Looking to set tone for Gold Cup, USA expects test from Honduras in opener

Fresh off two big wins over Europe and a proficient performance against Guatemala, the USMNT opens the CONCACAF Gold Cup against a Honduras team that could prove to pose quite the challenge.
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FRISCO, Texas — Jurgen Klinsmann, who won a World Cup himself in 1990, was blown away by the U.S. women’s national team’s spectacular and emphatic triumph in Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final. He gushed during his pre-CONCACAF Gold Cup press conference on Monday evening, declaring that its “absolutely amazing” and “outstanding” performance in Vancouver “inspired millions of kids.”

He also took note of how the American women started the tournament. There was the sluggish 3–1 win over Australia in the opener, a game that could have turned out far differently had the Matildas finished a couple of glittering early chances. A scoreless draw against Sweden followed, as did criticism of U.S. coach Jill Ellis’s tactics and lineups. The team that thrashed Japan on Sunday was not the one that started out a month earlier. A tournament is a process, and it can be a grind.

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“It was absolutely fantastic how they went through the first obstacles, and then they picked it up more and more,” Klinsmann said at FC Dallas’s Toyota Stadium, where the U.S. will open Gold Cup play against Honduras on Tuesday night. “We saw a team grow and that played amazing, amazing soccer on the last couple of occasions. What they did last night was just unbelievable.”

He concluded, “We start tomorrow our journey, and we want to finish it off [at the final] on the 26th in Philadelphia. And we’re going to do it our way.”

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Since the Gold Cup launched in 1991, the U.S. is 28-1-2 in group stage games. That’s pretty good, to say the least, and it suggests that the Americans—the reigning Gold Cup champs—have little to fear as the 2015 tournament approaches. Nevertheless, Klinsmann and his players, although heavily favored, are preparing for a slog. It's a different sort of pressure than they faced at last summer's World Cup, where many regarded the opener against Ghana a must-win.

The opposition this time around isn't nearly as fearsome. But the U.S. does anticipate obstacles and adversity that might leave this Gold Cup “journey” feeling a bit like the one just concluded by the American women: Stay patient, grow as you go and play your best when the stakes are highest.

“I think it’s critical in a tournament that you start on the right foot with a good result right away, Klinsmann said​. “You want to build on that and therefore the first game is always very important. But obviously we know that this tournament is a little bit different to the World Cup. We are not in the ‘Group of Death’ right now, like we were in Brazil.”

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Group A may not be a “Group of Death,”​ but it arguably is the toughest of the three at this Gold Cup. In Honduras and Panama, the U.S. faces two of Central America’s three most accomplished teams. Panama was the 2013 Gold Cup runner-up, losing to the U.S. by a single goal in the final, and fell short of qualifying for last year’s World Cup only because of the stoppage-time heroics from Graham Zusi and Aron Jóhannsson. Honduras did go to Brazil (and South Africa four years earlier). It has advanced to the semifinals in four of the past five Gold Cups. The fourth Group A side, Haiti, will look to steal a point or two and play spoiler.

Man to man, the U.S. is more talented than the rest. But CONCACAF games can pose peculiar challenges.

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“We have a lot of history with these teams and it’s going to be a tough challenge,” defender Omar Gonzalez told reporters at Monday’s practice​.“​They’re going to come here and want to beat us here. It’s going to take all our focus [and] all of our energy. We’re on a pretty good high right now with the wins against Germany and Netherlands and also against Mexico earlier this year. We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. But we definitely can’t be fooled into thinking that just because we won those games, it’s going to be an easy run to the final. That’s not the case.”

Familiarity is part of the reason. The conditions, from the heat to the travel (if all goes well, the U.S. will play in Frisco, Foxborough, Kansas City, Baltimore, Atlanta and Philadelphia) are a factor. In addition, there are the tactics out-manned visitors are almost sure to employ. The Americans got a small taste in Friday’s 4–0 friendly win over Guatemala, when the U.S.'s opponent held it at bay for nearly an hour, yielding only a first-half own goal before succumbing late. The key for Klinsmann and Co. will be similar to the U.S. women: adjust but stay patient. The men kept their cool against Guatemala, introduced a couple of impact subs and eventually pulled away.

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“You play games in Europe against big teams in their stadium, and obviously they’re the ones who are looking to control the game,” midfielder and captain Michael Bradley said Monday​. “​They’re the ones who are looking to put the game on their terms from the beginning. In [CONCACAF games], a lot of teams are more willing to be a little deeper and try to make the game difficult on us. And that’s not even talking about things like climate, conditions and travel and things like that. We have a lot of guys who have played in these Gold Cups before. They’re unique challenges when you factor in everything.”

The U.S. is expecting a tough first test against Honduras, which is managed by Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto. He took Costa Rica to the World Cup quarterfinals last summer and is looking to work the same magic with Los Catrachos.

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“I think you see a lot of the qualities of a Pinto team,” Bradley said. “Defensively very organized, very difficult to play against, very quick to close down the space and also quality going forward.”

Honduras is only 2-4-2 this year but yielded just one goal to Brazil in a June friendly, then shut out Mexico last week.

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“Just a couple days ago when they played Mexico, they were very compact, very well organized,” Klinsmann said.​ “​They are very fast counter-breaking and very dedicated to everything they do. They are physical. They are very compact. They are very well connected and they have players that can surprise you in a quick second … It’s not going to be easy for us to find space and moments to cut them open and get those chances. It will be interesting.”

The Honduran defense is anchored by Maynor Figueroa, formerly of Hull City and Wigan Athletic. In front of him are several midfielders who can cause damage from withdrawn positions, such as former Seattle Sounders winger Mario Martínez and Anderlecht’s Andy Najar, who progressed from D.C. United to the UEFA Champions League. Houston Dynamo veteran Óscar Boniek García is also an option.

The U.S., which has been training together for only a week, will have to be wary of those threats and steady while looking to unlock the Honduran defense. Klinsmann has been tinkering with attacking formations and combinations for months—there is no obvious first-choice approach. If one doesn’t work, he’ll have to stick with it or adjust. Either will be the sort of decision that can shape the course of a tournament.

“Obviously in a region like ours, there is a lot of emotions there,” Klinsmann said.​ “​You never know what happens in the next second, so you’ve got to be prepared to have yourself under control. You have to be disciplined. We hopefully are all prepared. We’ve told the players that many times. We’ll make it work.”

GALLERY: The year in photos: U.S. Soccer in 2015

U.S. U-20 vs. El Salvador, January 24
USWNT vs. France, February 8
USWNT vs. England, February 13
USWNT vs. Norway, March 4
USWNT vs. Switzerland, March 6
USWNT vs. Iceland, March 9
U.S. U-17 vs. Jamaica, March 15
USMNT vs. Switzerland, March 31