2014 World Cup Qualifier Preview: United States vs. Honduras
If you're like me, your sleep pattern over the last week has been flushed straight down the toilet. You're twisting. You're turning. You're having bad dreams -- nightmares in fact.
All because of one man: Roger Espinoza.
Goodness gracious, did you see the Honduran midfielder's debut for Wigan Athletic in the Barclay's Premier League vs. Stoke City last week? To call his move from Sporting Kansas City to the world's BEST league seamless would be an understatement. This was like Bruce Dickinson sliding in for Paul Di'Anno as frontman of Iron Maiden, albeit without the codpiece.
Let's put it this way, who needs RedTube.com, when you've got Espinoza's heat maps from that match.
This was a performance on par with Ferenc Puskas for Real Madrid vs. Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final, a masterclass.
Truthfully, when the U.S. National Team heads to Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday (4 p.m., beIN Sports) for the first match of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup 2014 Qualification (aka the Hex) I'm not sure how the Americans can even dream of winning all three points. Even a draw seems far-flung, considering the U.S. couldn't do much of anything in its friendly last week with Canada, drawing 0-0 in Houston.
If U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is ever going to play his dream lineup of Tim Howard protected outfield by 10 clones of Jermaine Jones, this is the match. Bunker down. Dump and run. Pray for a point.
Honduras is that damn good.
Look, I trust anyone still reading this little old blog to pick up on the sarcasm. Pretty sure I laid it on there thicker than an bottle of Mrs. Butterworth left out in the January snow.
For whatever the reason, this" fear of our shadow" seems to be a overwhelming tone percolating around the U.S. these days. Qualification to the seventh straight World Cup is going to be nigh on impossible.
Klinsmann doesn't know what he's doing.
The U.S. doesn't have anyone -- specifically forwards -- who can score.
Playing on the road in CONCACAF is tougher than when Eric Cantona had to play that match against 11 demons in the bowels of Hell itself.
Realistically there are two concrete, irrefutable issues to worry about with the U.S. under Klinsmann's watchful, forward-thinking, motivational rah-rah eye.
1. The slow starts.
Why the U.S. falls behind early due to mental lapses in the defense, or only plays well when it's right up against the gun is baffling. It's a bit of a double-edged sword, too.
The same mentality that allows the team to slip up, conceding sloppy goals is, to some degree, the same one that lets to pull something from nothing, as seen in the win at Mexico, the late draw vs. Russia and throughout the previous round of qualification.
Perhaps the immediate equalizer vs. Antigua (in a 3-1 win) or allowing a goal to Guatemala in the fifth minute in a must-win match isn't huge trend, but it's definitely something and strange why it takes something bad to happen for Klinsmann's teams to get into gear -- even as he stands with a wry smile on his face on the touchline.
2. Three Defensive Midfielders Doesn't Work.
In 2012 Klinsmann fielded five lineups that started with some combination of Jones, Michael Bradley (not really a "defensive midfielder," in truth but you know what we mean), Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman or Danny Williams together in a midfield trio/triangle/thee headed Cerberus with a penchant for yellow cards. The U.S. went 2-2-1, including 1-1-1 in qualifiers, including the nadir of the year -- the loss at Jamaica.
Following that defeat, when every U.S. fan was in full-on panic mode, Klinsmann went back to the tried-and-true 442 formation, relying on Herculez Gomez and Clint Dempsey up top. It produced two wins.
The 4-4-2, soccer's missionary position, will never win many plaudits from Internet know-it-alls like Zonal Marking (who should probably go into coaching because he's that wise and seemingly never once been wrong when it comes to filling out his starting XI), but it seems to be effective for the U.S. Is it the rapturous, swashbuckling play of a mid-table Portuguese League team, no. I'll have to grant you that.
That's what probably needs to be drilled into people who have the masochistic tenancy to actually want to watch the U.S. throughout the next 10 months. It's not going to be fun. It's not going to be fluid. If you want that, watch Barcelona (#morethanaclub) every week and laugh along with Ray Hudson ever so retweetable commentary. Sadly, our pal Jermaine Jones is never going to tapdance atop a champagne bubble and into the stratosphere like Lionel Messi -- few are.
Realistically if you want aesthetically pleasing soccer, there's no shortage of it on American television these days unlike the late 1990s when pretty much the only exposure we had to the game were U.S. matches, international tournaments or MLS. (RIP Tampa Bay Mutiny. #neverforget) Nor are qualifiers aren't going to have the feel of Chelsea scoring eight goals in a Premier League match in September
Qualifying for the World Cup is enjoyable in the sense the games are full of meaning, but -- by golly -- has the U.S. proven it's not exactly best to pay that close attention to how the Brazilian 2014 sausage is made.
Something else to keep an eye on, is for some reason the U.S. struggles when it's supposed to win. Throw that out against the mini Caribbean nations, although Antigua and Barbuda proved not to be pushovers last round, but when the U.S. goes into a game as a favorite, with the onus on them to carry the run of play through attacking, it never seems to go off smoothly. Conversely, when America plays a team it's supposed to get creamed by, it usually surprises and does well.
Why this happens goes back to the whole idea that the U.S. is better when it can use it's athleticism to play on the counter-attack as opposed to having to play in possession since American players aren't strong with their first-touches or creative passing.
And for all the talk of how hard it is to play on the road in CONCACAF, which it surely is, how many disasters has the U.S. had in the last two decades save for trips to the Azteca? Off the top of my head, there was the game Jose Torres got undressed on the plastic pitch of the Saprissa in Costa Rica and the loss at Jamaica last October. Otherwise the U.S. usually does enough to get a draw or sometimes win, which equals a smooth qualification process.
Still, there's no reason for the U.S. to go into qualification lacking confidence. Yes, the teams in CONCACAF are improved, but the U.S. -- look up and down its roster -- is still better (not counting Mexico) and has better resources within its federation. Let's not undersell the U.S., as we seem to have. For all the caveats and asterisks that come with it, how many other teams in the final six of CONCACAF boast a player who's the top scorer (now second) in a European league like Jozy Altidore is in the Dutch Eredivisie?
Yes, the U.S. roster is unbalanced and isn't blessed with players in the Champions League, barring everybody's favorite midfield enforcer, Jones. By CONCACAF standards, it's still very good.
Qualification for the U.S. isn't going to be easy.
But it's not as impossible as some people are making it sound, either.
It just won't be all that pretty or fun to digest.
* The biggest thing to watch in this game is the likely midfield partnership between Jones and Bradley. Let's hope Bradley takes the front foot here, leading the way. It's baffling why in 2012 the U.S. seems to differ and take all it's cues from Jones -- a bit player at Schalke 04 only recently back from suspension. To Jones' credit, at least, he was the one guy seemingly willing to step up and try to carry some of the play, for better or worse.
Bradley only gets better and should be the rock the team is built on the next few seasons.
* Kind of a big deal (buried in the final line of the USSF's release on Monday about the 23-man roster) is that Bradley, Dempsey, F. Johnson, Zusi and Edu are a yellow card away from a one-match ban since CONCACAF in its infinite wisdom doesn't reset discipline from the previous rounds. So at least two massively important players (Bradley, Dempsey) are a whistle away from missing the next game, in Denver on March 22 vs. Costa Rica or the March 26th trip to the Azteca. This seems important.
* Poor Timmy Chandler, about to get cap-tied by the U.S. since he'll likely start at right back with Steve Cherundolo injured. Hard to think of anything worse that could happen to anyone in the realm of soccer, bar sharing a hotel room with Nemanja Vidic. Let's all pour out a Bitburger to mourn his career as a German international. Auf Wiedersehen.
* At the expense of writing 1,000 words about Altidore, which probably could be done with ease, few Americans are going to care he's scored 15 goals for AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie this campaign (second to Vitesse's Wilfried Bony) if he puts in another fruitless, low work-rate shift for the U.S. Altidore should start at forward, but another U.S. paradox existed in 2012 that the less pedigreed Herculez Gomez continually outshone him on the international stage.
It's worth noting at AZ this season Altidore has played exclusively as a loan center forward/striker in a classic Dutch 4-3-3, with steady service from the wingers, scoring may goals on headers. By the same token, Altidore's best days as a U.S. player probably came during his brief partnership up top with Charlie Davies.
If Altidore is as talented as we've been lead to believe by some U.S. journalists, do we really need to make excuses for which formation he plays in?
* Landon Donovan doesn't want to play soccer as his spiritual quest of surfing the coasts of all seven continents continues. He doesn't want to play? Let's move on. Donovan isn't going to play forever and if he eventually wants to get back in the fold, it can only be considered a good thing down the road. Until Donovan's "head is right," lets not worry about him. Next man up, as the saying goes.
* It's confusing Klinsmann seems so in love with Maurice Edu, who the German coach still wishes he could convert into a center back. Since he transfer to Stoke City from Rangers in late August and subsequent loan to Bursaspor in Turkey, the Maryland product has played in two games.
* Geoff Cameron, for what I've seen of Stoke City (a treat to the eyes and ears), hasn't lined up at center back, playing on the right of defense or the midfield. Even so, this doesn't seem a concern since he's played well as a defender while wearing the U.S. shirt.
* I've always enjoyed Brad Davis, if only for set piece delivery.
* Good that Sacha Kljestan is in the mix, if only for cheap jokes about him being a hipster I can make on Twitter. (He's the only laughing. His wife, wowee, zowee.) Could he form a partnership with Bradley? Would that midfield tandem work, at least at home?
* For what it's worth, Carlos Bocanegra's Racing Santander is currently in last-place in the Spanish second division. This is likely due to the club's league-low 19 goals scored and not necessarily its defense. Hard to say, as I don't watch the Segunda. Please do not throw rotten fruit at me for revealing this to a world audience. I should be more cultured than I am. Unclean. UNCLEAN!!!
* Genuinely terrific development, all Mexico 2014 Qualifiers will be on ESPN in English (although they're much more enjoyable on Univision with Pablo Ramirez) whereas most U.S. fans will have to scramble to find a way to access to road qualifiers for the Americans via the lack of cable operators carrying beIN Sport. Please DO NOT revert to accessing an illegal internet stream. You'd be better served burning down 10 acres of Brazilian rain forest if you're going to be that big of a monster.
A safe, simple 4-4-2 on the road. If Klinsmann tries to get too cute with his preference for wingers (on a team with very few at its disposal) its a recipe for peril. The 4-4-2 is about as "sexy" Jemaine Clement singing on "Business Time," but it's effective -- socks on or off.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Chandler -- Cameron -- Bocanegra -- Johnson
MID -- Zusi -- Bradley -- Jones -- B. Davis
FOR -- Dempsey -- Altidore
A win would be great, a draw okay and a loss wouldn't be the end of the world. That's the quality, first-class analysis you come to this site to read, right?