A fitting beginning you might say as the US goes back to the end of the last Hex.
It’s the United States, in San Pedro Sula, in a critical World Cup qualifier.
The last time the US found themselves in a game of this magnitude during World Cup qualifying it was the same foil, the same location, the same pitch.
It wasn’t the same environment though; Honduras and its capital was riding a bumpy presidential coup that put the October 2009 World Cup-game-to-go match in a shroud of doubt just days beforehand. No, no coup this time, but the environment is much worse as San Pedro Sula and Honduras itself has become an increasingly more dangerous place for visitors to come since ’09.
Will it be the same of the USMNT? If the Honduras program and player progression is any clue, then, yes.
Going back to that October 10, 2009 match, it marked an emphatic milestone, a Robert Frost-esque tale of two roads diverging and which path the United States would take over the next few years.
It was, of course, the last game that a healthy Oguchi Onyewu and a healthy Charlie Davies would play together. And incredulously as well, it’s also the last time that USMNT fan darling Stu Holden was a factor in a critical US game. Really? Yes. Amazing, huh? Yup.
Holden, of course, appears the lone member of that trio scratching for a course correction.
Davies and Onyewu, on the other hand, may never have been destined for some sort of Europe-affirmed elite status–that said Charlie Davies was a Sochaux leading scorer at the time while Onyewu had jumped to A.C. Milan player over the summer–but they did represent foundational points of a Bob Bradley system that was hell bent on breaking opponents through last-minute defending and counter-attacking treadmill pushed to its max.
Dirtying-up games through punishing up-and-down play and emergency defending was the former coach’s modus operandi and thus the narrative that the 2009 evening would omnisciently extend to a peripheral player that fit that mold only makes sense.
It would be the much maligned knockaround guy Conor Casey who would be the ultimate hero.
Standing in Danny Coyles, a San Francisco bar, the contrast in how the expletive was applied to Casey’s name audibly told the story of his impact.
Thirty minutes before the match when the announcement was signaled with high frequency via Twitter, that curse was a very acerbic and swearing “F*cking Conor Casey?” with resignation and defiance. (Let it be said that TSG had defended Casey’s roster inclusions and suggested the then-Rapids striker might even start.)
After the 72nd minute of the match, well it was a more than jovial, oh-good-golly, “Fucking Conor Casey,” with a mishmash of incredulity and elation and a backslap to the fan nearest to you.
October 10th, 2009 will always be known as The Conor Casey Game–though Landon Donovan’s midfield conduction had probably as much of a bearing on the outcome–but it many respects the USMNT that put up the fight that day is long gone and (dare it be said) the States team poised to take the field Wednesday is in better shape to deal with the specific challenges of the Catrachos.
Why is that?
Well the US got busted up time and time again on its backline. Bradley’s central defenders found themselves way out in space typically on a return counter, asked to defend high on the quality strike partnership of Carlos Pavon and Carlos Costly. Against any striker worth their national team place, that is typically a recipe for disaster and it almost led to disaster that night for the US as both Costly and Pavon missed opportunities that should have otherwise been converted.
On the right flank, Jonathan Spector consistently was off his angle and it took a lot of Onyewu clean-up to keep the sheet clean at least in the first half.
This US squad protects centrally and seems cohesive definitely at all costs. As a result, they score less too, but against this version of Honduras (missing their long-term savvy midfield stead of Wilson Palacios and Hendry Thomas) they should be able to shake Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez or Jozy Altidore loose for at least a goal–even with Roger Espinoza’s coming in on a good run of form.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary TSG preview:
TSG, what are we looking for
11 At The Whistle
About the Opponent: Honduras
TSG What Are We Looking For
» The Landon Donovan security blanket, don’t leave home without it.
One magnanimous name.
The United States will go into The Hex for the first time in almost a decade without their talisman even in the squad, or even with an “injured-with-a-set-to-return time.”
It’s a point that cannot be under-told.
This may be Clint Dempsey’s team now–and that notion is unclear. Or it could be Michael Bradley’s team.
But in CONCACAF in the new millennium, Donovan was an automatic on the team sheet and typically in the scoreline.
The Los Angeles Galaxy superstar started or played in more than 80% of all USMNT CONCACAF matches (excluding the 2009 Gold Cup) since 2003–if you leave out the last four for the US, that number climbs to 85%.
Tack on to that Donovan was often counted on to be the lone consistent generator of offense during that time through counter, set piece or other and his impact on the USMNT, and CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, cannot be denied.
The US will head down to its first truly critical World Cup qualifier without the Landon Donovan and the test will say everything about how Klinsmann has shaped the team and for a few keys players is they’re ready to step up to the mantle of first on the outfield team sheet.
The US appears ready and the narrative coming out of this one may be about the graduation from the Donovan decade, not “When’s he coming back?”
No Introductions Necessary
This is a difficult qualifier, both for Honduras, but more so for the United States. Many players won’t join their respective squads’ practice reps until Monday.
Think about that.
Travel multiple time zones and have your muscles stagnate after a weekend game. Get with the team. Two run-throughs and it’s high pressure. It’s even more difficult for the States, who have their first practice Monday in Florida and their next in San Pedro Sula the next day and, you know, it will the typical CONCACAF Central American welcome
(We know your hotel and we don’t believe in noise ordinances down here.)
Therefore it’s imperative that the States keep as many familiar faces in familiar positions in the line-ups. (More on the line-up below).
Further, expect the States to stick to a simple game plan that maximizes getting the ball into the handles of the two best US players on the pitch Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley.
And further expect the States to do what they normally do on the road. Defend and take few chances. Take a look at those midfield roster selections.
» “Camp Chameron” and the outlet zone
For the most part the US is in excellent position with it’s right rearguard through Geoff Cameron and Tim Chandler.
Both are emerging defenders with multiple reps in multiple roles and capable of a making a play on defense as much as recovering to make one when beaten.
That said, the US under Klinsmann has stuck true to getting the ball wide out to the flanks–when under duress–in their half of the field.
Steve Cherundolo’s savviness and simple crossover dribble was and is often a key part of building the US attack–especially when getting the ball centrally to Michael Bradley is a challenge. You most recently saw the effect of Dolo in this role against Jamaica in September of last year. Time and time again the initiation of the attack came through Dolo and time and time again Dolo made the right decision with opponents closing him down.
Conversely, the US started Chandler and Cameron against Russia and with Danny Williams off form and Michael Bradley taking less initiative (either through Klinsmann’s design of the friendly or through his own druthers) to get the ball, the US attack shuddered to a near halt.
Dolo is that important to the US game plan, even more so when you consider that Geoff Cameron while more comfortable on his right foot has been more cautious with the ball–and less likely to put his FB counterpart under duress–on his weaker left foot when playing LCB.
Against a Honduras team that will use Roger Espinoza to pinball around the central area of the field, how does the US initiate that attack? Can Cameron and Chandler be clean on the ball in possession, individually and no author a game-changing turnover?
Expect–and hope for–either a wrinkle here in the Klinsmann-Vasquez game plan or some real steady and responsible work needed to be done “off-Bradley”–who will be keyed on–by either Jermaine Jones or Danny Williams.
»» Weather pressure: Wednesday in Honduras? 85 degrees at kick-off, high humidity and some rain. Which team will be more ready to, uh, weather the conditions. The US who had to hopscotch players and training destinations on the way to the game or a Honduras side with many players not in season. Look for the US to press the tempo defensively and find out just how fit the Catrachos are.
»» Did you X-Factor In….: Who’s the US game changer off the bench in this one. Is it Jozy or is it EJ, the two most likely candidates or does one of those players start? Is it even Omar Gonzalez, called in to deposit a set piece? And speaking of set pieces, who takes them in-game now that Donovan is out? Bradley? Herc? and if Omar Gonzalez starts on the bench who are you looking for in the box? Just Dempsey and Bradley?
(Roger Espinoza controls the play and Jerry Bengston finishes in the air
as Honduras’s Olympic team sees Spain out of the London Games.)
The skinny: It’s a sign of the times–both for Honduras and MLS–that probably six of the likely starters for Honduras Tuesday will have swung through the US domestic league.
Mario Martinez, the diminutive attacking midfielder, now plays his club ball in Seattle, while Boniek Garcia Honduras other crafty midfielder takes to Houston’s BBVA stadium for his home games. The name Roger Espinoza is more familiar now than it ever has been. The former Sporting KC star made his name in Kansas City, parlayed that into a spot on the Honduras Olympic team and nailed that opportunity by opening the eyes of Wigan manager Robert Martinez and now is sitting deep in their midfield.
With Espinoza in those Olympics was New England striker Jerry Bengston who could be a challenger for this year’s Golden Boot. In of one those games, Bengston will likely be tasked with going one-on-one with San Jose Earthquakes strongman centerback Victor “The Bouncer” Bernardez. Bernardez should have been a best eleven nod in 2012 for the Quakes, but a hamstring injury knocked him out of the line-up for a handful of games.
Carlos Costly–with a brief pit stop for Houston in 2011–is the only member of the sextet who time can be considered unsuccessful so far.
Rounding out the rest of the US line-up are some notable veterans of the Catrachos. Keeper and captain Noel Valladares is the spirit of the team. He was minding the net last time when the US pumped in three in 2009. He’s not a bad shot stopper, but he has challenges commanding the box. For a team like the US who has difficulty with set pieces–likely why you saw the wrinkles in a friendly against Canada last week–that may not matter.
The backline ahead of Valladares sees three familiar face though Celtic leftback and perennial Honduras starter Emilio Izaguirre is expected not to dress in this one. Surrounding Bernardez is Arnold Perlta, the swashbuckling RB that should pose a few threats to the US throughout the game. On the port side to Bernadez and Peralta’s starboard is Wigan’s Maynor Figueroa, no stranger to US fans, who slots-inside and who is flanked by Olimpia’s Juan Carlos García.
The final spot in the eleven is probably the one most in question. Pairing Roger Espinosa in central midfield
will likely be Hibernian deep man Jorge Claros is Serbian leaguer Luis Garrido (22 years old) selected over Claros. Speed trumps experience.
As for the Catrachos, this is perhaps the best Honduras side the US has ever faced. That said, it’s still a side that is prone to bouts with losing shape and patches of “emotional play.”
Klinsmann’s US squad will be facing a La H that functions very similarly to Bob Bradley’s old 4-2-2-2, albeit with much better striking options up top.
The two up top obviously start with Costly and Bengston. Neither in possession will dazzle you with their one-v-one play, but both move very well off the ball and both can pick up scraps in the box and drop them into the back of the net.
Behind, the striker due is Honduras’s true attacking engine in Mario Martinez and Oscar Boniek Garcia who function very much like Donovan and Dempsey did in the Bradley system. And, if you must, Garcia is more the Donovan of the group while Martinez the Dempsey. They switch sides often and depending on the movement and their movement–dictated by where Bengston and Costly have moved in front of them–also open up trailing crosses from the Honduran fullbacks who tend to pinch in more than gain the flank (though Peralta will occassionally overlap.)
In the middle, Espinosa and Garrido function very much like Bradley and Jones did under Bradley. No, not an empty bucket–that term is overused and actually incorrect. Bradley used to be the lead man funneling to Jones or making tackles of opportunity–that will be Espinoza’s role. Jones typically sat deeper as Garrido will for the Catrachos. Garrido is Honduaras’s up-and-coming Danny Williams-guy.
And finally, the back five of Honduras is a veteran crew in the middle but not completely airtight.
Peralta at RB and Garcia at LB mean Honduras know they need to defend the flanks. They will will venture forward cautiously. Bernardez and Figueroa are the spine. They should win most set pieces in the box; their lone disadvantage being dawdling on the ball too much in possession on a turn and trying to thread a pass–both can be prone to baking some turnovers for patches of games.
Think Blake Jordan trying to take a three or dribble the break instead of giving it up and getting it back…or something like that.
USMNT: 11 At The Whistle
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: Howard’s leadership will be critical here as the Honduran forward interplay will cause problem. Remember the last goal the USMNT “A” team gave up was to a far-from-spry Carlos Ruiz getting loose behind a late-to-dinner Carlos Bocanegra in the center of the pitch.
DEF: Tim Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson
The skinny: A much better backline than in 2009 to deal with the shifty Honduras play up front.
In that match, Bocanegra and Onyewu were caught out often though they typically recovered well. Jonathan Spector was absolutely awful in positioning and angles. Jonathan Bornstein’s effort was actually above average.
This time, the US appears to be in better hands, especially on the right side of that line.
CDM: Maurice Edu
CM1: Michael Bradley
CM2: Jermaine Jones
The skinny: There’s a chance you could see Maurice Edu in the defensive hole–and this will be the roster gambit in this preview. Remember it was Edu who was asked to hold down the fort against a very unrelenting Guatemalan side in mid-2012 on the road. Also Edu now have two games in Turkey under his belt while Williams has been sitting for Hoffenheim.
More so, Klinsmann’s selections of both Williams and Edu and his omission of Beckerman suggests two things here: 1) That the US expects this game to be played more vertically than perhaps they would like and 2) That you can count on Michael Bradley, with Jermaine Jones as his henchman, handling the bulk of the linking duties in midfield.
Jermaine Jones yellow card? 1st half, even money; 2nd half, 1 to 3.
RW: Graham Zusi
CAM: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: Fabian Johnson’s left flank runs brought to you by….Clint Dempsey. When Dempsey plays for the States, Klinsmann has a dilemma. He’s not going to sacrifice a midfield three so he can choose to either play Dempsey centrally or play Dempsey wide left and have him cut it.
(Note: If Dempsey doesn’t play, you normally see a US LFW (Brek Shea, Eddie Johnson, etc.) pushed way up high into almost a STR2 role. TSG calls the collective role the “swing role” or “swing player.”
The thing to look for here is where is Dempsey tasked defensively when Honduras are in possession and further Johnson. If Dempsey is to play centrally that’s a lot of ground to cover and a left flank very exposed–something Jones and Williams will need to look out for.
As for Zusi, the Sporting KC star could be the difference maker in this one. He’s so adept at reading the play and where to go next with the ball that with the Catrachos focused on Dempsey and others he might have a little room to work.
STR: Herculez Gomez
The skinny: Klinsmann’s game plans away are based upon effort, consistency and defense as the starting points. If you believe that then Herc–not Jozy–if your starter here.