SANDY — Soccer fans in Utah are used to seeing visitors at Rio Tinto Stadium hunkering down defensively, so Honduras’ tactics during Tuesday’s night’s World Cup qualifier against the United States weren’t surprising.
For long stretches of the match, Honduras put all 11 players behind the ball and did whatever was necessary to disrupt the attack of the U.S. national team. The defensive ploy nearly paid off too.
Eventually, though — despite it being much longer than anyone expected — the Americans found the breakthrough they desperately needed.
Jozy Altidore’s goal in the 73rd minute eased the anxiety of a potential draw, as the United States gutted out a 1-0 victory over Honduras to inch that much closer to clinching a spot in next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
“Huge compliment to the team. It’s been exactly what we expected, a very difficult game because we expected them to play very defensively,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “We told them at halftime to keep pushing to raise the tempo even more, to find Jozy and find Clint (Dempsey), to find those little gaps they leave open, and a good team finds ways to score.”
The victory was the fourth-straight for the U.S. and third-straight qualifying victory over the past two weeks, as it improved to 13 points to remain atop CONCACAF qualifying with four matches remaining.
The U.S. team returns to qualifying action Sept. 6 at Costa Rica, and the players are feeling pretty good about their position in the table heading into a two-month qualifying break.
“Going back the last 15, 20 years, we know what point totals get you to the World Cup and we’re close. It’s been a hugely successful summer,” said U.S. 'keeper Tim Howard.
The victory was certainly in doubt for most of the night in front of a surprisingly subdued sell-out crowd of 20,250.
That all changed in the 73rd minute, though, as Dempsey played a penetrating ball into the left side of the box that Graham Zusi deflected into the path of Fabian Johnson. The defender, who made overlapping runs all night from his left-back position, tracked the ball down at the end line and tucked it back to Altidore, who calmly finished his fourth goal in four straight games.
“We are very happy for Jozy. The energy he put in the last four or five games has been tremendous. The work he does for the team is awesome,” said Klinsmann.
Altidore’s calm finish capped a 15-minute flurry of chances for the United States, which produced two point-blank saves by Honduras 'keeper Noel Valladares on headers by Brad Evans and Dempsey, and then an apparent Honduras handball in the box that wasn’t called.
Throughout the near misses — and there were several as the U.S. outshot Honduras 13-6 — Klinsmann was pleased to see his team remain patient.
“The team more and more understands that it’s not only a physical grind you go into these games, but it’s a mental one. We’re getting stronger; we’re getting tougher; we’re now prepared to go through those games,” said Klinsmann.
The flurry of second-half chances was much different than the first half as Honduras successfully chopped up any fluidity to the match.
In fact, Honduras had the best chance of the first half after a terrible giveaway in midfield by Matt Besler. The misstep by the Kansas City defender allowed Honduras’ Andy Najar to make a 40-yard sprint into the box, but his driven shot was turned away by the always steady Howard.
Fellow U.S. center back Omar Gonzalez had a bad giveaway of his own in the first half, but he thought the team settled in well as the match wore on.
“They were sitting with everyone behind the ball, so it made it really hard for us to play in the beginning. I thought second half was a lot better from us. To limit their shots was great,” said Gonzalez.
For Gonzalez, he’ll jump right back into MLS play this weekend with the L.A. Galaxy. For the European-based players, they’ll get to enjoy some down time over the next month.
“It’s easy to go on vacation leaving everything on a high. This sets up great for the autumn qualifiers. We’re in the driver’s seat now. It’s been upbeat summer but it will be an even better fall,” said Howard.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company