SANDY, UTAH — The busiest and most important stretch of Juergen Klinsmann’s two-year tenure as U.S. national team boss concluded Tuesday with another three points — and another step toward the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
Jozy Altidore scored for the fourth consecutive match, a 73rd-minute strike that shattered an evening of cranky play and provided a 1-0 victory over Honduras before a sellout of 20,250 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The Americans (4-1-1, 13 points) remained atop the six-nation regional qualifying standings with four games left. Three teams are assured World Cup berths next year.
The result also capped a rewarding period for the U.S. squad, which started the final round of qualifiers early this year with a loss at Honduras and harrowing results in the other two games.
“We’re not talking about the finish line,” Klinsmann said. “We’ve got four games to go, and yes, it gives us a good feeling to be on top of the table. But we know once we get together again in September, it’s going to go back to reality. It’s going to be tough.”
Since re-gathering three weeks ago, the Americans were tested in friendlies by European titans in Cleveland and Washington. They provided a frantic finish in the Jamaican heat June 7, a comprehensive performance in the refreshing Pacific Northwest a week ago and finally, in the shadows of the Wasatch Range, they ground out an unattractive victory over the Catrachos (2-3-1, seven points).
Qualifying will resume in early September with a visit to second-place Costa Rica and a visit from archnemesis Mexico (in Columbus, Ohio).
Midfielders Graham Zusi (yellow card suspension) and Jermaine Jones (concussion) returned to the lineup after missing one game. With left back DaMarcus Beasley suspended, Fabian Johnson dropped into a defensive role and Eddie Johnson moved from the right wing to the left.
All other personnel remained the same in hope of sustaining the rhythm and pulse that yielded a classy display against Panama last Tuesday in Seattle.
Injuries, suspensions and internal issues dented Honduras’s formidable roster and created an opening for Andy Najar, the former Edison High pupil who signed with D.C. United at age 17 and played three seasons before transferring to Belgian champion Anderlecht in January.
Najar, 20, lived in the United States for six years, raising the possibility of representing the American squad someday. But he had not received citizenship when Honduras began a hard push for his services, and he represented his native land in the Olympics last year.
The Catrachos were troublesome in the early stages, drawing hard — and sometimes excessive — challenges. Despite playing deeper, Fabian Johnson continued to push forward and serve tasty crosses. In the 17th minute, he linked with Eddie Johnson, whose 10-yard one-timer tested diving goalkeeper Noel Valladares.
For the most part, though, the Americans were rough in possession and lacked the harmony of the Panama match.
Employing more defensive tactics, Honduras was no better. Striker Carlo Costly departed with an injury in the 33rd minute. In the closing moments, though, Najar roared down the right side and unleashed a 16-yard rocket that was blocked by Tim Howard.
The slog continued after intermission. Frustration grew. The Americans threatened on a set piece (Brad Evans headed Zusi’s free kick at Valladares) and on the counterattack (Altidore’s finish was correctly voided by an offside infraction).
In the 63rd, Zusi’s cross from the end line popped off the near post and created a mad scramble in the six-yard box. During the chaos, Wilson Palacios appeared to make contact with his hand. Surinamese referee Enrico Wijngaarde, whose decisions drew scorn from both sides throughout the evening, allowed play to continue.
Zusi was at it again in the 70th, setting up Clint Dempsey’s header. Valladares held firm. Michael Bradley had a solid crack at the rebound but sent it soaring.
Urgency and anxiety rose. Finally, a breakthrough.
Zusi dummied Dempsey’s pass and let the ball roll into the box. Fabian Johnson caught up with it and touched the ball across and back to Altidore for a low one-timer into the right corner.
“When we raised the tempo, suddenly things opened up,” Klinsmann said. “The opportunities were there. You could smell it. It’s coming. It’s coming, sooner or later.”
U.S. notes: With a first-half yellow card, Jones joins nine teammates carrying a warning into the Costa Rica match. Another would result in a one-game suspension. . . . In the other group match, Costa Rica defeated visiting Panama, 2-0.