SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The U.S. national soccer team’s path to the 2014 World Cup is lined with obstructions, most notably in the form of visits to Central American cauldrons pulsating with the sights and sounds that turn sport into spectacle.
These are difficult moments, for sure, but the Americans typically tap into their discipline and resolve to carve out positive results.
They surely would have been satisfied with a tie at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano on Wednesday, one point closer to a Brazilian adventure next year. Instead, weaknesses were exposed and crucial errors were made, resulting in a 2-1 loss to Honduras in the first of 10 final-round qualifiers.
They began well Wednesday as Clint Dempsey scored in the 36th minute, but Honduras soon answered with a goal of magnificent proportion — a bicycle kick by Juan Carlos Garcia — and then overtook the wilting Americans on Jerry Bengtson’s goal in the 79th.
“It’s really a missed opportunity to take a point on the road,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “You have to take your bumps and lumps and learn from it.”
Coach Juergen Klinsmann will take his lumps for starting a young backline and implementing ponderous tactics that failed to maintain possession and didn’t make use of the flanks.
Aside from Dempsey’s goal, his 31st in 92 U.S. appearances, the Americans did not create many genuine opportunities and allowed the Hondurans to dictate terms most of the searing afternoon.
“We didn’t hold the ball well enough, long enough, to pass it around, to make the opponent chase the game,” said Klinsmann, whose team stumbled through much of the previous round as well. “It became the opposite: We had to run after them.”
Despite their ineffectiveness, the Americans were poised to escape with a draw. But in the late stage, a series of defensive breakdowns on one sequence led to the tiebreaking goal.
Maynor Figueroa targeted Oscar Boniek with a through ball. Boniek, one of four Honduran starters employed by MLS clubs, pierced the space between left back Fabian Johnson and center back Geoff Cameron. Johnson backed off. Cameron didn’t close him down or make a play on the ball. Howard arrived late.
Boniek (Houston Dynamo) touched the ball into Bengtson’s path. Omar Gonzalez, the other center back, was slow to react. Bengston (New England Revolution) arrived first and scored into the open net.
Gonzalez, a former University of Maryland star with the Los Angeles Galaxy, was awarded the start after a strong MLS campaign and good form against Canada last week. He took the place of Carlos Bocanegra, a longtime captain who anchored the 2010 World Cup squad.
Klinsmann didn’t blame the backline for the loss, pinning it more on the midfield’s shortcomings.
But Honduras’s first goal was also troubling. Although Garcia’s finish was spectacular — “the goal of the century here in Honduras,” Klinsmann said — the Americans made one mistake after another in the build-up.
They gave up a corner kick, and when the service sailed long, they allowed Victor Bernardez to track it down in the opposite corner and cross into the heart of the penalty area. Figueroa chested the ball toward Garcia, who, with his back to the target, executed the bicycle kick with precision and power from eight yards.
Howard never stood a chance.
“We had four or five opportunities to clear the ball,” he said.
Four minutes earlier, the Americans went ahead when Jermaine Jones lifted a delicate pass into the box. Dempsey was in stride and volleyed the ball into the left corner, hushing a crowd of 37,000 that began arriving six hours before kickoff.
The scene was typical of CONCACAF qualifying settings: Blue-and-white flags snapping from car windows zipping along Boulevar Del Sur and vendors hawking hats and shirts in the median.
Outside the stadium, a carnival atmosphere took hold: meats charring on grills, scalpers, children grasping at the retaining fences for a glimpse inside, floppy hats being sold for $5. A 55-member marching band with flag bearers and traditional dancers awaited entry.
Inside, a singer in a cowboy hat flanked by four dancers and a young man wiggling his hips on a bicycle with a Honduran flag sticking from his helmet entertained the masses. When they finished, the sound system pumped high-tempo music at decibels that would make an NBA arena seem like a library.
“Hon-DO-ras!” echoed around the venue.
The Americans didn’t let the crowd bother them, but they weren’t dangerous in the attack either. They missed Landon Donovan, the program’s all-time leading scorer who is contemplating his future after three World Cups. Without him, there was no one to make unpredictable runs at defenders and no one to improvise.
If he chooses to continue with the national team, Donovan probably wouldn’t return until June, when the Americans will play three matches in 12 days, capped by a home game against Honduras.
“The bottom line is, this is a long road,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “There are ups, there are downs, there are tough road games and home games where you need your points. We will continue to maintain a strong mentality to get us through.”
Notes: Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said the four undecided venues for home qualifiers are likely to take place in MLS markets. A timetable for the official announcement hasn’t been set.
The top candidates are believed to be soccer-specific stadiums in Kansas City, Salt Lake City and Columbus, as well as Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, home to the NFL’s Seahawks and MLS’s Sounders, the league’s annual attendance leader. . . .
By appearing in a FIFA-sanctioned match, right back Timmy Chandler locked into the U.S. program. He was also eligible to play for Germany.