U.S. wilts late at Honduras in Hexagonal opener
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- Three thoughts from the U.S.' 2-1 loss to Honduras in its first match of the final round of World Cup qualifying.
• This game felt like last year's loss in Jamaica -- only worse. The last thing the U.S. wanted to do was open the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal with a loss after winning their opener in all four previous final-round tournaments. But that's exactly what happened in a game that looked a lot like the bad 2-1 qualifying defeat in Jamaica last September. Both then and on Wednesday, goals by Clint Dempsey put the U.S. ahead, only for the home teams to mount furious comebacks that resulted in 2-1 victories. Make no mistake, Honduras deserved this win, maintaining more possession and creating more chances than the U.S. before Jerry Bengtson's 79th-minute goal provided the difference. On the decisive strike, both the U.S.' Tim Howard and Omar González were just a hair late, which was no coincidence during a second half when the U.S. seemed winded and tired in mid-afternoon heat that reached the 80-degree range.
• This game had some terrific goals. The U.S. scored one of its most technically gifted goals in years when Clint Dempsey gave the Americans a 1-0 lead in the 36th minute. Usual hard-man Jermaine Jones, of all people, lofted a perfectly-weighted ball over the top of the defense that Dempsey picked out of the air on a volley that beat goalkeeper Noel Valladares. Volleying a pass that comes in over your back shoulder is one of the hardest things to do in soccer, and Dempsey did it perfectly, looking like Willie Mays on his famous over-the-shoulder catch. Yet Honduras' response was even prettier, with Juan Carlos García bicycling an astonishing blast past Howard after a cross from Víctor Bernárdez and a header from Maynor Figueroa. Yep, that's right: center back to center back to left back for one of the best goals you'll see, a highlight-reel special that sent the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano into bedlam.
• Now the pressure starts to mount on Jurgen Klinsmann and the Americans. The U.S. is the only team in the six-nation Hexagonal that has to play three of its first four games on the road, and if you asked me before this game I would have said the U.S. needed to pick up at least four points in its first three games: at Honduras, at home against Costa Rica and at Mexico. To do that, the U.S. will now need to beat Costa Rica in Denver on March 22 and get at least a tie at Mexico on March 26 -- something the U.S. has only done once ever in World Cup qualifying. There's more margin for error in the Hexagonal than in the semifinal round, thanks to 10 games and the fact that four of the six teams can advance to the World Cup, but starting off with a loss is going to make the U.S.' road more difficult than it would have wanted.