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Analysis

U.S. nears World Cup qualification after Altidore strike beats Honduras.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Tuesday, June 19, 2013) -- Thanks to a late goal from striker Jozy Altidore, the United States men solidified their hold on first place in the CONCACAF World Cup Final Qualifying Round with a narrow 1-0 victory over Honduras before 20,205 at sold-out Rio Tinto Stadium last night in Sandy, Utah.

By scoring in the 73rd minute, Altidore tied a U.S. record by finding net for a fourth consecutive match. He joined five other players to accomplish the feat: Landon Donovan (twice: 2005, 2007), Eddie Johnson (2004-05) Brian McBride (2000-01), Eric Wynalda (1996) and William Looby (1954-55)

The Americans, now 4-1-1 with 13 points in the six-nation, round robin, are probably one victory away from assuring itself a place in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Never in the history of CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, has a team with 13 points with four matches to play failed to qualify. In three of the last four final rounds, teams earning 16 points qualified for the World Cup.

The top three finishers in the six-nation group advance to Brazil, while the fourth-place team will face New Zealand, the Oceania champion, in a two-match series for a fourth spot.

Costa Rica blanked visiting Panama 2-0 last night. With four matches remaining, Costa Rica (3-1-2) trails the U.S. by two points, with (Mexico 1-0-5) next with eight points. Then come Honduras (2-3-1, 7 points), Panama (1-2-3, 6) and Jamaica (0-4-2, 2).

U.S. head coach Jürgen Klinsmann made minimal changes in his lineup that won its two previous matches -- against Jamaica and Panama. Midfielder Jermaine Jones returned after missing the previous game with a concussion, Fabian Johnson moved to the left side of defense to replace DaMarcus Beasley, who served a one-match, yellow-cards suspension and Graham Zusi returned to the midfield from suspension to replace Johnson.

The Americans met a Honduras side substantially weaker than on February 6 when it defeated the visiting U.S. 2-1 in San Pedro Sula. Honduras defenders Maynor Figueroa and Osman Chavez are injured, as is midfielder Luis Garrido.

Defender Victor Bernardez was suspended for yellow cards. Honduras’ best player, forward Jerry Bengtson, left the team reportedly because he was left out of the last qualifier, a 2-0 triumph over Jamaica, by coach Luis Fernando Suárez.

Then, in the first half, striker Carlo Costly went out with a leg injury.

Even against this weakened opponent, the U.S. win was far from a pretty. Honduras went into a defensive shell, relying on counter-attacks. Even with a diminished midfield, Los Catrachos were still strong enough to force the match into a grind-it-out affair. At times, it looked like the U.S. was ready to settle for a single point from a draw as the action went slowly back and forth with neither team posing much of a scoring threat.

The Americans looked less than motivated in the first half. They looked either physically or mentally fatigued from playing five games since May 29. Things went back and forth with the U.S. only occasionally challenging and Honduras seemingly content to have the game in the midfield.

In first half stoppage time, former Major League Soccer “Rookie of the Year” for D.C. United, midfielder Andy Najar, now transferred to Anderlecht of the Netherlands, picked up a ghastly U.S. turnover in the midfield and took off down the right flank. U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard came out to parry away Najar’s for his only save of the contest.

“Honduras played really well. They made it difficult on us,” Altidore said. “They were good defensively and they took time off of the clock with their antics. I think it took us out of our rhythm.”

The U.S. came out for the second half a bit more motivated and began to pressure on attack. In the 56th minute, defender Brad Evans headed midfielder Graham Zusi cross, requiring keeper Noel Valladares to make a reaction save.

In the 63rd minute, Zusi struck a cross that hit the post and midfielder Clint Dempsey’s header was knocked down by the arm of Honduras defender Wilson Palacios without referee Enrico Wijngaarde of Suriname making the appropriate penalty-kick call.

Finally, in the 73rd minute, Zusi fed Fabian Johnson, who cut a pass back to Altidore. Using his first touch while facing the left post, he steered his left-footed shot impressively into the lower right corner.

“First and foremost, a huge compliment to the team,” Klinsmann said. “It’s been exactly what we expected. It was a difficult game. We expected them to play very defensively, to be nine or 10 guys behind the ball, to make all the spaces really tight. It was difficult to play through their wall, basically, but we found ways and we told (the U.S. players) at halftime to keep pushing, to raise a little bit the tempo even more, to find Jozy more, to find Clint more, to find those little gaps that (Honduras was) leaving open.”

The U.S. now has the summer off from qualifying with the two qualifiers remaining in September and the final two in October.

The U.S. will play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup July 7-28, but no one from yesterday’s roster will be playing in that tournament.


U.S. Player Ratings

Starters

Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 6: He made the one save he had to on Najar’s breakaway and commanded his box well all night. Again, he was not very busy, but did what he had to do.

Defender Fabian Johnson - 6.5: Where he should be playing remains a major question. He did fine tonight on defense, but was better in the midfield in recent matches. With Honduras not pressing forward, he did get into the attack and was key to Altidore’s goal.

Defender Matt Besler - 6: With the defense put under little pressure, he did fine, making several defensive plays by being in the right place.

Defender Omar Gonzalez - 5: He is still prone to making errors, small ones last night that did not really matter, but how he will fare against a better opponent at the next level remains to be seen.

Defender Brad Evans - 5.5: He continues what is essentially a fill-in role. He is really not a defender, but can represent well if called on and made few mistakes last night when he was put under almost no pressure.

Midfielder Jermaine Jones - 4.5: He missed the last match and quite a bit of training with a concussion. Last night, he had very much an up-and-down outing. He made several of the better passes and went forward at times. He did much of the hard work in the middle, but also made several awful giveaways. His 10th-minute yellow card did not help his play. .

Midfielder Graham Zusi - 7.5: He might not have the pace to carry an attack, but in as slow as the meeting with Honduras was, he could get forward and deliver the ball very nicely. He was a key player given the way the game developed.

Midfielder Michael Bradley - 6: He did a lot of work in the defensive end, seemingly content to let Jones push forward. At times, he looked tired, but was always there when he was needed.

Midfielder Eddie Johnson - 4.5: During much of the game, he sat back and watched the action instead of advancing and running off the ball. He did not receive any service and didn’t do much to get the ball himself. He was much stronger against Panama last Tuesday.

Forward Clint Dempsey - 5: At times, he worked hard, but with little to show for it. He had several good chances and should have finished one of his headers, but was denied by an unpunished hand ball.

Forward Jozy Altidore - 7: Given tight marking and the crowded midfield, he was not able to do much. When he found an opening, he finished confidently in another decisive showing for him.

Reserves

Midfielder Brad Davis (74th minute for Zusi) - 6: After the U.S. went ahead, he was brought on in a defensive role. He did quite well, making several stops and several good passes away from danger.

Midfielder Geoff Cameron (74th minute for Jones) - 6: As with Davis, he was very effective defensively in the midfield and his fresh legs were definitely a help.

Midfielder Edgar Castillo (87th minute for E. Johnson) - no rating: Came in to kill off the match and did not make any missteps.

SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Graham Zusi.


Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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