61913_isi_howardtim_usmntjt0918133065 John Todd/isiphotos.com
The Hexagonal

The U.S. Defeats Honduras, 1-0, Keeps Lead in Hex

The United States men’s soccer team battled past an obdurate Honduras team, 1-0, securing its third consecutive victory in World Cup qualifying and moving into first place in the Hex.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
June 19, 2013
9:13 AM
SANDY, Utah—Hobbled by injuries and hoping for a scoreless draw, the Honduran national team dug in and put 10 men behind the ball in Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier at Rio Tinto Stadium.

It wasn’t enough.

Led by a bunker-busting Jozy Altidore, the U.S. broke through los Catrachos’ defenses in the 73rd minute and held on for a 1-0 win. The victory gives the Americans sole possession of first place in the six-team World Cup qualifying tournament known as the Hexagonal.

It was a typical CONCACAF qualifier: rugged, ragged, and chippy. The Americans held a decided advantage in possession throughout the match, playing with the quickness and intensity demanded by coach Jurgen Klinsmann. But the visitors proved difficult to break down.

“You could smell it,” said after the match, referring to the build up before Altidore’s goal. “It’s coming. It’s coming sooner or later.”

He was right.

“They are difficult games and you just always have to remind them to keep going because it is just the way it is in these kind of qualifiers,” Klinsmann said. The U.S. players “deserve to get a compliment because they kept on going, they believed in creating chances, and they did it. And that’s what a good team is about.”

The decisive goal came in the 73rd minute when Graham Zusi flicked on a ball from Clint Dempsey. An overlapping Fabian Johnson, who started at left back in place of the suspended DaMarcus Beasley, popped up unmarked and immediately slotted the ball to Altidore. The forward then scored his fourth goal in as many games for the national team, coolly knocking the ball past Honduras keeper Noel Valladares with his left foot.

“We had some pretty good possession around their box and did a great job of being patient,” Zusi said of the goal. “I think Clint and Michael had a couple touches, and then when Clint played me I saw Fabian making his run. I just kind of let it go and let him do the rest. It was a great run by him, and a fantastic ball to Jozy.”

“Jozy’s on fire right now,” Zusi added. “He’ll put anything away.”

That tally earned the Yanks a shower of streamers from the crowd at Rio Tinto, as well as an admonition from Altidore to generate more noise.

The striker nearly got another ovation five minutes later when he received a pass on the right side of midfield, beat his defender, and struck another smoking left-footed shot. Valladares was equal to the task this time, however, and the score remained 1-0.

That’s how the match would end, though Honduras left back Emilio Izaguirre did his best to help his team earn a point, sending in a pair of dangerous balls that forced Tim Howard into action.

If the first half was a bit flat and uneventful, the final 20 minutes or so were tense as the Americans fought to hang onto the slim lead.

“Actually I thought that the second half we did a little bit better job of creating chances,” Zusi said. “Felt a little bit more confident than maybe I did in the first half of getting that goal. I don’t think there was any panic really on our part. We got the goal that we needed and locked it down from there.”

The goal had been coming for Altidore, and he nearly tallied 15 minutes earlier. In that sequence, Howard sprung an attack from the back when he collected a ball and threw it forward to Eddie Johnson. The Seattle Sounders man streaked forward and passed to Dempsey. The captain played in Altidore who put the ball in the back of the net, but the assistant referee raised the flag to signal Altidore was offside.

Perhaps it’s easy to keep the near-misses in perspective when you’re in such good form. Altidore’s four-game scoring streak puts him in elite company: Only five other American players have struck in four consecutive national team matches.

The 23-year-old said the opponent deserves the credit for making these three points difficult to earn.

“Honduras played really well, they made it difficult on us,” Altidore said, addressing the media for the first time in more than a week. “They were good defensively, and they took time off the clock with their little antics and stuff like that. I think it was difficult for us to find a rhythm, but I think we did well.”

That’s not to say the AZ Alkmaar striker played things totally cool. In the 23rd minute he and defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones, back in the line-up after missing the previous match with symptoms from a concussion, exchanged gestures. With Jones trying intricate passes, Altidore seemed to be telling him to calm down and keep it simple.

Altidore was again gesticulating a few minutes later when the referee whistled a foul against him, but he stepped away from a potential altercation with Jorge Claros, dodging a yellow card and avoiding a suspension for the next World Cup qualifier.

Part of avoiding complacency or frustration likely stemmed from the fact that the Americans were expecting this kind of game. Klinsmann preaches pressure whenever possible and playing high up the field was part of his game plan heading into the match.

Afterward, Dempsey explained that this strategy helped undo a bunkering opponent.

“You just try to limit your touches, spread the field out, and move off the ball,” the U.S. captain said. “Make it difficult for them, try to press them. When you win the ball over, I think the transition play helped us. I thought we did a good job of getting service in the box, especially in the second half.”

“We were able to finish it off, so we’re happy with that.”

Though the players clearly understood the challenge against Honduras, it’s not the type of match they’d prefer.

“These are hard games because teams sit back,” Howard said. “We were saying it’s easier when Mexico comes; you play a team like Belgium and the game’s wide open. You don’t think, you just react.”

“It’s there for you,” he continued, “the rhythm of the game is there for you, but these are more difficult games, and I think it’s important that if teams are going to sit back in order to get better chances you’ve got to press the ball higher up the field.”

Honduras manager Luis Fernando Suarez clearly didn’t intend on having his team push forward too often, but the United States defense caught a bit of a break just after the half-hour mark when forward Carlo Costly had to exit the match because of cramps.

Already shorthanded at forward after the departure of Jerry Bengston, Suarez had to call in Roger “Ro-Ro” Rojas. Rojas wasn’t effective for los Catrachos, but former DC United midfielder Andy Najar troubled the U.S. back line, particularly on a Matt Besler gaffe just before halftime. Najar broke free and had an open look at goal, but Howard was able to get a piece of the ball and send it out for a corner kick.

Had he not made the save, the flow of the game would have changed drastically.

“The first goal means so much because it opens up the game both ways,” Howard said. “That’s why it’s so vital.”

“It just makes it easier, particularly in CONCACAF, in the Hex, barring one or two teams, most of them are so hard to break down that if they get the first goal it’s like a mountain to climb,” he added.

The victory keeps the Stars and Stripes atop the Hex and means a trip to the World Cup in Brazil is probable. The players insisted they’re still focused on the task at hand, but some admitted it was hard to keep from thinking about Brazil.

The fans showed less restraint, particularly when the American Outlaws led a chorus of, “We are going to Brazil!” for the second straight match.

They’re almost certainly right, but for now Klinsmann prefers to keep his focus on actual results.

“No, we’re not talking about the finish line,” the coach said. “We have four games to go. And, yes, you know it gives us good feeling to be on top of the table and especially when you’re going on a stretch of almost three months until your next World Cup qualifier, that’s what you want to have.”

“But we know that once we get together in September again it’s going to be another grind. It’s going to go back to reality. It’s going to be very tough down in Costa Rica, and it’s going to be a huge game at home against Mexico.”

“We know we need more points,” he added with confidence. “We will get those points.”

Jon Arnold is an ASN contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Post a comment