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Global Jun 19, 2013

U.S. perfects June qualifying record in grinding 1-0 win over Honduras

By Liviu Bird

SANDY, Utah — For 70 minutes, the United States found nothing but frustration against Honduras. Then, 18 minutes from time, Jozy Altidore came through once again to hand his team a 1-0 win in a World Cup qualifier.

The on-field temperature matched the sweltering air temperature at kick-off, as players were not shy about going into hard tackles. Honduras was on the receiving end multiple times, but none of its early free kicks near the penalty area truly troubled Tim Howard.

“It’s been exactly what we expected: a very difficult game,” U.S. head coach Jürgen Klinsmann said after the match. “We expected them to play very defensively, to be with nine, 10 guys behind the ball, to make all the spaces really tight.”

The U.S. had its best scoring opportunity of the early going in the 17th minute, as a sustained bout of possession led to Eddie Johnson nearly side-footing in Fabian Johnson’s cross from the left flank. Only Honduras goalkeeper Noel Valladares’ outstretched hand prevented the goal.

If referee Enrico Wijngaarde had any sympathy for Honduras’ early pleas, they waned as the half progressed. Player after player remained on the ground after innocuous challenges, drawing loud boos from the 20,250 fans in attendance at Rio Tinto Stadium.

“They took time off the clock with little antics and stuff like that,” Altidore said. “I think it was difficult for us to find a rhythm.”

Honduras striker Carlo Costly succumbed to the conditions in the first half, coming off in the 33rd minute with apparent cramping. Roger Rojas replaced him, moving to the striker role.

The first half ended much as it began, with opposing players cranky at one another and the referee and multiple stoppages for fouls and injuries offering brief reprieves from the oppressive heat.

With shadows descending over the majority of the field, both teams offered more substantive play in the second half. Still, with Honduras bunkering on defense, the U.S. found most of its early chances on set pieces.

“It’s been very difficult to play through their wall,” Klinsmann said. “We told them at halftime to keep pushing, to raise a little bit the tempo even more.”

Valladares got in the way of a Brad Evans header in the 57th minute, swung in from the right by Graham Zusi on a dead ball. Two minutes later, the Americans had a goal from Jozy Altidore correctly ruled offside.

Zusi provided the night’s most chaotic sequence when he dribbled to the endline and cut the ball back. His service deflected off the post and multiple bodies in the penalty area, eventually ending up in Valladares’ hands with the goalkeeper on the ground.

Dempsey missed two close chances soon after, first whacking a shot wide after winning a knockdown off the Honduras back line, then when Valladares stoned him on a diving header.

Barely in the game, Honduras had its best chance of the second half in the 71st minute, but Evans cleared Andy Najar’s cutback from the endline under no pressure. Shortly after that, the U.S. found its breakthrough.

“In a game like this, what really matters is that you keep on going, be patient and find the one goal,” Klinsmann said.

Dempsey fed a ball toward Zusi on the left side, who flicked it on to an overlapping Fabian Johnson. As he did several times in the match, Fabian Johnson got around the outside and played a dangerous ball back through the Honduras defense.

Altidore met it underneath the Honduran defense, easily side-footing in his fourth goal in as many games. In the 78th minute, Altidore nearly doubled his tally, but his bending shot was again turned aside by Valladares.

“Maybe a couple more goals would have been a fair result tonight,” Eddie Johnson said. “Jozy’s been on fire. … We couldn’t have asked for a striker to step up at a [bigger] time.”

After defending fiercely for most of the game, Honduras struggled to get forward after going down a goal. Possession through the midfield yielded few opportunities in the attacking half.

With the win, the U.S. met its goal of finishing its stretch of June qualifiers on a high note. Nine points from three matches leaves the team at the top of the table in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. The win over Honduras also extended the U.S.’s home unbeaten run in qualifiers to 25 games — the last loss coming on Sept. 1, 2001, against Honduras.

In September, matchups in Costa Rica and against Mexico at home loom. Another positive set of games could conceivably see the U.S. qualify for World Cup 2014 with room to spare.

“We’re licking our chops,” Altidore said. “That’s what you want: to qualify as early as possible.”

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