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USA struggles but survives in Gold Cup-opening victory over Honduras

It wasn’t pretty, but the USMNT opened its Gold Cup title defense with a 2–1 win over Honduras on Tuesday night. Clint Dempsey, playing in his home state, was the hero for the U.S., scoring both of the team’s goal.

FRISCO, Texas — Clint Dempsey no longer is the U.S. national team captain, but he was the difference on Tuesday night as the Americans opened the defense of their CONCACAF Gold Cup title. Playing about three hours northwest of his hometown of Nacogdoches, Dempsey scored both goals as the U.S. struggled but survived in a 2–1 victory over Honduras.

Michael Bradley became the 16th American man to represent his country 100 times as the U.S. survived a late Honduran onslaught and held on to take first place in Group A. Panama and Honduras tied 1–1 in the opener at Toyota Stadium, where a sellout crowd of 22,357 watched this 13th edition of the continental championship tournament kick off. The U.S. is now 29-1-2 in Gold Cup group play. The 29th win wasn’t easy to secure, but it puts the U.S. in good position to earn one of the top two spots and a quarterfinal date in Baltimore.

Complete schedule, results for 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup

Our three thoughts from the Gold Cup opener:

The U.S. was better where it counted

It’s an old soccer adage that games are won or lost in midfield. But plenty are won or lost in the penalty area, and that’s where Tuesday’s was decided. The Americans held on despite their disjointed start, then took the lead because they were more clinical near the goal. Dempsey did the damage on the scoreboard, and Brad Guzan made a couple of key saves to secure all three points from a game that was relatively even on the field.

Honduras was close to dominant in the opening 20 minutes. The anticipated defensive bunker didn’t materialize. Instead, the visitors pressed high, disrupted the U.S. in its own half and created several good scoring chances. The first came in only the second minute, when Anthony Lozano danced through the right side of the penalty area and hit a low, hard shot that Guzan was able to reach with his right arm. Former D.C. United star Andy Najar, now with Belgium’s Anderlecht, forced another save from Guzan four minutes later.

With Bradley leading, USA aims to seal CONCACAF control at 2015 Gold Cup

Then in the 25th, with the U.S. seemingly in retreat, Dempsey popped up in the penalty area and scored his 42nd international goal. An uncontested cross from Bradley following a short corner was cleared poorly by Honduras. Jozy Altidore took a shot that was saved by goalkeeper Donis Escober and the rebound came straight to Dempsey, who nodded the ball back into the open goal.

Escober shut down DeAndre Yedlin on an open look in the 31st and Najar came close again just before halftime. The U.S. then snatched the winner in the 64th. Bradley was the provider, sending a perfect, bending free kick from the left that floated onto Dempsey’s head. His close-range effort was clinical, bouncing down and inside the right post.

• Watch: Clint Dempsey's header puts USA up on Honduras 1–0

Honduras substitute Carlos Discua halved the U.S. lead in the 69th with a clinical finish of his own, taking a pass in stride and gliding past a flat-footed Ventura Alvarado before pounding his shot by Guzan. But that play was the exception. Los Catrachos sent their shots high and wide, and in the 82nd Eddy Hernandez failed to reach an inviting cross at Guzan’s left post. The U.S. made more plays where it counted.

The Deuce is loose

On a night when Bradley made history, it was the man he replaced as captain who did the celebrating. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said last week that the decision to relieve Dempsey of the armband was made to “take the heat off” the veteran forward following his U.S. Open Cup tantrum last month.

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Considering Bradley’s age and existing leadership role, not to mention the fact that there never was going to be much “heat” on Dempsey once the Gold Cup started, the move felt like something that had been in the making for a while. It was fine with Dempsey, who told reporters, “It’s cool … It's never been a big thing for me to be captain, even with the club team, Seattle, I'm not captain. For me, it's not all about that. It's just about the team, about trying to win games and about trying to do something special.”

Freed from whatever pressure and responsibility that comes with the role, Dempsey indeed did something special, scoring two goals in an international for the first time in two years. Neither was spectacular, and there was minimal flair required. They were gritty plays, made alertly in the mixer while surrounded by defenders. The goals were the sort scored by a player with a singular focus and a predatory instinct. Perhaps it made sense to de-clutter Dempsey’s plate. He was the key against Honduras.

• Watch: Dempsey's second header goal extends USMNT's lead

A work in progress

If Klinsmann wasn’t happy following his team’s 4–0 exhibition demolition of Guatemala last week, then he’ll have plenty to be concerned about following Tuesday’s triumph.

The U.S. was poor early and fortunate to be ahead at halftime. And the hosts nearly gave two points away late, as a desperate and more active Honduran side pinned the Americans back. The U.S. lacked the ability to keep the ball, but it made a couple of key defensive plays and was fortunate that Honduras failed to capitalize on its chances.

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Apart from his role in Dempsey’s opener, Altidore had an uneventful night. He was rarely an option or a presence. Outside midfielders Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes, who started because of their pace, creativity and the hope that they’d occupy Honduras’s dangerous wide attackers, looked out of sorts. Zardes plays forward for the LA Galaxy and is still learning the subtleties of a more withdrawn position, and Yedlin’s chemistry with right back Timmy Chandler is still developing.

Alvarado was a surprise starter over Omar Gonzalez. While his partnership with John Brooks looked more comfortable on set pieces, their positioning and communication in the run of play faltered at times and the pair was beaten soundly on Honduras’s only goal, with Brooks being pulled out by an opposing runner and Alvarado unable to stop Discua.

•​ Bradley earns 100th cap for U.S. men’s national team

This was a game in which Klinsmann expected to face an organized, defensive team that would be a challenge to break down. Instead, the U.S. was fighting for its life in the opening and closing minutes. There always was the sense that the Americans, who’d trained together for only a week before Tuesday, were going to have to grow into the tournament. Tuesday’s display made it clear that’s the case. But good teams win games even when they’re not the better team, and Honduras, under new coach Jorge Luis Pinto, likely is the second-best team in Group A.

The U.S. (1-0-0) will continue its Gold Cup run on Friday against Haiti (0-0-1) in Foxborough, Massachusetts.