Philly Sports Live

The Fella’ Sells Bands: Thoughts on Honduras 2 – 1 USMNT


Its impossible to mince words regarding Wednesday’s loss in the the heat of a Honduran afternoon.  While it may not be a disaster it is clearly the worst possible start to a particularly difficult road to qualification, redeemed only marginally by the days two other Hex contests ending in draws.  USMNT fans who took pains to duck out of work early to watch the Yanks kick off did not find their effort reciprocated, as the Americans looked slow, uninspired and uninterested, incapable of mounting or maintaining an even moderate presence in the attacking third.  At the same time an inexperienced and disorganized back line found itself victimized time and again by a cohesive and tactically sound Honduran attack, which seized the momentum from the Americans with a goal on a spectacular bicycle kick and did not surrender it again for the remainder of the match.

To further describe the ebb and flow of the match would be to put forth more effort than the performance merited, however a few points stood out from the loss.

Wigan out.  USMNT fans who saw Roger Espinoza for the past few years with Sporting Kansas City may have viewed the Honduran midfielder as a competent, if a bit flashy, destroyer, a 6 with pretensions of being an 8.  The London Olympics put paid to that perception however, serving as his coming out party as a true box to box mid with an offensive flair, and his performance in those games secured him a move to the EPL last month.  His play against the United States clearly showed the Olympics were no fluke.  Espinoza outplayed every American on the pitch, setting the tempo for the match, breaking down nascent US attacking thrusts and playing a key role in both Honduran goals.

Mr. President, what the hell?  On Tuesday night, Sports Illustrated senior soccer writer Grant Wahl tweeted his prediction for the US starting defense: Johnson – Bocanegra – Cameron – Chandler.  Wednesday morning he, along with several other reputable writers including Ives Gallarcep & Leander Schaerlaeckens confirmed that this was to be the US back line.  Between that confirmation and the official announcement of the starting lineups something must have happened, because Captain Carlos, he of 104 national team caps, a grizzled veteran of of more Central American skirmishes than William Walker was deposed in favor of the erstwhile hero of the Baltimore streets, Omar Gonzalez.  While Gonzo is by far the finest defender in MLS, gifted with size and a sound tactical mind, he has played all of two matches in stars and stripes, and his presence, combined with Timmy Chandler’s deputizing on the right for the Mayor of Hanover  unsettled the entire American defense.  Geoff Cameron, who was already dealing with the transition back to central defense after playing everywhere but striker for Stoke, was now bracketed by two teammates he had never played with before, while Fabian Johnson, perhaps the finest left back in the Bundesliga was unable to bomb forward and provide width on the attack with an inexperienced LCB calling the line.  Gonzalez is without a doubt the future of the US central defense, but just like his attempted header on the final set-piece of the match, he’s not quite there, and his insertion into the starting lineup, more than any other factor, cost the US the game.

Jurgen’s Helicopter.  The book is out on the United States offense under Jurgen Klinsmann.  The Canadians wrote it, and they clearly sent review copies to Kingston and San Pedro Sula.  Clog the midfield, play on the counter, and the Yanks will lose their shape like a writer who can’t think of a simile.  There are two ways to beat this kind of defense.  the first is to lob the ball over the defenders onto the feet of speedy attackers and risk the offside call.  This can work on a national team level better than with club teams, because the defenses play together less and have trouble working the offside trap.  This is how the US scored their sole, beautiful goal; a lob from Jones onto the foot of Dempsey, with Eddie Johnson pulling the central defender away.  The other way is to go for width, and this is where Klinsmann left himself no options.  The helicopter pilot was all middle and no wings.  Who on his roster could play effectively on the touch line?  The US doesn’t produce many international-caliber wingers, but where was Brek Shea?  Where was Josh Gatt, the Molde winger who is quite simply the fastest player with the ball at his feet the US has seen since 2002 Landon Donovan?  Where was Donovan?  Eddie Johnson is not a winger.  Sacha Kjlestan is not a winger.  The lack of a Plan B, of a in-case-of-emergency-break-glass player like Gatt is inexplicable.

Jungle Work.  There are very few times in the modern history of US Soccer when this could be honestly said, but the Yanks were out conditioned.  Yes it was hot and yes it was humid, and yes the sun was beating down on the pitch like the hammer of Vulcan on an anvil of particularly ill-tended grass, and yes the majority of Yanks were either out of season or are competing in winter games with an average temperature of 50 degrees, but the Americans have always been the best conditioned team in CONCACAF.  For a very long time it was their only competitive advantage; which is why it was shocking to see Timmy chandler, a true wingback, gasping for air and loafing back down the field after an all to rare attacking run, after only twenty minutes of play.  He was far from the only blue shirted player to appear to be lagging.  Even Michael Bradley, who according to FIFA ran father in 4 games in the 2010 World Cup than half the players who made it to the final, who’s nomme de guerre of MB90 was granted in praise of his ability to never stop moving, was visibly exhausted by the 75th minute.  With emphasis Jurgen Klinsmann has put on nutrition and fitness since taking the reigns of the national team, this is simply inexcusable.

No One at the Wheel.  Michael Bradley is a classic box to box midfielder.  If the American squad adhered to the classic numbering conventions, the one on his back would be an 8.  He is not a 10, and to task him with playing as one is to remove half of the effectiveness of the most versitile and dangerous player in the US arsenal.  To then deploy an inexperienced defense, a holding mid who hasn’t played in a month and a defensive mid who has taken it into his mind not to play defense is to rob him of the remaining half.  To the causal observer Bradley had a poor game.  By his own high standards I’m sure he believes he did.  The simple fact is he was played out of position and compelled to force balls into a densely packed defensive midfield because he had no outside options.  Had Bradley been deployed in Jermaine Jones’ role, and Jones in Williams’, it would have allowed a central play maker like Jose Francisco Torres or Sacha Kjlestan (or Mix Diskerud, who was sorely missed in the Canada friendly and swiftly packed off to Norway) to control the pace and tempo of the game, and allow Bradley to focus on shutting down Espinoza.  When it became evident that Bradley and Jones could not break down the Honduran defense, and that the disorganization in the back was preventing Fabian Johnson and Timmy chandler getting forward to provide width, the option was there to bring in one of these players to slow the match down, and attack the Hondurans with technical skill.  It was, in-fact, the only option left to Klinsmann, who brought in Kjlestan, but exiled him to the left wing and continued throwing his rapidly tiring players at the Honduran redoubts like the Light Brigade at the guns of Balaclava.

Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook.  There have been few more staunch defenders of Jurgen Klinsmann than the author, but recent results have cast his 18 month tenure at the head of the USMNT in a poor light.  Losses away to Canada, Jamaica and now Honduras can all be explained away as the result of a rapidly improving confederation and the transition between two distinct generations of players, were it not for the glaringly obvious mistakes in roster selection and deployment, and a staggering lack of tactical imagination.  Klinsmann gives good quotes, promises beautiful, possession based attacking football, but he sends Mix Diskerud and Josh Gatt home, and plays three defensive mids.  He preaches leadership and and team cohesiveness, then benches the team’s captain and starts a back-line that have never played together and never set foot on a Central American pitch.  He designs workouts and nutrition plans, and for the first time in 30 years an American squad is out worked in a qualifier.  Its difficult to admit, the man is a soccer legend, one of the truly great strikers from one of the truly great teams of all time, but Philip Lahm may be right.  The clothes may have no emperor.

The US returns to the Hex March 22nd in Commerce City, Colorado against the Ticos of Costa Rica.  Stick with Philly Sports Live for all your references to the Crimean War, and continuing USMNT coverage.