No need to panic. Yet.
There are nine World Cup qualifiers to go for the U.S. national team, and as midfielder Michael Bradley so wisely said after Wednesday’s 2-1 opening loss at Honduras: “This is a long road. We can’t lose our heads.”
True. Clearly, he is the son of a former national team coach who often preached perspective.
But, the sloppy, spirit-deprived performance of the U.S. team in San Pedro Sula surely is a reason for concern. Other than Clint Dempsey’s beautiful volley, which put the Americans ahead before halftime, there wasn’t a whole lot to feel good about for U.S. fans.
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No question, the conditions were particularly difficult for the U.S. team. The game was played at midday in sweltering heat and humidity, and the majority of the U.S. players had just arrived from chilly Europe. Many U.S. players looked wilted midway through the second half. Honduran fans provided an electric atmosphere for their team, which, by the way, qualified for the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics. The game was such a big deal, the day was declared a national holiday so nobody would have to work or go to school.
All that said, Honduras looked like the better team. In fact, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said Honduras was the better team on that day. The game felt an awful lot like the 2-1 loss at Jamaica last year, the team’s first-ever loss on that island.
And that is reason for concern as three of the first four U.S. qualifiers in the Hexagonal round are on the road. Sitting in last place now, the U.S. team needs points from a home game March 22 in Denver against Costa Rica, and a road game March 26 in Mexico. There are six teams left standing — the United States, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama. Three will earn berths to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The fourth-place finisher can earn a spot in a playoff with the Oceania winner, likely New Zealand.
When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to much fanfare on July 29, 2011, he promised “energy and excitement.” He talked about taking American soccer to the next level, infusing it with a more attack-oriented philosophy. He urged players to be unafraid to try new things, raise their personal bar, and most important, to have fun and love the game he loves so much.
On Wednesday, energy and excitement were lacking. The Americans created little pressure. They didn’t look sharp. And, they certainly weren’t having fun.
The young back line looked young and inexperienced. Klinsmann chose to sit veteran Carlos Bocanegra and start 6-5 newcomer Omar Gonzalez, who was playing in his first World Cup qualifier. Kind of a tough assignment for a young kid, tall and talented as he may be.
Timmy Chandler played at right back in place of injured Steve Cherundolo. He, too, had a tough assignment, as he had played 90 minutes Sunday for Nurnberg in Germany, hopped on a plane to Miami on Monday, then another to Honduras that night, and basically had one day to prepare.
The midfield seemed to lack creative playmaking, the stuff Landon Donovan brings. The all-time leading U.S. scorer is on an indefinite hiatus, trying to figure out what he wants for his future. Here’s hoping he opts to rejoin the national team. It needs his skill, savvy and leadership.
No doubt, Klinsmann is an interesting man, and has a deep passion for his sport. He has played it at the highest level. He is a combination of German discipline and California free spirit, having married an American wife and lived on the West Coast for more than a decade.
He is known for his upbeat personality. He smiles a lot more on the sideline than previous coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. But even he didn’t have much to smile about Wednesday.
“Obviously, it’s not what we wanted,” Klinsmann said. “We wanted to start with a positive result, and we have to fix that right away now against Costa Rica in Denver in March. But we knew it was going to be difficult. … There are no excuses. When you lose a game here, there are reasons for it. The reasons for it [Wednesday] were that too many players were underneath their usual performance. We made too many mistakes. … We gave them far too much space [Wednesday].”
He refused to blame the back line or second guess his decision to throw untested Gonzalez into such a critical game.
“We believe Omar is ready for the next step, ready for the international level,” Klinsmann said. “The only way you find that out is to give him a chance and throw him in the cold water. Overall he has done well. … It takes time to develop. But the back line wasn’t the reason we lost that game.”
He suggested the midfield was equally to blame. He wound up using substitutes Maurice Edu, Graham Zusi and Sacha Kljestan in the second half, looking for a spark. “We didn’t find our passing flow, we didn’t combine well enough, we didn’t hold the ball well enough,” he said.
Despite the loss, there is reason for optimism. You may have forgotten that in 2002, the United States was in danger of not qualifying after consecutive losses to Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras, leaving it in fourth place with two qualifiers left. The team survived, and went on to the World Cup quarterfinals. Perhaps, this story will have a happy ending, too.