5 Thoughts on the United States' Win over Honduras
March 25, 2017
LAST NIGHT'S GAME should have been business as usual for the U.S. men's national team.The Americans should win just about every home game against non-Mexico CONCACAF opponents.
But due to multiple injuries, the fact that the U.S. stood in last in the Hexagonal standings, and a new management team trying to right the ship without a safety net, the urgency and importance of the match were off the charts.
It turned out to be a game for the ages and one that linked multiple generations of U.S. Soccer. The stars included Christian Pulisic, the teenage prodigy who seems like the next big thing in American soccer; Clint Dempsey, the 33-year old Texan who has been among the national team’s most important players; and Bruce Arena, the current and former U.S. coach who is trying to orchestrate a turnaround and qualify the team for the World Cup.
It was fascinating to watch three different generations of American soccer come together in a game where any result other than victory would probably make qualifying for Russia unlikely. It was the kind of game that will be remembered for a long, long time.
Enthusiasm, body language improved
Last fall the U.S. seemed to lack enthusiasm. In particular, the body language in the 4-0 loss to Costa Rica reflected a team confused and unsure of itself.
On Friday night, the mood of the players was far different. They seemed to be having fun and the crowd fed off that. The team also displayed a killer instinct—something that Jurgen Klinsmann preached about but rarely managed to inspire in his players. When the U.S. took a one-goal lead, it wanted a second, followed by a third. It was an unrelenting rout.
Overall, the vibe just seemed to be incredibly positive from the opening kickoff.
More than just Dempsey and Pulisic
Most of the post-game attention will center on Dempsey’s hat-trick and Pulisic’s goal and three assists—and rightfully so. But ieverything seemed to click and there was numerous players who showed well.
Sebastian Lletget – Playing close to his hometown in an important qualifier, Lletget was up to the task. Aside from his goal, he played well in his 18 minutes before being forced off due to injury. Arena and Lletget are familiar with each other and this was a big test for Lletget to prove that he belongs. He should get more looks.
Jozy Altidore – The Toronto FC striker did not score and will need to score in games like these in the near future. But that does not mean he didn’t play well. He was highly visible in his hold-up play and his passing was very strong. He won’t get benched if he’s playing like this.
Darlington Nagbe – He didn’t take the game over in the midfield but his passing and possession were solid.
Michael Bradley – The captain has been called into question in 2016 but he performed well on Friday night. When given a specific role, and not a free-ranging role, Bradley often produces. Not many American central midfielders have his skillset both offensively and defensively, with the motor to play hard a full 90 minutes. Yes, Bradley made some mistakes but he did a ton of work defensively and took his goal well. It was a performance he can certainly build upon.
Alejandro Bedoya – He lost his starting job to Lletget, and deservedly so. But he showed a lot of professionalism to come off the bench and play a solid game.
Did Villafana just lock up left back?
Arena stated that one of his goals this year was to move Johnson into the midfield but that it might not come right away. The missing ingredient to getting Johnson, perhaps the best American player, into his best position was finding a left back who could do the job. When Johnson pulled out of these qualifiers with a hamstring injury, it was unclear where Arena would turn.
Villafana did well against Honduras although he did not push forward as much as a first-choice left back should. But is Villafana finally the solution that will finally put Johnson in his best position? If he can keep getting regular minutes for Santos Laguna (he managed to make his first start since September shortly before the international break) you have to like Villafana’s chances. To earn a start and be part of a clean sheet against Honduras in a game with this much on the line is a big way to earn the coach’s trust.
If Villafana plays this way against Panama, he will probably get to start with Johnson in the midfield for the June qualifiers. The Gold Cup will give him more of a chance to grow into the position. Then if he can add more offensive bite to his game, the team will be in good shape.
Those are all very doable “ifs”
How does Jermaine Jones fit in?
After a solid team performance from the midfield, how will Jermaine Jones fit into this squad? Bradley’s performances always generate a wide range of reviews but Jones is a tough player to play with. With Arena asking Bradley to sit deeper, Jones seems to be in a better spot to succeed with Pulisic, Lletget, Bedoya, and Nagbe playing more defined positions.
Jones is different. He likes to have a lot of freedom to roam the field and he does provide an imposing physical presence in the midfield. But is the U.S. team finally growing beyond the 35-year-old enforcer? Perhaps. It’s tough to see the U.S. team winning 6-0 against Honduras with Jones in place of any of the midfielders.
That doesn’t mean the U.S. is completely beyond Jones. There might be times when his style can be very useful but Arena’s system might be more proactive offensively and that might not always work for Jones.
Also, with Kellyn Acosta and Emerson Hyndman rising qickly, there are only so many central midfielders this team needs.
Building toward Panama
These three points were imperative but a win over Panama likely goes a long way toward getting the team back on track. A draw would be decent and a loss still likely leaves the team in a dicey spot. So how does the U.S. take the win over Honduras and use it to its advantage next week?
It's worth noting that the U.S. did not play as well as the 6-0 scoreline suggests. There wer some mistakes, bad turnovers, and Honduras’ poor finishing made a clean sheet a little generous.
To win against Panama, scoring another early goal would be enormous. But even if the Yanks don’t score early, they have to hold the ball as much as possible and let the offense flow through Pulisic. Can Dempsey go another full 90 minutes? That's a valid concern.
One potential problem will be in central defense. John Brooks is a question mark after leaving Friday’s game on a stretcher because of dehydration and Omar Gonzalez looked shaky at times. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Walker Zimmerman step up and play alongside Tim Ream.
The U.S. would also benefit from more aggressive play from fullbacks Villafana and Geoff Cameron. That could open the game up because when Panama watches the tape from Friday night, it will see how every U.S. attack went up the middle.
Overall, the U.S. team has the momentum and the talent to beat Panama, a team that just lost to Trinidad & Tobagobut. But road games in CONCACAF are tricky and officiating and field conditions are typically poor.
Expect the U.S. to keep a similar lineup, even if the defense sees some cosmetic changes. If Arena and Co. can pull off another win, it will not just improve the odds of qualifying but it should allow Arena to experiment slightly more (including at the Gold Cup) and perhaps even introduce some newer/younger players.