FRISCO, Texas – The U.S. national team expected to win its CONCACAF Gold Cup opener here on Tuesday evening, and it expected to have to work for the victory.
“CONCACAF is more difficult than people think,” defender Brad Evans said at Toyota Stadium after the Americans’ gritty 2-1 win over Honduras. “That’s a very good team, and anybody who comes through here will tell you that’s a good team. New coach, new system … we watched all the tape on them and we knew what we were getting into. We knew it was going to be a battle.”
What Evans and the U.S. didn’t expect, however, was that it would control so little of the ball or tempo against a Honduran squad playing with five defenders. The physicality, desperation and inconsistent officiating–not to mention the humidity–those are par for the CONCACAF course. The Americans knew what they were getting into. But coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s pregame comments, as well as his starting lineup, suggested the U.S. figured to have a whole lot more of the ball.
Before the match, Klinsmann called Honduras, “very compact, very well organized, very fast in counter breaking.” He acknowledged that the U.S. was anticipating “a very tight game.” But he added, “if you’re not breaking them down and not opening them up, you have to stay patient and you’ve got to move the ball around.” His starting lineup, which included DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes in midfield and a pair of forward-thinking outside backs in Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson, implied that the Americans felt their biggest challenges were going to be dislodging Honduras from its own penalty area and tracking the occasional counterattacker.
Little did the hosts know that they would wind up being out-possessed and badly out-shot, or that Honduras would earn nearly twice as many corner kicks. Los Catrachos completed nearly 80 more passes in the attacking third. The opening minutes of the game were rough, and the last 20 minutes or so simply were about survival. The U.S. was under considerable pressure and had to scramble to preserve its lead. It won thanks to Clint Dempsey’s clinical finishing, a couple of nice saves from Brad Guzan and a bit of luck.
“We knew it was going to be a fight,” Guzan said. “We had to find ways to weather that storm, which we did. I don’t think we were at our best. I think we turned the ball over quite easily too many times and maybe put ourselves under pressure. But in saying that, good teams find ways to win and especially in this tournament, it’s not always the prettiest soccer. It’s about finding a way.”
Those turnovers were the key. Honduras pressured the U.S. into too many mistakes, disrupting any attacking rhythm the Americans hoped to generate and putting a U.S. back four that started together for just the second time this year under duress. Forward Jozy Altidore was sluggish and neither Yedlin nor Zardes was sharp with the ball. Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman also have had better games.
“We could of course do better in different ways to hold the ball a little bit better and then maybe you can make the field a little together in the offensive end. But the main focus was to get a win, and we’ll look to improve off of that,” Beckerman said. “We’re getting into dangerous spots pretty early and it’s about, do we go for the goal right away or keep possession and get everybody up? It’s tough. We’ll look at the video, see where we can make better choices … We don’t want to get into these back-and-forth games, especially in this humidity.”
Said Evans, whose defensive mettle was key in the closing moments, “We’ve got to keep the ball in their third a little more. Move the defense. If they’re going to pack it in we’ve got to keep the ball around a little bit more, be a little bit more patient. But weather plays into that, hard tackles, fouls where there should have been but weren’t … little things like that. You make small adjustments and down the road we’ll find ourselves in a good position.”
Small adjustments, not an overhaul. The U.S. won what should be its toughest game in the group stage (it also faces Haiti and Panama), and tournaments like the Gold Cup usually are about finding your form over the first few games and then hitting your stride when the stakes are highest. Against opponents so familiar and committed, the margins can be slim. Klinsmann intends to take a few lessons from Tuesday’s game and stay the course.
“Hopefully from game to game you get more in a flow, more in a rhythm,” Klinsmann said. “It was tricky getting everybody on the same page—the Mexican [based] players from their break, the Europeans from their break and the MLS players … we will improve from every game.”
Regarding the back four of Johnson, Chandler and center backs Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks, Klinsmann said, “Overall I think they did fine. [Alvarado and Brooks] both take a bit of time to grow together but definitely this back line has a lot of future … Timmy had a couple of difficult moments but then he really had a huge impact on the game. He’s a positive nature. One of his strengths is that he kind of shakes it off right away. He knows he made a mistake, but he shakes it off. It doesn’t influence his next touch.”
This U.S. team had been training together for only a week before the Honduras game. The Americans defeated Guatemala 4-0 in a friendly last Friday.
“It’s coming along. It takes time. When you have guys coming from different leagues, from different parts of the world, there’s different styles of soccer being played. You have to try to get on the same page as quickly as you can and it’s not always easy,” Guzan said. “It’s a learning process for everyone. For [the back four], for the guys around them, for myself. It’s something that’s going to take time, but at the same time when you win games it builds confidence and it gives you a good feeling, especially when things didn’t go according to plan.”
There are five more games to go, if everything goes according to plan. Klinsmann said that Altidore is still working his way back toward full fitness following his hamstring injury. And Klinsmann has plenty of depth on the bench. Mix Diskerud or Aron Jóhannsson might help the U.S. hold more of the ball in the offensive half. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who’s coming off a knee injury, has been a first-choice player when healthy. And Omar Gonzalez or Tim Ream might offer a bit more experience or savvy in back. If Klinsmann wants to find more balance between the pursuit of possession and the defensive side of the game, the options are there.
The U.S. doesn’t have to be at its best to advance through the Gold Cup. It may not have to be until it meets the like of Mexico or Costa Rica in a semifinal or final. Until then, it will be a “work in progress,” as Beckerman said. The next step on that journey will come against Haiti on Friday evening in Foxborough.