The U.S. men's national team weathered an early storm in Honduras and looked to be in fine shape after Clint Dempsey's beautiful volley put the Americans in front heading toward halftime. Then the wheels fell off.
A breath-taking bicycle kick just minutes after Dempsey's goal recaptured momentum for the hosts, and a catastrophic defensive sequence late in the second half led to a game-winning goal, as Honduras beat the U.S. 2-1 to open the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal and deal the Americans an early blow. Winning in Honduras was never going to be an easy proposition, but the performance calls into question some of the decisions made by coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He opted for inexperienced but potential-filled Omar Gonzalez instead of battle-tested captain Carlos Bocanegra in central defense and used all of his substitutes by the 66th minute, when it was apparent that legs all over the field were becoming weary and would be an issue down the stretch.
Attention turns to the next qualifier, which is March 22 against Costa Rica at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado. Considering the match four days after that is a battle against Mexico at Estadio Azteca, there are kinks that needs to be worked out in order for the U.S. to right its World Cup qualifying ship. Here are the American player ratings from the loss to Honduras (as always, on a scale from 0-10):
GK, Tim Howard, 5.5 -- Donning the captain's armband in Bocanegra's absence, Howard saved the United States on a few occasions in the first half, and no moment was more crucial than his leaping punch to deny Seattle Sounders winger Mario Martinez of a curled effort. There was absolutely nothing Howard could have done about Juan Carlos Garcia's mesmerizing bicycle kick that leveled the score, but Howard played a role in the sequence in which Honduras went ahead, when he charged off the line and vacated his net without coming up with a clean tackle as his center backs lost control of the streaking Honduran attackers.
D, Timmy Chandler, 3.5 -- Chandler finally put an end to his long international saga and played in a qualifier for the USA to become cap-tied. That's about the only redeeming thing that could be said about Chandler's day, as he was unable to be much of a factor going forward and got beaten on a number of occasions at his slot at right back. Chandler never pinched in to help Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron on the game-winning goal sequence, and he looked gassed midway through the first half. Chandler played 90 minutes for FC Nurnberg on Sunday before making a long flight to join the U.S. in Miami and then play 90 minutes again Wednesday in humid conditions. It showed.
D, Omar Gonzalez, 3.5 -- Gonzalez was cap-tied as well (remember he had Mexican eligibility, although the possibility of him playing for El Tri always seemed less than a serious threat), but thrust into the spotlight by replacing Bocanegra in the heart of the defense, his day was not one to remember for the right reasons. His first touch was an ominous giveaway in the opening minute, and his distribution was lacking throughout the day. Gonzalez did come up with one major tackle to cover for Chandler, who got beat by the end line. He had a large share of the blame pie on the game-winning goal, though, failing to track goal-scorer Jerry Bengtson into the box, and now all eyes will be on how he bounces back from coming up short in his first major international test. Does he still have Klinsmann's confidence? Does he need a little more polishing before being thrown out there again? Does Bocanegra reclaim his throne? We'll know about six weeks from now.
D, Geoff Cameron, 4 -- As the more experienced of the two center backs, Cameron found himself in unusual territory as the top dog across the back line. He was the most composed of the U.S. defenders -- which isn't saying much on a day when the back line was pedestrian at best -- but he was also to blame in a big way for losing track of Oscar Boniek Garcia for the game-winning goal and missed a block on Juan Carlos Garcia's bicycle kick despite valiantly putting his head in the line of fire. There was a moment when Cameron stepped forward at the perfect time to play Honduras' two forwards offside on a sequence that ended with a would-be go-ahead goal being waved off, but on the whole, it was not the Stoke City man's best day at the office. Perhaps all those run-outs at right back for Stoke impeded his progress in central defense.
D, Fabian Johnson, 4 -- Johnson had been a revelation at left back for the U.S. in past appearances, but he picked an awful day to turn in his worst showing in an American jersey. In his dreadful first half, he never got forward, and the little attack the U.S. produced was lopsided as a result. With little in the way of wing threats in the midfield, both Johnson and Chandler needed to get forward with more regularity, but neither could. Compounding that, Johnson never tracked an over-hit corner that Victor Bernardez hustled to get to and crossed into the box, leading to Honduras' equalizer. Johnson did have one standout defensive play in which he recovered to get to Roger Espinoza's cutback pass at the edge of the 6-yard box, and his ability to get forward in the second half led to U.S. opportunities, including setting up Bradley for a chance from the top of the box.
M, Danny Williams, 4 -- Williams had an anonymous showing before being pulled right before the hour mark for Maurice Edu in a like-for-like substitution. As part of a midfield that never really got a foothold in the game until the half-hour mark, Williams did little to advance the ball out of the U.S. half or come up with enough of a presence in his defensive midfield role to win possession. He's proven to be a better player on American soil than off of it, and perhaps his lack of regular playing time at Hoffenheim had him off his top form heading into Wednesday's match.
M, Michael Bradley, 5.5 -- Bradley has definitely had better days and turned the ball over more than most would expect, but it was when he was moving the ball out of the U.S.' half and commanding the ball in the midfield that the Americans looked at their most dangerous. Bradley got involved in the final third as well, but looked uncharacteristically gun-shy at times while having one attempted blast get deflected for a corner and one set up for Clint Dempsey also wind up being blocked for a corner. Of the midfield triumvirate, Bradley had the most influential play over the course of the full 90 minutes and remains the field general, but he didn't fully have his A game.
M, Jermaine Jones, 5 -- First, the good: Jones' delicate chip to set up Dempsey for the American goal was absolutely sublime and showcased a finesse part of his game that he has not really shown with regularity on the international level. He also had a hand in one of the more promising build-up sequences for the Americans, in which he played Eddie Johnson down the wing before a cross almost led to a Jozy Altidore goal. The bad: Jones was way too turnover prone and was more a part of the problem in the midfield than he was the solution, getting taken off in the 67th minute. His service off a number of U.S. corner kicks was not up to par, either. Jones hit on both ends of the spectrum Wednesday.
F, Eddie Johnson, 5 -- Tasked with providing width on the left, Johnson was all over the field in the first half, and he had a few standout contributions. He almost set up Altidore for a first-half goal with a deft cross from the left, and he flew through the area to get to a corner kick only to head over the bar. He managed to get out of the way to let Dempsey have a crack at Jones' chip even though he was in the vicinity as well, and in the final minute of the first half, he took a defender on and set up Dempsey inside the box, only for the goal-scorer's touch to let him down. Johnson has been used out of position by Klinsmann to some mixed results, and Wednesday was an example of that yet again. It doesn't do Johnson many favors to count on him to be the left-wing presence on a regular basis.
F, Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Dempsey's goal off a volley was not only harder than it looked and a thing of beauty, but it seemingly put the U.S. in the driver's seat, snatching the game's momentum after a first half that was heavily slanted in Honduras' favor. Aside from that goal and an attempt in the second half that looked goal-bound if not for a last-ditch tackle by Juan Carlos Garcia, Dempsey's day wasn't as highlight-filled. His touch let him down on a number of occasions in the attacking half, and that limited his effectiveness in the final third.
F, Jozy Altidore, 4.5 -- Altidore's return to Klinsmann's starting lineup despite presumptions that he would be set for a bench role in favor of Herculez Gomez, and he did not produce as he has done with regularity for his club AZ Alkmaar. Plenty of that had to do with the lack of service his way, whether it be from the defensive-minded midfield personnel or the lack of attacking wing options. Altidore's best effort came off a cross from Johnson, but he was marked tightly by Maynor Figueroa and could only put his effort just over the bar. He did have a hand in the U.S. goal, playing the ball to Jones for his chip to Dempsey.
M, Maurice Edu, 5 -- Edu, given a new lifeline after his loan from Stoke City to Turkish club Bursaspor, entered for Williams in a defensive midfield role and distributed well after coming on. He also provided tremendous cover for Fabian Johnson when the left back was caught forward in the attack, preventing Honduras from tacking on another goal on the counterattack. If Williams fails to recover a regular role at Hoffenheim, and Edu continues to play well for Bursaspor, the experienced latter may find himself with a more regular role as the Hex goes on.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 4 -- Kljestan was brought on for Johnson to play left wing, and even though Klinsmann has experimented with Kljestan out wide before, that hardly makes him a winger. In that out-of-position spot, Kljestan was dispossessed in the right corner after Bradley put him in an advantageous spot, and he also sent in a lackluster cross from the left that killed the last real solid chance the USA had in the run of play.
M, Graham Zusi, 4 -- Zusi's impact as a right-sided substitute was hardly felt, as he hardly was involved in the action, and when he was, he failed to deliver the spark off the bench that was sorely needed. On what would have been Zusi's best chance to contribute, he unnecessarily handled a precise pass from Bradley that found him just outside the box on the right flank, killing off a potential scoring opportunity.