Defeat in Honduras shows frailties
8 February ~ The US national team's first-ever win in Mexico last August has been celebrated heavily by the country's football supporters. But while that victory was historic and therapeutic, it was just a friendly game. The US began the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying on Wednesday night, away to Honduras. And, for the first time since Concacaf introduced a six-team qualifying round in 1996, the US lost their opening game. A deserved defeat in San Pedro Sula has prompted mild panic, soul-searching analysis and criticism of coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
The US took the lead through an impressive Clint Dempsey volley after 36 minutes but were then undone by obvious defensive frailties. It remained 1-0 for just four minutes until Juan Carlos García, of Honduran club Olimpia, equalised with a spectacular overhead kick. Honduras then outclassed the visitors in a match played at mid-afternoon in Central American heat. The US wilted in the face of a determined home performance in front of vociferous support – a national holiday was declared in Honduras just for this game.
So it wasn't surprising when Honduras scored on 79 minutes. Klinsmann had selected a central-defensive partnership – Stoke's Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez of LA Galaxy – that had never played together before and it showed. Jerry Bengtson of New England Revolution scored a tap-in as both Cameron and Gonzalez dithered. Klinsmann has had plenty of time to settle on his first-choice team, yet he clearly hasn't managed it. In a dire friendly against Canada last week he picked a young and experimental team while on Wednesday he dropped veteran defender Carlos Bocanegra.
The team looked unprepared and also seemed mentally frail. Klinsmann tried to address this with crude motivational tactics in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in January. The coach called for a more competitive spirit and questioned what the players had really achieved. "Just because you won a game in the World Cup in the knockout stage, you haven't won anything," Klinsmann said. "[Dempsey] hasn't made shit. You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you can play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team. There is always another level. If you one day reach the highest level then you've got to confirm it, every year."
Oddly, Klinsmann then made an ill-advised foray into history by referencing how he changed German footballing attitudes from defence to attack after the disastrous 2004 European Championship. "We said the only way was we got to attack, we got to go forward," he said. "Maybe it's in our DNA. Maybe it was wrongfully in our DNA in two world wars. Who knows that? I don't know, I was not even born yet." But while Klinsmann hasn't allowed a US team to gel, many claim that the Honduras defeat shows how much the side miss Landon Donovan, still on a self-imposed sabbatical from both domestic and international football.
Both Sunil Gulati, president of the US Federation, and LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena have hinted that Donovan will return to football soon. It isn't yet known when, who for or for how long. But as Klinsmann also pointed out, the US will have to learn how to cope without Donovan at some point. This traumatic defeat for the US national team also started debates over the success of MLS. That league hasn't seemed to do Honduras any harm, however. They started Wednesday's game with more MLS players than the US.
In all likelihood the US will still qualify for the World Cup. There are nine games to go, against Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, and Jamaica. Their next qualifier is against Costa Rica on March 22. If Klinsmann's team gets anything less than a win in this game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado, the panic will be real. They then travel to Mexico and Jamaica. Now the US have finally won in Mexico it may yet become vital that they do so again. Ed Upright