Comfort is a rather transitive state at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but the United States located it for five minutes or so. Clint Dempsey scored a second goal to provide some margin for error. Honduras looked just about out of ideas, if not endeavor and willingness. The points were within reach, if not entirely grasped within a closed fist.
In one slicing sequence, the tumult returned. The sequence of passes on the right side pulled open the American defense. Wilmer Crisanto played the telling pass to allow Carlos Discua to benefit from Anthony Lozano’s intelligent run to create space. Discua fired home to plunge this group right back into the cauldron.
“We knew when they scored that things probably weren’t going to be the prettiest,” U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after the 2-1 victory at Toyota Stadium. “It was going to get ugly. And it did. But we had to find a way.”
They managed the feat with a mixture of application and resolve. The closing stages resembled the early moments in this largely entertaining game: frantic, gritty and ultimately effective.
Honduras — as it did in the opening 15-20 minutes — moved the entire shape forward and obtained control over the proceedings. There were modest interruptions here and there to play it long toward second-half substitute Chris Wondolowski or string together a few passes in possession, but the Americans often sat back and scrambled away the chances as best they could.
Aesthetics went right out the window. There were clearing headers here, last-ditch tackles there and scurrying from spot to spot just about everywhere. The number of interventions climbed and climbed, but Honduras kept searching for that equalizer nevertheless.
Even with the bright and inventive Andy Najar withdrawn just after the hour, the Hondurans posed a significant threat as they pursued that equalizer. Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto lamented the inability to convert in front of goal and underscored the sharp contrast with Dempsey’s ruthlessness on a pair of set pieces. The staggering late miss by Eddy Hernandez — he somehow failed to turn into a gaping net from close range in the final 10 minutes — brutally reinforced the point.
They had some help with those misses, though. Second-half substitute Brad Evans — a safety-first replacement for Timothy Chandler in the final half-hour — produced a wonderful tackle to snuff out one threat. His teammates cajoled, closed and pressed, too. A mass of players managed to charge down a late free kick as if to muster one last act of collective defiance before the final whistle.
“It’s a tough time,” Evans said. “That goal gave them a lot of energy going forward. It was a gritty last 20 minutes. We have to weather the storm. That’s how the game goes. I’m proud that we held strong. It’s something we can put in the bank: we can weather the storm, but we also had chances going forward. Overall, it was a good result.”
Results remain the primary focus and the arduous experience here should help procure them. This is a competitive tournament, not a quest for style points. Ugly at times or not, the outcome is all that counts. This victory places the Americans atop Group A ahead of a tricky match against Haiti on Friday (live, 8:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go). Another victory slides this team toward the preferable route through the knockout stage. There is merit to simply marching forward with the result in hand and vowing to improve as the tournament progresses.
There is also work to do, of course. There were relatively few chances created from the run of play, while the work in possession did not prove sharp enough at points to advance higher up the field. There are tactical and technical areas to enhance in order to address some of the scrambling at the back (John Brooks’ willingness to close near the sideline forced lots of shifting and shuffling) and sift through ways to foster more threatening combination work from Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
“You’ll see us build as the tournament goes on,” Dempsey said. “We’ll improve with our possession, with our quality in the attack, with our creative movements and getting looks in the attacking third. But we’re happy with the result tonight. Honduras is not an easy team [to play]. They would give any team problems in this competition. We’re happy to get the three points.”
It is a maxim worth remembering as this slog moves forward and the demands increase with each game. There will be matches where the Americans will need to perform to a higher standard across the board in order to achieve the desired result. Perhaps more importantly, there will be a constant need to match the opponent from the outset, rely on the principles renewed under fire here and scrape through by any means necessary. It is hardly the way to ensure a smooth ride, but those rare moments of safety pass quickly anyways.