There's nothing simple about defending against Honduras, for even on the road, the Catrachos like to keep the ball and their attackers moving, sometimes languidly, sometimes at high speed, while all the time staying connected. He may be 35, and couldn't finish the 90 minutes against the U.S., yet Carlos Pavon is still a danger man, and not only when he pounces on a turnover in the middle third, as he did in the fifth minute to set up Carlos Costly for a pulverizing strike from 25 yards.
Had the Americans played as dismally on the flanks as they had in Costa Rica they would have been overrun, as Pavon and Texas product Ramon Nunez repeatedly attacked the corners, and right back Mauricio Sabillion got forward on occasion as well. Costly, too, popped up out wide as well as in the middle, and the confidence and quickness the Hondurans displayed did break open the U.S. back line after they opened the scoring, and again in the final minutes after they fell behind.
In between, however, the Americans regained security in midfield and battened down the flanks. Central mids Pablo Mastroeni and Ricardo Clark shifted from side-to-side to close down space and get in tackles, but were seldom needed near the touchline, as outside backs Jonathan Bornstein and Jonathan Spectordoggedly kept their inside positions and rarely allowed opponents to get behind them for a clear serve.
High balls and crosses launched by the Hondurans from midfield seldom troubled center backs Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra, who on more than a few occasions headed clearances right to teammates, which forced Honduras immediately to defend. When the U.S. lost possession, aside from Clint Dempsey's unforgivable gaffe on his own side of the halfway line, usually Honduras started from deep in its own part of the field.
Mastroeni and Clark were dependable enough defensively, but with Landon Donovan and Dempsey seldom able to hit final balls that forwards Jozy Altidoreand Conor Casey could turn into shots, the U.S. edge in possession wasn't amounting to much. Balls from deeper positions, such as the one that Onyewu played into the penalty area, where Honduran defender Mario Beata brushed it with his left arm, caused more problems.
After Benny Feilhaber replaced Mastroeni for the second half, midfield play opened up. Feilhaber pushed forward to draw attention from defensive midfielder Hendry Thomas, and encouraged more aggression from Donovan and Dempsey, as well as the outside backs, by playing short, early balls to them whenever possible.
Late in the first half, an inswinging Donovan free kick from the left side had triggered a scramble during which Casey and Onyewu both got their heads on the ball in the shadow of the goal before Altidore shot just wide. On the corner kick, Donovan went deep to the far post, where Dempsey soared over his marker to head the ball square and Bocanegra, ignoring a few flailing feet and teammate Onyewu ready to knock the ball in, stooped to knee-height as he nodded it into the net.
A few minutes later, Bocanegra came up limping after a pair of bang-bang tackles fended off a Honduran attack. Yet the USA had already retreated into a defensive shell, with eight players far removed from its two forwards, and the loss of Bocanegra left a gap replacement Jay DeMerit and his teammates couldn't immediately fill. Feilhaber, Spector and DaMarcus Beasley all broke up plays but still the Hondurans poured forward with no American willing and able to hold the ball and slow down the play.
Twice DeMerit floundered but both times Honduras failed to score, thanks to a poor finish on the first occasion and some desperate defending and courageous goalkeeping by Tim Howard on the second. DeMerit recovered to deliver timely tackles and Clark ran down a few balls as the USA managed to ride out more than four minutes of stoppage time for a narrow and absolutely essential home victory.
June 6 in Chicago
USA 2 Honduras 1
Goals: Donovan (pen.) 43, Bocanegra (Dempsey) 68; Costly (Pavon) 5.
USA -- Howard, Spector, Onyewu, Bocanegra (DeMerit, 71), Bornstein, Dempsey, Clark, Mastroeni (Feilhaber, 46), Donovan, Casey (Beasley, 75), Altidore.
Honduras -- Vallardes, Sabillon, Chavez, Beata, Figueroa, Costly, Guevara, Thomas, Nunez (Martinez, 79), Pavon (Welcome, 67), Palacios (Turcios, 66).
Shots on Goal: 3/4
Corner Kicks: 3/3
Yellow cards: USA -- Casey 20, Donovan 62; Beata 41.
Referee: Mauricio Morales (MEX)