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US finds groove during clutch stretch

FOX Soccer News: Recap of USA's 1-0 victory over Honduras.
FOX Soccer News: Recap of USA's 1-0 victory over Honduras.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The United States men’s national team negotiated a winding and rocky road in the last month, culminating in a 1-0 win against Honduras on Tuesday. And at the end of that road, their fans could declaratively sing “We are going to Brazil,” without much hubris or hyperbole. Because following an underwhelming showing in a 4-2 friendly loss to Belgium and overwhelming Germany in a 4-3 exhibition win, the Americans took all nine points on the table in three World Cup qualifiers.

And so next summer’s big tournament in Brazil really is well within sight. Sitting two points clear from their nearest rivals in the six-team CONCACAF Hexagonal round – which sends the top three finishers to the World Cup and a fourth into a playoff with New Zealand – with just four games left to play, qualification seems a given.

“Now we’re sitting pretty,” said defender Omar Gonzalez. “But you can’t get openly excited. We just need one more win, maybe.”

With a 4-1-1 record thus far, one win is indeed all it should take. And most of the tricky games are out of the way.

But the USA’s rosy outlook belies their struggle to rise to this fine perch. Tuesday’s 1-0 home win here over Honduras demonstrated once more how hard these games really are. The path to Brazil, to any World Cup, is treacherous and the Americans’ footing on it is invariably unstable. Circumstance has more to do with that that their steadily growing ability. Sturdy and stodgy opponents will employ all means at their disposal to hamper teams that overmatch them.

“It’s been exactly what we expected: a very difficult game,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann following the win. “We expected them to play very defensively, with nine or 10 guys behind the ball, to make the spaces really tight. It’s been very difficult to play through their walls but we found ways.”

The USA is coming off three such contests. Jamaica’s physicality in Kingston’s cloaking humidity was unscrupulous but the Americans pulled out a last-gasp winner after a late Jamaica equalizer. Panama bunkered in and made the Americans summon their best performance in Klinsmann’s two years to date. And Honduras did a bit of both.

Temperatures hovered in the low-90s for much of the game and that exacted a steep toll on both teams’ precision on the ball. This was hardly a paradigm of careful or thoughtful soccer. While the Americans took the initiative and dialed the tempo up as far as possible, the Hondurans dedicated themselves to impede it where possible.

Clint Dempsey (L) and Brad Guzan (R) celebrate USA's win over Honduras (Photo: George Frey/Getty Images).

Missing several key players through injury, suspension or, in star striker Jerry Bengtson’s case, a disciplinary issue, they would have been quite happy to leave here with a tie. And so they clogged up the center of the field, making it hard for midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones to join the attack and forced the Yanks out to the wings. But the Americans nevertheless created bundles of chances and, with a little luck, could have gone ahead sooner than they did.

As it was, it took until the 73rd minute for the Catrachos’ to break. Graham Zusi played the overlapping Fabian Johnson into space on the left. The German-American cut his pass back for the onrushing Jozy Altidore to sweep the ball past the helpless Noel Valladares.

It was Altidore’s fourth goal in four games, following a scoring drought of almost two years. As he celebrated, red, white and blue streamers sailed over him in the sold-out crowd in Rio Tinto Stadium — the airy facility set to the magnificent backdrop of rugged and pointy mountains.

All this goodness the Americans now enjoy stands in stark contrast with the situation just four months ago. They had dropped their Hexagonal opener to Honduras 2-1 in San Pedro Sula. It was hot then too, and humid. But the Americans couldn’t muster anything resembling the urge and ache for the win they had this time around. Looking disinterested and sluggish, they were a sad version of a team that had always been able to count on its resolve.

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The turnaround since then can be ascribed to the team’s rediscovery of its personality. For a time, the staples of the American game – strong defense, sound organization, mental fortitude – were misplaced. “Maybe towards the end of last year we lost a little bit of our identity but I think we’ve certainly got that back,” said Zusi. “The way we stepped on their toes tonight, we really kind of solidified that for us.”

“We talked about that and how maybe if we were being honest with ourselves we had let that part slip a little bit,” added Bradley. “The response really since that first game in Honduras has been really good.”

It certainly has. Save for the away draw to Mexico, the Americans have commanded (and won) every contest. And they’ve conceded just one goal after that fraught afternoon in San Pedro Sula. “Since then, every game we’ve pressed teams better, when [the ball] has turned over we’ve gobbled it back up and pushed forward,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “That’s probably our M.O., what’s going to make this team good going forward.”

This is an inescapable reality of life in this region, where few teams can afford the luxury to open the game up and invite an exchange of attacks. It takes pragmatism to make it out of the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. “It’s important to have those qualities, especially in CONCACAF because you’re not always going to be able to play good soccer,” said captain Clint Dempsey. “We needed to add that to our game because that’s what’s helped us in the past. It helps us impose our game on teams, we grind them down.”

Five games on from their nadir, the Americans have worn down enough teams where they can start thinking about Brazil, where, of course, the grinding will have to begin anew.

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