At times it looked in doubt, but the United States did what they needed to do and took care of business in Utah tonight, earning a 1-0 victory over Honduras to put themselves five points clear at the top of the CONCACAF World Cup Hexagonal qualifying table. Jozy Altidore continued his historic hot-streak, tying the USA scoring streak record by netting a goal in his fourth consecutive match.
Jurgen Klinsmann was forced into a couple of lineup changes following the Nats' dominant win over Panama last week, bumping Fabian Johnson to left-back, bringing in Graham Zusi to the wing, and restoring Jermaine Jones to defensive midfield. The combination of Johnson and Zusi generated more creativity on the left, while Jones' propensity to drive forward created a double-pivot situation with Michael Bradley, and these dynamics were evident early.
The Yanks generated several chances early, with none better than an early header chance from Clint Dempsey, unmarked, that he simply couldn't contact. The first 15-20 minutes were dominant from the U.S., but it didn't last in that half.
Honduras traveled to Sandy with a plan: stay organized, clog the pitch, be difficult to break down, and create stoppages to break up the Yanks' rhythm. It worked after the first quarter of an hour, and really held up for around 60 minutes or so, until the middle of the second half.
The United States played down to Honduras, firing sloppy passes around the pitch and struggling to do anything meaningful with possession. Absent a ripped Andy Najar shot from a breakaway that stung Tim Howard's hands, though, the Nats kept Los Catrachos from generating anything, either.
As the second half wore on, chances started to pick up for the U.S. again. A scrum in front of the box after some good work from Graham Zusi resulted in a serious shout for a handball in the area. Clint Dempsey had a powerful falling header saved well by Noel Valladares, one of several good Dempsey chances that the veteran goalkeeper managed to keep out of the net.
The U.S. finally got what they were looking for in the 73rd minute. Fabian Johnson made a run around the left, and Dempsey played a diagonal ball to him into the box. Graham Zusi may have touched it on first-time on the way through, or perhaps left it as a dummy move - it was unclear. What was clear, however, was that the ball reached Johnson all by himself in the box, and he played the ball on the floor to Jozy Altidore, who finished to the far post with ease.
The Yanks controlled play from that point forward. Altidore had another chance saved by Valladares, and while Honduras started to throw numbers forward in desperation, it was a fairly routine exercise for the U.S. to repel the attacks. In the end, the victory was deserved.
Ian Darke consistently stated on the broadcast that 16 points is generally considered the magic number in CONCACAF qualifying to assure advancement to the World Cup. With this victory, the U.S. is now just three points away from that total, and they sit well ahead of any of their competitors.
The Nats will play a friendly in early July and then participate in the Gold Cup, but the next match they play in qualifying will be on September 6th in Costa Rica. It seems like this most recent run of games has really allowed Klinsmann and his current crop of first-teamers to gel and find chemistry. It's happening in all areas of the pitch, too; Altidore has figured out his game in this system, the midfield combinations of Jones-Bradley or Bradley-Geoff Cameron are panning out, players like Zusi, Fabian Johnson, and Eddie Johnson are getting it done on the wings, and the young center-back pairing of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez has improved markedly with each passing minute they've spent on the pitch together.
The USA will be in action again on July 5th in a friendly against Guatemala before kicking off their Gold Cup campaign. Their next action in qualifying is on September 6th in Costa Rica.