SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to coach the U.S. men's national team in 2011, the goal was for the German World Cup winner to make history and take the U.S. to new heights at the World Cup.
And while Klinsmann has made some positive history -- the U.S.' first friendly wins at Italy and at Mexico -- he has also made the kind of history you don't want to be known for, and in important World Cup qualifiers, no less. Last September, the U.S. lost for the first time ever to Jamaica, a defeat that left the Americans scrambling until the last semifinal round game to advance.
In the U.S.' 2-1 Hexagonal-opening defeat to Honduras here Wednesday, Klinsmann made history again, presiding over the U.S.' first loss ever in a World Cup qualifier at Honduras -- and the first time the U.S. had failed to win its opening game in the history of the CONCACAF Hexagonal (which has been in place for four World Cup cycles).
"Obviously, it's not what we wanted," said Klinsmann afterward. "We wanted to start with a positive result, and we have to fix that right away now against Costa Rica in Denver in March. But we knew it was going to be difficult. ... There are no excuses. When you lose a game here, there are reasons for it. The reasons for it today were that too many players were underneath their usual performance. We made too many mistakes. ... We gave them far too much space today."
To hear Klinsmann say it, the U.S.'s problems weren't so much connected to the young four-man back line, all of whom were starting their first Hexagonal games, but to a sputtering midfield that often lost the ball as quickly as it won possession. "That's why we did the subs in midfield," Klinsmann said. "We didn't find our passing flow, we didn't combine well enough, we didn't hold the ball well enough. We often lost the ball far too early."
In particular, Danny Williams struggled in his role just in front of the back line, either losing the ball or not showing well enough for passes, which led to others booting the ball downfield. Jermaine Jones had one moment of brilliance -- a chipped ball that Clint Dempsey volleyed in for a 1-0 lead -- but was ineffectual otherwise and had to leave the game after cramping up, Klinsmann said.
What can get better in the midfield against Costa Rica next month? "At times, knowing how to tactically be a little smarter as a team," said midfielder Michael Bradley. "And to know that in different parts of these games, the ability to stay disciplined and connected without running crazy. In a smart, solid way to control situations. ... At times we did that well tonight, and as the game went on we got pulled around a little bit. They started to find some space between the lines."
"We need to find a way to get a better rhythm," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who called the game a missed opportunity to grab a point on the road. "Sometimes just those ticky-tacky four- and five-yard passes, just to make them have to get behind the ball and defend. ... They waited for us to try and make the killer pass and turn the ball over."
Despite the issues in midfield, the U.S. did go ahead on a goal that came a bit out of nowhere. Had the Americans been able to take that lead into halftime, perhaps the second half would have looked different. Instead, Honduras equalized on a tremendous overhead kick -- "probably the goal of the century here in Honduras," said Klinsmann -- by left back Juan Carlos García after the U.S. defense let its guard down following a corner kick. Víctor Bernárdez had an unpressured cross from the left, owing to miscommunication between Fabian Johnson and Omar González, and in that situation nobody should be free enough to unspool a bicycle kick six yards from the goal without having a body on him.
Klinsmann took a big risk in this game with his back line, sitting captain Carlos Bocanegra and replacing him with 24-year-old Omar González, who was making his first start (in a road World Cup qualifier!) with center back partner Geoff Cameron. (The fullbacks were German-Americans Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson.) When Bocanegra plays, he's the one organizing the defense, not Cameron, and while Cameron and González did O.K., you could see that Bocanegra's leadership was missed. (Some of the miscommunication was evident on Jerry Bengtson's game-winning goal for Honduras.) My sense in listening to Klinsmann after the game, though, was that he's willing to continue using the young guys moving forward.
"We believe Omar is ready for the next step, ready for the international level," Klinsmann said. "The only way you find that out is to give him a chance and throw him in the cold water. Overall he has done well. There will always be moments there might be miscommunication between two center backs or chemistry [problems] with the No. 6 in front of the center backs. It takes time to develop. But the back line wasn't the reason we lost that game."
With Wednesday's loss, the pressure will now be turned up a little higher on Klinsmann. Yes, there is more margin for error in the Hexagonal than in the semifinal round of qualifying, but Klinsmann has been hired (and is being paid $2.5 million a year) to bring big changes to the U.S., both during qualifying and, more importantly, during the World Cup.
Yet the son of Klinsmann's predecessor was quick to remind everyone that this was only the first game of 10 this year. "I can't repeat this enough: This is a long road," said Bradley. "Is it disappointing today not to walk away with a point? Absolutely. But we can't lose our heads, can't let ourselves be thrown off course. These are the kinds of games we expect. You come here knowing it's going to be a really difficult game, and that's reality. Now we'll go back to Denver in March and know that it's going to be a really difficult home game against Costa Rica. But we need points. That's the pressure, but that's what we're used to."
Nobody ever said the Hexagonal was going to be easy. But after a history-making loss on Wednesday, the road to Brazil 2014 might be even harder than most had expected.