The USMNT finds itself in Sandy, Utah this week looking to affix a three-point dollop of whip cream-and-cherries on top of the 6-point ice cream sundae it crafted at the expense of Panama and Jamaica over the past week. Sure would be nice with expected temps at game time hovering around the nineties.
The States have manufactured four goals during this Hex stretch in four distinct ways, a salvo that has resulted in two victories and put the Yanks close to punching that coveted 2014 World Cup ticket.
The Honduras fulcrum game here is one that loomed large and pivotal on the qualifying calendar upon announcement but even more so after the US tripped over itself and coughed up a 1-0 lead–and its gumption–to the Honduran squad in February’s opening round of the Hex campaign.
Now, though, the US is dining from a position of strength atop the qualifying table and Los Catrachos are the ones powered down for the return match.
Victor Bernardez, Maynor Figureroa, Boniek Garcia and Jerry Bengston among others all set to miss the Sandy city clash on Tuesday for the visitors. Additionally, while Honduras pummeled the Jamaican speed bag on Friday–a 2-0 win that sent Reggae Boyz skipper Tappa Whitmore to the Jamaican Fed guillotine–the lead-up to the match saw Los Catrachos go scoreless through the two previous road qualifiers against Panama and Costa Rica.
Against a States team that has been rippling the nets, going scoreless probably doesn’t get Honduras the draw and single vital point in this match-up that they seek.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our (near) customary preview.
TSG What Are We Looking For?
About The Opponent: Honduras
11 At The Whistle
TSG What Are We Looking For?
» Middle management
will may “will likely” be won again in the midfield.
Here are the numbers in February from the central midfield battle between Los Caratchos and the Yanks:
Honduras: 107 of 127 passing (84.25%), 5 tackles won, 4 interceptions, 15 recoveries
United States: 114 of 139 passing (84%), 5 tackles won, 1 interception, 13 recoveries.
Seems rather even, yes?
One more datapoint to add.
That Honduran CMF stat line was accomplished with two field positions (and two players, Luis Garrido and the indefaiguable Roger Espinoza) while the US line was accomplished with three field positions (and five players Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones/Graham Zusi and Danny Williams/Maurice Edu.)
Those numbers are astounding. Let it be noted that most of the damage was done by former Sporting KC johnny-on-the-spot Espinoza–no boots to the face in the match though (yes, that’s Ike Opara, Sam Cronin and Cody Arnoux in that video also).
Honduras flat-out bossed the midfield. It took Los Caratchos three fewer players and they defiantly shoved the line of confrontation into the US’s defensive half. By the way, subtract Danny Williams’s contribution from the numbers and the difference in the stat line of Bradley-Jones versus Espinoza-Garrido is staggering. Bossed.
Things have a funny way of changing of course and the roles here seem reversed; Honduras’s depleted troops and Los Caratchos being on the road may make the US midfield selection more complex actually.
After Tuesday’s man of the match performance, many will want to see Stoke City utility man and TSG fave Geoff Cameron in central midfield.
However Honduras may elect to press the midfield–given their success with that strategy last time–much more than Panama. In something few pundits incredulously pointed out, while Cameron excelled on Tuesday, he did so with very little pressure on him on-ball and in possession–think of a running back whose blockers have lined-up defenders and so the back doesn’t need to elude but instead can take his time and pick his holes.
That was Cameron on Tuesday who gave an excellent performance against a weak opponent with a perplexingly passive defensive effort. It may be different if the Roger Espinoza terrier is unleashed.–as it was in the series opener–to push high and shut down the deep US attack supply line.
Jermaine Jones has proven he has the steel and ability to run with the ball and deliver passes with a man on his hip already. So maybe the decision in favor of Jones is rote?
However, Honduras may, in fact, look to sit deep and protect their second-string centerbacks. Does Klinsmann then opt to keep Cameron on the field–while either granting more rest to Jones or even Bradley–because he did well in tracking space and spraying passes against a similar defense?
Then again, if Honduras is consistent with its two previous road deployments, it will likely put out three central midfielders, one more than February.
So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. So Jones is the pick?
The bet here is that Klinsmann goes back to Jones-Bradley in the middle and uses the former’s harried on-ball defending to push the line of confrontation to around the halfline. Both Jones and Bradley are adept if Honduras starts pressing and putting them both on the field likely dissuades Honduras coach Luis Fernando Suárez from thinking he can gain an advantage by pressing.
(Note A: A big theme in the February match-up was the inability of US fullbacks–Fabian Johnson and Tim Chandler–to get ahead in the attack or even provide width and–while that is true–it’s damn near impossible to get ahead in the attack if your midfield is losing the turf war centrally in your defensive end.)
(Note B: There’s some prevailing notion out there that central midfield is Cameron’s best position–hard to say that. He’s a very good stand-up defender on the interior and he’s good at surveying the field from the middle, but his best skill is not turning in traffic with a defender on his hip. Centerback is likely where Cameron ends up on the club and national team level and where he ultimately excels.)
A look back at the Panama game plan suggests that Klinsmann and staff expected Panama to have more bite in their central midfield.
Last week, Klinsmann schemed to get Jozy Altidore going in the Germany friendly with early balls in stride to his feet through Brad Evans. Tuesday, Klinsmann game-planned to get DaMarcus Beasley and Matt Besler active earlier in possession and providing supply up to Fabian Johnson, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore–because pressure was expected in central midfield and because Panama’s Leonal Parris tends to put himself in positions that even Lindsey Lohan would find shocking.
The US left rear pairing had the second (Besler, 72) and third (Beasley, 70) most pass attempts on the evening after Michael Bradley’s team-high 87.
Many expect musical chairs to ensue and for Fab Johnson to be moved to the backline with Brad Davis or Eddie Johnson moved ahead of him, but that seems poorly conceived if it transpires.
First Fab Johnson is giving the States some much-needed width on the left through his ability to hold the ball and break down defenders. Davis would give the States width, but give very little going forward. Eddie Johnson would offer width, but little cover for a new leftback.
The logical choice to deputize is Edgar Castillo who has the ability to distribute appropriately from the back and defend on the break.
Castillo hasn’t many supporters this camp, but he’s versed in Honduras’s style and he’s got a way of playing big when he’s truly needed.
(Castillo was called on after having gone through morning training already for a Canada friendly in May 2012; he was one of the best players on the field. In the US’s first victory at the Azteca in an August 2012 friendly, Castillo played pristine positional and on-ball defense as DaMarcus Beasley failed to track back on multiple occasions.)
» Good circulation
Given that Honduras probably retreats some in this one looking to clip a draw or 1-0 win, how does the States elect to break down the bunkered defense.
The schematic seems simple and is one that anyone hanging around Kansas City in October of last year probably is familiar with. October 2012 saw the US shellack Guatemala at Sporting Park 3-1. The Guatemalan side they faced that day looked a lot like the US opponent Tuesday; Guatemala was beset by injuries, especially to its backline resulting in a novice centerback pairing.
In the October 2012 match, the US aggressively pushed the ball up the flanks to create space centrally, both in possession (Eddie Johnson on the left) and through passing sequences (Graham Zusi on the right). As they worked on the fullbacks for Los Chapines, the young Guatemalan centerback pairing was called in for support.
That cued space in the middle, something that Clint Dempsey knows exactly how to make use of. With Herculez Gomez running the channels, Clint Dempsey playing hide-and-seek and Michael Bradley making his Late Box Runs™, Los Chapines were overwhelmed and succumbed.
The key of course to this attack, like most, is quick ball circulation. Below is Danny Williams passing chart for that match. 82 of 88 passes completed on the day, nearly all of them laterally. Don’t play Hot Potato with that man; he’ll be still standing.
The faster you move the ball, the more out of position the support defense is and the easier the opponent’s defense breaks down. With two of Fabian Johnson, Eddie Johnson and-or Graham Zusi on the wings Tuesday, this will hopefully be the same tale for the States on Tuesday.
Additionally, putting Michael Bradley against Honduras deep opens up not only the quickly switch fields, but also to move in possession or unleash a boombosa.
» Step Class
Okay, we’re cheating Mark Van Bommel-style here a bit. We’ve used these images before. The above two screenshots from the February match are from the lead-up to a solid chance in the first half (the first image) and the game-winning Jerry Bengston goal in the second half (the second).
In both cases the US closed-out an opponent inappropriately. In the first, Omar Gonzalez bites too high and wide and only a poor play Carlos Costly five seconds later saves the US from conceding. In the second, the ball handler is offered too much cushion on the ball and the conclusion sees Gonzalez’s man go unmarked.
Since the Germany match, the US has vastly improved both their speed of closeouts (especially Matt Besler) and their positioning. However, Omar Gonzalez–as he did in this February match and he’s did on Tuesday–needs to improve his tracking and awareness. Honduras has the attackers to still punish poor one-vs.-one defending.
The US backline–and midfield–needs to close space out early. It’s an area where there is still room for improvement.
›› Whether he’s at LMF or LB, Fabian Johnson need to improve his right-footed crossing
›› Jozy Altidore did an excellent jog against Panama dragging centerbacks out of the middle what he needs to improve is his receiving the ball with his momentum going to goal.
›› Altidore, Cameron and Tim Howard all given pitch citations against Panama. They join six more players who are also carrying yellow cards: Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and Fabian Johnson. Costa Rica on the road up next. A full squad would be nice.
›› The States have done a tremendous job of both maintaining possession and getting scores after leading. That is and was a step-up after May qualifiers. Not that US fans want the US to fall behind on Tuesday, but coming behind from a victory would show another facet of the States game that hasn’t been visible under Klinsmann.
About the Opponent: Honduras
While it’s often on the flanks where a game is won or lost, the battle out wide is undertaken after central midfield lines are drawn–like an offensive and defensive line looking to control the line of scrimmage in football.
Honduras has some serious challenges in constructing their game plan for the Rio Tinto.
While coach Luis Fernando Saurez knows that a repeat of his midfield’s dominant performance from February is unlikely, he still probably pushes his tenacious destroyer Roger Espinoza up and left in the field of play to shut down US distribution.
However, Saurez has a number of factors that suggest any sort of high pressure is foolhardy (in no particular order): (1) The altitude. There is no chance that Honduras can keep up the same level of pressure they brought in San Pedro Sula. (2) The replacements. Push Espinoza up and if a deft Michael Bradley and/or Jermaine Jones are slotting passes, the makeshift backline may be taught hard lessons and (3) Just one true in-form striker–somebody has to chase long balls for those 90 minutes.
Using its two previous away games–a 2-0 loss to Panama and a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica–as proxy, here’s the bet on how Suarez’s troops deploy.
The goalie is the only position filled without a doubt.
Noel Vallardes, he of the 113 caps, will man the sticks. He’s been solid against the States over the years except when bald men jump backwards into him and knock balls into the net off their shoulder.
Ahead of Vallardes are some questions. The rightback is Arnold Peralta who started the February match. He’s the median in CONCACAF and tends to stay home; he is also susceptible to being broken down with speed.
At leftback Emilio Izaguirre probably returns to take over for Juan Garcia. Izaguirre is another World Cup 2010 veteran. He also lists vaunted Scotland superclub Celtic on the resume and a start at the Camp Nou against Barcelona in this year’s Champion’s League.
Inside it gets murkier. Stellar San Jose Earthquake centerback Victor “The Bouncer” Bernardez got himself a dreaded second yellow against Jamaica on Friday. He’ll sit. First choice LCB, Wigan Latic Maynor Figueroa is down with an injury.
The likely starter on the left here is Juan Pablo Montes who deputized for Figueroa on the left Friday against Jamaica. Montes was steady and kept a clean sheet in his first big test.
At RCB, still could be Wisla Krakow defender Osman Chávez–the Honduran Carlos Bocanegra-Lite–but he may not be recovered from an abductor strain in time. The 6’2” Chavez played a major role in leading Los Caratchos to World Cup 2010 and started all three group stage games in South Africa. However, Honduras recalled Vancouver Whitecaps CB Jonny Leveron late Friday and that may mean that Chavez is already a no-go.
The configuration of the front six for Honduras likely goes with three defensive mids again.
With Luis Garrido out on yellow card accumulation, deputy Jorge Claros comes in at RCDM. Wilson Palacios slides centrally and plays a true CDM role when the team goes forward.
On the right flank is Mario Martinez, who never met a right footed shot he wasn’t allergic too. With Boniek Garcia either out or still nursing an injury, Martinez will be counted on to be the “point forward” so to speak and route the attack through. On the left flank will be Quakes flyer Marvin Chavez.
Like both their club and national team deployment Martinez and Chavez probably switch flanks often attempting to probe at the States’ defense.
Centrally and left-centrally slots Roger Espinoza. Espinoza is ever the key figure for Honduras. His industry will enable Chavez and Martinez to go forward knowing he’s there to provide cover. Further–and there is nothing subtle about this–many teams tend to build out of the right rear–that’s owed to right foot dominance. Honduran honcho Saurez has been using Espinoza either flaring out from a central role or even at LM to win duels high up the pitch and gain possession.
Once the marble is secured, Espinoza is typically in position for a quick lateral pass to the center or right-center, usually finding an attacker with ample space to attempt to do some damage.
Up top is Roger Rojas.
Rojas is an up-and-coming Honduras youngster (full youth development, now about 20 senior side caps) and he can certainly hang off a shoulder. That said, Jerry Bengston, who apparently left the team due to not starting against Jamaica–would have been more feared if deployed in the striker role for Los Catrachos. Rojas will have to keep the burn going for 90′ or if not it will be Carlos Costly–a shadow of the player who was instrumental in 2010 qualifying for the visitors.
Saurez will probably look to shield his backline, push Espinoza onto the critical deep ball handler for the States (Bradley or Jones) and hit two places in the attack: quick and deep, isolating Chavez one-vs-one on Evans or Castillo and pushing high and left flooding Brad Evans and Omar Gonzalez when the opportunity presents itself. The secondary strategy will be hitting behind Castillo with either Chavez or Rojas as Jermaine Johnson did for Jamaica against DaMarcus Beasley.
If neither of those are showing any joy, it’ll likely be Carlos Costly for Martinez and crosses into the box.
11 At The Whistle
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: A bit underwhelming from Howard in this fixture last time.
DEF: Country singer Bradley Ray Evans, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Edgar Castillo
The skinny: May be a surprise here to see TSG breaking up Omar Gonzalez-Matt Besler.
Okay, maybe not if you’ve been reading this publication. That said, there is much merit in selecting the Cameron-Besler duo to manage the backline. First, the US should see more of the ball in this game like they did against Panama. Cameron is obviously better in possession than Gonzalez.
Second, Honduras striker Roger Rojas is fast and not an imposing target figure or particularly strong in the air. If the US’s backline keeps pushing high, speed at centerback over aerial dominance will be at a premium.
Cameron’s the call or should be.
MF: Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley
The skinny: Nine of 20 passing, 15 tackles suffered and possession lost, February 2012. Those are numbers that Tim Tebow would even cringe at. You bet Jermaine Jones (if cleared) is playing in this one.
LW, RF: Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi
The skinny: Zusi’s defensive work ahead of Brad Evans should certainly enable a little bit more cover than the US had against Panama.
As for Fabian Johnson, it certainly appears–like a starting pitcher in baseball preferring night games over day games–that he’s a stronger player when temperatures are lower. That may not bode well for this match as it’s supposed to be scorcher in Salt Lake City.
WtF: Clint Dempsey
STR: Jozy Altidore
The skinny: More of the same please.
The US will look to test the flanks early against Honduras. If they can get a goal, the States will be patient and sit back, drawing out Honduras to get more space. If Honduras gains the early lead and advantage–depending on where the US is capitulating–look for Jones and Dempsey to get on the ball and initiate attacks centrally and then back out to the wings when Honduras collapses.