents, hope that Aztea can be conquered.
One takeaway from the loss at San Pedro Sula, may be that the future cannot be rushed. Aside from the benched Bocanegra, the U.S. team had to make due without two other seasoned campaigners, both of whom were missed. Through no fault of Klinsmann’s, Steve Cherundolo and Landon Donovan were unavailable.
Cherundolo’s absence meant a start for Timmy Chandler. Chandler is now cap tied to the U.S. team, but the green back four might have been buoyed had the experienced Hannover captain been in the lineup. Cherundolo has just undergone an arthroscopy on his troublesome left knee and he has a shot at being ready in time for Costa Rica.
Then there’s Donovan. His self imposed exile has to end sometime. Doesn’t it? L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena reported a few weeks back that Donovan would return, he just can’t say when. No such assurances have been issued by his national team coach. Donovan has long been the good soldier for the U.S., strangely until Klinsmann showed up. Injuries and Galaxy commitments limited Donovan’s appearances in a U.S. jersey under Klinsmann, even before Donovan went on walkabout.
Donovan last played in the MLS Cup on December 1. He looked far from washed up as the Galaxy said goodbye to David Beckham with a second MLS title on the trot. His subsequent sabbatical may have seen his standing with his U.S. teammates and coaching staff take a hit, and he likely will have to earn back their trust before he pulls on a U.S. jersey again.
Will that be in Colorado against Costa Rica? Who knows? What we do know is this, the United States soccer team is a better one with their all time leader in goals and assists on the field, and the longer Donovan stays away, the harder it will be for him to be welcomed back.