For all of four minutes on Thursday, the US national team basked in the San Pedro Sula heat and the best start to the Hexagonal round of CONACAF World Cup qualifying they could imagine.
But in a flash that mirage was gone, and the Americans wilted under steamy conditions in their first step on the road to the World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Honduras.
Honduras left back Juan Carlos García connected on a gorgeous left-footed bicycle kick in the 40th minute to erase a pitch-perfect finish from US forward Clint Dempsey in the 36th, and Jerry Bengtson capitalized on sloppy US defending in the 79th minute with a tap-in that gave Honduras three key points in the first Hexagonal match for the upstart hosts.
The loss was just the fourth in 19 matches all-time against Honduras for the US, who return to World Cup qualifying play on safer ground in Colorado on March 22 against Costa Rica.
Honduras controlled much of the tempo in the early going and then especially in the second half, thanks in no small part to the García goal that quelled the Americans’ hopes of sneaking out with three points. The volley came off a perfectly placed chest pass from Maynor Figueroa following a looping cross from defender Víctor Bernárdez.
That goal brought the crowd back into the game after Dempsey’s 11th career World Cup qualifying goal, a right-footed volley off a perfectly-placed chip from midfielder Jermaine Jones.
Honduras controlled the game in the second half as the Americans bunkered in, and the hosts nearly took the lead multiple times thanks to pesky play from midfielder Roger Espinoza and Boniek García. García missed prime chances wide of the mark in both the 52nd and 71st minutes, and Hondruas had a goal called back in the 56th minute when forward Carlo Costly was whistled offside.
The hosts finally capitalized with just more than 10 minutes left, thanks to shoddy defense from the center back pairing of LA Galaxy star Omar Gonzalez and former Houston Dynamo stalwart Geoff Cameron. Figueroa threaded a pass to Boniek García on the right channel, who beat US goalkeeper Tim Howard to the ball and drifted a pass to Bengtson, who beat Gonzalez to the mark for the easy finish.
The Americans – who played much of the match with a conservative approach and never truly pushed the pace – settled in behind the veteran midfield of Michael Bradley and Jones, but never seriously threatened to pull ahead after García’s goal late in the first half. Second-half offensive substitutions Sacha Kljestan and Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi did little to stem the tide.
Thanks in part to on-field temperatures in the 90s and a somewhat conservative start in the first Hexagonal match for both teams, neither squad seriously threatened to score until the 23rd minute, when Espinoza ripped a shot from just outside the box that Howard safely tipped over. Defender Fabian Johnson cleared away a scoring chance in the 32nd minute after Espinoza skirted Cameron, and then Howard rose to the occasion again in the 33rd, when he punched a curling left-footed shot from Mario Martínez over the bar after a turnover from Fabian Johnson.
The US threatened in the 26th minute when Eddie Johnson glanced a header well over the bar off a Jones corner kick, and Jozy Altidore skipped a volley over the mark off a Johnson cross in the 29th.
The US started the center back pairing of Gonzalez and Cameron for easily the biggest game of their careers, as Klinsmann was short of options for a more experienced duo. Veteran Carlos Bocanegra did not get the call after recently battling injuries for his club Racing Santander in Spain.
Cameron and Gonzalez were flanked by Johnson on the left and Timmy Chandler on the right. The appearance cap-tied the German-born Chandler with the US squad after months of flip-flopping since former coach Bob Bradley first courted him in early 2011.
Honduras went with four MLS players in the starting lineup: Martínez (Seattle), Bengtson (New England), Bernárdez (San Jose) and Boniek García (Houston). Los Catrachos return to World Cup qualiying on March 22, when they host Mexico.