It wasn't a pretty picture. The U.S. had lost 2--1 at Honduras on Feb. 6 in the final-round opener of qualifying for World Cup 2014, and as the team bus awaited an armed police escort to the hotel, the looks on the faces of the U.S. players said it all: Get me outta here. Equally undesirable was the U.S.'s position in the qualifying table: alone in last place after the first of 10 games. So what do the Americans need to improve before next month's qualifiers against Costa Rica (in Denver) and at Mexico? Let's start with these three things.
• Quit hemorrhaging road points. In each of the four away qualifiers played under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. has taken a lead, only to cede an equalizer. (Average time between those goals in the last three games: just 10 minutes.) Over that stretch the U.S. lost eight points from winning positions out of a possible 12. That is unacceptable. Against Honduras the U.S. committed a series of defensive errors that led to the home side's equalizer just four minutes after Clint Dempsey had created a 1--0 advantage.
"We need more energy on the road," says U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, and he's right. The team must close out games in which it takes the lead—the way it did in friendly wins at Italy and Mexico last year.
• Take better care of the ball. The pattern in Honduras was alarming: The U.S. worked hard defensively to win possession, then turned it back over almost immediately, courtesy of poor passes and balls that were booted downfield for a lack of better options. Among midfielders, only Michael Bradley displayed confidence in his passing; Danny Williams and Jermaine Jones (his exquisite assist to Dempsey notwithstanding) consistently gave up possession.
"We need to find a better rhythm," says Howard, "sometimes just those ticky-tacky four- or five-yard passes that make [an opponent] get behind the ball and defend."
• Find a plan and stick to it. Klinsmann's choices can appear arbitrary from game to game. After not even calling up defender Omar Gonàlez for most of his first year and a half in charge, the German manager started the untested 24-year-old ahead of captain Carlos Bocanegra in a hostile Honduran environment. Gonàlez had never played with center back partner Geoff Cameron before the difficult road qualifier, and the pair's unfamiliarity was clear on multiple occasions, including both Honduran goals. Gonàlez and Cameron should be the best pairing in the long term, but why didn't Klinsmann set them up to succeed by waiting to debut them in next month's home game in Denver, before which they would have had five days to coalesce in practice (as opposed to the one day they had together pre-Honduras)? The experienced Bocanegra could have helped last week in the late nervy moments when the U.S. was trying to preserve a draw.
Thankfully for the U.S. the 10-game qualifying schedule provides some margin for error. But with three of its first four games on the road, Klinsmann's team needs to win on March 22 at home against Costa Rica. The pressure is already on.
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MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IMAGES
FLIP TO BE SQUARE Juan Carlos Garcia's bicycle-kick goal past a too-slow Cameron (20) leveled for Honduras, which went on to win 2--1.