(AFP/Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel)
The US kept its perfect home record intact by beating Honduras 2-1 in front of nearly 56,000 fans in Chicago. After falling behind early for the third time in five games of the final round of qualifying, the US played with an aggressiveness and conviction that has come to define successful US teams.
Manager Bob Bradley made four changes to the lineup that faced Costa Rica, just one forced through Michael Bradley’s suspension. The outside backs were both replaced by a pair of Jonathans, Bornstein on the left and Spector on the right. Both were huge improvements over their counterparts, Spector especially. Though just 23 years old, he plays with the intelligence and composure of a veteran who has played on the big stage with the likes of Manchester United and West Ham. Last night he played strong and safe in the defensive half; on several forays forward he served dangerous balls into dangerous areas. Spector has proved with West Ham that he can play all along the back line so I’d like to see him take over the left back role when Hejduk returns from injury. Bornstein defended well. He aggressively denied passes into Honduran attackers, and forced them backward. When he got beat or was about to get beat, he fouled. His positioning, and the positioning of the entire back line, was excellent. Bornstein’s passing could have been sharper, going forward, but the order of the day was safety first.
Ricardo Clark stepped in for the suspended Bradley and played superbly; he was my man of the match. Clark played an awesome box-to-box game, covering acres of space defensively and contributing to the US offense. In the 33rd minute he was wrongly denied a clear penalty after making a strong run into the box and being bundled over by a Honduran defender. In the second half when Benny Feilhaber came on for Pablo Mastroeni, Clark took a more defensive posture. He never tired and was very influential in the win. The final and perhaps most surprising change was the insertion of Conor Casey into the lineup after just being called into the team Thursday. Casey replaced Jose Torres, who along with Freddy Adu did not make the game day roster. Casey partnered with Jozy Altidore up front; he did well pressuring the Honduran defenders, holding the ball and drawing defenders out wide. The first chance for the US fell to Casey on 12 minutes, a deflected ball that Casey volleyed over the bar from 15 yards. He didn’t have any other clear chances. With just one day to prepare I don’t think anything more could be expected of him.
Another player who did not play Wednesday but did very well last night is Feilhaber. From his first touch, an outside of the foot splitting pass forward to Landon Donovan in the opening moments of the second half, he was effective moving forward and finding teammates with crisp passes. In the post-match interviews Tim Howard specifically called out Feilhaber’s contributions, saying: “Benny Feilhaber came on, and I thought he was tremendous… Every time, we just kept playing the ball forward. That causes people problems and Benny was the catalyst for us because his touch was good. He was making clean passes.” Feilhaber’s best pass which should have resulted in a goal in the 61st minute; it was a curling ball behind the Honduran defense that landed at the feet of Clint Dempsey. Unfortunately on this night Dempsey forgot his scoring boots; he mistimed his slide and hit the ball with his calf.
Dempsey and Donovan were assertive and forceful going forward, playing unpredictably, switching sides and frequently putting the Hondurans under pressure. Most of the shooting opportunities fell to Dempsey but he did not have the final touch necessary to get on the scoresheet. Much of the blame for the goal the US conceded falls on Dempsey. He held onto the ball too long in the center circle while surrounded by Hondurans. The Hondurans stripped the ball and after one pass hit a 22 yard shot into the side-netting. In those situations you hope the defensive midfielder would provide some defensive cover and come in and tackle or foul. Both Mastroeni and Clark were in front of Dempsey and neither was able to recover in time, Mastroeni being the player with the best chance to. I’m afraid the international game has passed Mastroeni by. Though he improved on his performance from Wednesday he still had a poor performance, missing tackles and failing to help the midfield regain and retain possession. Back to Donovan. He was excellent. His probing runs unbalanced the Hondurans all night. His work rate was unmatched, working back to win the ball on the rare occassions he lost it. Most importantly Donovan had a role in both goals. In the first half he converted a penalty by smashing a shot above the diving Honduran goalkeeper. In the second half he served a dangerous corner to the far post that Dempsey knocked back toward the goal. Captain Carlos Bocanegra pounced on the loose ball propelling his face into a lion’s den of feet and knees to head the ball into the goal, giving the Americans a well-deserved lead. After the goal ESPN commentator and former US captain John Harkes said Bocanegra has the “heart of a lion” and he is right. The unbridled joy in the US team after the go-ahed goal was a thing of beauty. The whole team mobbed Bocanegra and then engaged in a manly headlock/group hug with manager Bradley. Shortly after the goal Bocanegra was substituted because of a muscle strain. Before that he and his partner in central defense Oguchi Onyewu played really well, aggressively winning all balls in their vicinity. Their distribution was also excellent. The penalty came from an Onyewu floated pass behind the Honduran defense that was smacked down with a hand before finding Donovan in alone. Another big moment that Onyewu proved his worth came in the dying moments of the game. A Honduran attacker made an excellent turn into the box and glided past Jay DeMerit. Onyewu recovered with a couple giant steps and made a sliding recovery tackle that jarred the ball loose. Equally important Clark came flying in and cleared the ball with another sliding tackle. DeMerit had entered the game after minimal warm-up, replacing an injured Bocanegra; he performed ably. Manager Bradley surely was reassured by DeMerit’s ability to step in and fit right in.
The last line of defense, Tim Howard, had a strong night. He was alert to come off his line and play keeper-sweeper several times in the second half. Howard commanded his box well and read crosses and through balls flawlessly.
On the opposite end of the field Altidore had an up and down night. He made some strong runs forward with the ball and caused problems for the Honduran defense with his imposing presence. On the negative side he seemed to be wearing bricks for boots. Altidore was unable to control balls played into him from deep positions. Also, on a couple occasions, namely a Spector cross, as the first runner he should have darted to the near post but he pulled of looking for the ball to be laid off to him. Keeping in mind that he is 19 years old and hasn’t played for his club in several months, Altidore’s performance was impressive.
The final player to see time was DaMarcus Beasley. He came in as a midfielder but had to move to left back when Bornstein began to cramp. Beasley again looked awful, spraying the ball out of bounds when facing minimal pressure, not providing any utility to the US offense and not defending strongly. A year riddled with injury and minimal playing time with Rangers has left Beasley rusty and virtually useless for the US.
Today manager Bob Bradley will release the Confederations Cup roster. The next two matches are against Italy and Brazil, a couple of countries that have pretty good soccer teams. If the US plays with the same aggressiveness it did last night the matches should be exciting at the very least.