By Ridge Mahoney
The next Hexagonal match is nearly six weeks away, whereupon many of the issues raised by Honduras beating the USA, 2-1, Wednesday in San Pedro Sula will be revisited.
A rough start had been expected -- the Americans play three of their first four matches on the road, including trips to Mexico and Jamaica -- so a defeat in the opener isn’t that shocking. When it topped the last Hexagonal in 2009, the USA earned seven points on the road, which it isn’t likely to accomplish this time around. It also clinched a World Cup spot by winning the penultimate game in Honduras.
The points situation isn’t so bad - the other two games ended in ties -- but the manner of that loss to Honduras certainly was. Back-line confusion, midfield malaise and attacking ineptitude have prompted considerable concern. The much-awaited competitive debut of right back Tim Chandler was a disaster, the 85-degree heat and stifling humidity seemed to drain the team of energy and purpose, and the raw, lightly experienced centerback pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron predictably struggled.
There’s plenty of reason to criticize the players along with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who went with four German Bundesliga-players -- all of whom wilted in the severe conditions -- and left all three of his Liga MX options on the bench. He didn’t see a need to use a bonafide wide midfielder and again tried to shoehorn three central players into a formation that seldom looked like the 4-3-3 formation depicted on paper or anything that might be effective.
Klinsmann also didn’t set up his midfield properly to protect his inexperienced back line. While Danny Williams has played the holding role well several times for Klinsmann, in this game, the pressure and conditions overwhelmed him. A better choice would have been Michael Bradley, who does take on a playmakers’ role much of the time but for a Hexagonal road opener could have protected the young centerback pair. Despite his flaws, he’s the best mix of passer and tackler among the midfielders and for this match could have provided some stability as well as hamper Roger Espinoza, who operated without hindrance far too often.
Higher up the field the Americans desperately missed a midfielder who could keep possession as his teammates moved into the attack. Jermaine Jones set up Clint Dempsey for the USA goal with a wonderful chip, but he’s a turnover machine much of the time. Jones needed a partner, either Jose Torres or Sacha Kljestan, to keep the ball when necessary and funnel it to the right places.
The use of Torres would present Klinsmann with the same problem faced by predecessor Bob Bradley. He plays with very different players in Mexico, and Klinsmann has clearly opted to stack his squad with Europeans. Certainly Bradley, Dempsey and Landon Donovan, as well as Steve Cherundolo, are sufficiently skilled and experienced to adapt to just about any player but a national team needs cohesion and continuity throughout the lineup.
Maybe Klinsmann has a Mexico-based lineup in his plans, where Torres starts in midfield, Edgar Castillo gets a run on the left -- hopefully as a mid, since his defensive capabilities as a left back at the international level are questionable -- and Herculez Gomez starts up top. Mixing and matching MLS, Bundesliga, other European and Liga MX players might be the ultimate goal of Klinsmann and assistant coaches Andres Herzog, a former Austrian international, and Mexican-American Martin Vazquez, but it hasn't jelled so far.
Two of his best flank options, Brek Shea and Donovan, were unavailable, so Klinsmann went without a right-sided mid to start and again deployed Eddie Johnson on the left. Johnson played a good first half before moving up top for the second half and tiring badly. Kljestan replaced him in the 59th minute and took over on the left side of midfield, where Dempsey had moved with Johnson up top alongside Jozy Altidore in a 4-4-2 formation.
The absence of Donovan cost the Americans dearly for reasons other than his talent and offensive threat. During his career he hasn’t always been capable of slowing down the play when necessary, but he’s an accelerant par excellence, and those long, languid periods when the American sputtered cried out for his energy and audacity.
Using up his subs for fatigued players deprived Klinsmann of an offensive sub, per se, such as Herculez Gomez, who also could have injected some pace. He might not have been effective, since the Americans seldom strung together enough passes to service any kind of forward, yet with a stagnant attack he’s the best choice to chase balls into the channels or played over the top.
If Klinsmann has indeed decided to forego Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson as starters in favor of Gonzalez and Cameron, there will be plenty of shaky moments during the Hexagonal. These talented players need time to learn the ropes and establish the understanding and communication absolutely critical for centerbacks at this level.
Is there enough cushion in this Hexagonal to allow for growing pains? Yes, if the Americans can again hold serve in their home matches, but this will be tougher than in past editions. Top to bottom, this looks like the most balanced Hexagonal since the format debuted in 1997.
In the last Hexagonal, the USA topped the group with 20 points, Mexico placed second with 19, and Honduras and Costa Rica tied for third with 16 points, twice as many as fifth-place El Salvador (8). In the 2009 and 2001 editions, the bottom two teams won a combined total of three games. In 2005, Panama earned just two points. There don’t appear to be any minnows in this installment.