How The U.S. Soccer Team Is Grinding Towards Brazil

The Americans are a good bet to make the World Cup. But there's plenty of work to do before they get there.

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JOE KLAMAR / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann during his team's Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Panama at Century Link Field stadium in Seattle, on June 11, 2013.

Nowhere is the grind of a World Cup qualifying campaign more evident than against a team such as Honduras. A country of less than 9 million, ranked 52nd in the world (the U.S. is 28th), there’s a reason that Honduras made the last World Cup: Los Catrachos  can frequently punch above their weight. And what a better target than the bigger, richer Americans. The Hondurans connected last February, beating the Yanks 2-1 at San Pedro Sula in the first game of the Hexagonal, as the six-team competition for three guaranteed spots in the World Cup is called.

That’s why U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was happy to pocket the three points in a less-than-artistic 1-0 win over an under strength Honduras team in 90°F heat in Sandy, Utah. “This Hexagonal group proves how difficult it is and how balanced North and Central America is now in soccer terms,” Klinsmann said before the Tuesday match. “The Central American countries caught up. They challenge Mexico, they challenge us. There is no easy game at all anymore.”  The scene in Utah was a polar opposite, if you will, from the Americans’ 1-0 win over Costa Rica, played in a blizzard in Denver earlier this year, but a heck of a lot easier on the fans.

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Honduras, lacking some key players, was determined to make the Americans work for everything, keeping 8 or 9 players behind the ball. It wasn’t until Jozy Altidore steered a cutback by Fabian Johnson past Honduras keeper Noel Valladares in the 73rd minute that the U.S. got in front, despite having most of the possession.

That gives the U.S. 13 points from the first six matches of the final qualifying round. Although U.S. fans were singing “We’re going to Brazil” as the minutes ticked down, it’s not time to play samba music yet. Three more points from the last four games should do it.

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 Klinsmann had to be pleased with his striker. Altidore, playing lone front man in a 4-2-3-1 formation, notched his fourth goal in as many games. He’s looking more and more like the polished international striker who scored 30-plus goals for AZ Alkmaar in Holland and not the guy who had sole possession of Klinsie’s dog house not too long ago. More importantly, Altidore is the point man of what is becoming, game by game, a much more solid central core. Behind him is Clint Dempsey, a world-class attacking midfielder with vast experience. The Tottenham man is a threat in any game. Behind Dempsey in the center of the park, Michael Bradley is coming off a great season as A.S. Roma, and demonstrating why Italian fans call him “General” Bradley. His command of ball and field has made him the cog in the American wheel. Indeed, it’s not unfair to compare his role and value to that of Italy’s great midfield general Andrea Pirlo. And with the German-American Jermaine Jones as Bradley’s steady partner, it’s a holding midfield pair that inspires confidence in front of the back four.

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The central defense remains a longer term issue for Klinsmann. The backfield must be giving him heartburn with its propensity to cough up the ball in bad positions. It happened again against Honduras, when Matt Besler’s feeble pass late in the first half was intercepted by Andy Najar, who then swooped down on Tim Howard’s goal only to be denied by the alert keeper. As we’ve seen, when a more experienced European or South American forward gets into that position—think Arjen Robben of Holland or Argentina’s Sergio Aguero, the result will often be far more damaging.

Three points is a dangerous distance for the U.S., even with four games to play. The U.S. travels to Costa Rica on September 6, and the Ticos, currently in second place in the Hex, are still seething about playing in the whiteout in Denver. They will be praying for 100° temperatures at 100% humidity, and maybe a noon start.  Four days later the Yanks play Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. The Mexicans will be seething about not being very good in the qualifying so far. This will be a stress test, but based on the Honduras result, the Americans look ready to pass it.

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