Miami Gardens, FLORIDA – The early stages of the Jurgen Klinsmann era weren't supposed to be about emphasizing results. They were supposed to be about implementing a new system and philosophy with the team he took over in July. That all changed though after three matches without a victory.
That mini-slump turned Saturday's match against Honduras into more than just another showcase for new faces and different systems. The match became a measuring stick to see just what kind of progress the new US head coach was making.
In short, the match became about winning, and Klinsmann's team showed it could win for its new coach.
The first victory of the Klinsmann era wasn't pretty, but it was promising. There was no masterpiece painted, but there were definitely some brush strokes that suggest future improvement and some players who boosted their stock.
The Americans created chances, put together some impressive passing sequences, and saw some young players step up with strong performances on a night when a win in a friendly had more meaning than on most other occasions.
"The win was huge, it was huge for all of us," said US goalkeeper Tim Howard. "You don't want to ever go a long period of time without winning. We performed well, I think, and we're trying to set a foundation but ultimately you have to win and that was the focus coming into these fixture dates.
"Trying to translate those good performances into victories because essentially that's what's important when World Cup qualifying comes around."
Saturday's win was far from perfect. The reality is that a seriously short-handed Honduran side outplayed the Americans for the first 30 minutes, and only some Howard heroics and a moment of Clint Dempsey brilliance kept the United States from trailing at halftime.
As troubling as the start of the match was for the United States, what mattered more was how the Americans responded. After Dempsey opened the scoring with his 36th-minute dart into the top corner, the home team took control. They moved the ball better, controlling the match and outplaying Honduras with sharper passing and energy provided by the flanks.
"It took us a little bit to get into a higher pace," Klinsmann said. "The first 20 minutes was a bit too static, movement-wise, but also because Honduras did a good job, they were pushing high up.
"After 20-25 minutes we took over. We created a lot more chances and I had a feeling that it was just a question of time until we scored that first goal."
No, the goals still didn't rain in, but there was better ball movement and more chances created on Saturday night than in any of the previous three matches under Klinsmann.
As much as the night was about new faces impressing, the United States once again found itself relying on veterans to salvage a result. From Howard's dynamic saves, to Dempsey's clutch finish, to Oguchi Onyewu's solid defending, to Jozy Altidore's imposing presence up top, to Michael Bradley's stabilizing presence, the United States team had a familiar feel to it.
That being said, the new generation represented very well. The left-sided tandem of Brek Shea and Timmy Chandler were one of the highlights of the night. They worked together perfectly, running off each other and pushing the Honduran right flank for much of the night with speedy runs and and constant overlapping.
Chandler's second straight solid effort at left back has him looking like the clear-cut choice to stay at the position. As for Shea, his confidence on the ball and ability to run at defenders is going to leave Klinsmann with some interesting lineup decisions to make once he finally has both Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan on the team at the same time.
Danny Williams didn't have the flashiest of debuts, but he showed qualities that make him an intriguing and worthwhile prospect. Handed a start on the right wing, he covered ground well and helped keep Honduras from mounting any prolonged attacks from their left flank. Going forward, he made good runs to get into dangerous positions.
"You can see when you watch them closely that they have a lot of talent," Klinsmann said of Chandler and Williams. "That they really have quality. They're comfortable with the ball, they're comfortable in one-on-one challenges. They're comfortable looking for solutions when they get into tight spaces.
"That's because they have the background to do that. We have here two players that can help us a lot going forward."
Not everything was positive about Saturday's victory. Michael Orozco Fiscal struggled badly as Honduran forwards Carlo Costly and Jerry Bengston were constant threats. Jurgen Klinsmann handed Orozco his third start in four matches, and for the second straight match, he struggled to deal with the physicality of a strong forward.
Oguchi Onyewu replaced Orozco Fiscal at halftime and provided an immediate upgrade. The substitution was initially believed to be because of Orozco's ineffectiveness, but after the match the move was attributed to an Orozco Fiscal injury.
That raises the question of just what Klinsmann sees in Orozco Fiscal. He hasn't really shown any particularly impressive passing skills out of the back, which is supposed to be a hallmark of Klinsmann's new approach, and Orozco Fiscal isn't a particularly imposing or dominant defender. In fact, in the past two games he has struggled against two Major League Soccer forwards: Costa Rica's Alvaro Saborio and Honduras's Carlo Costly. That sounds about right for a centerback who never really stood out during his one season in MLS with the Philadelphia Union.
Onyewu, on the other hand, looked like the Onyewu of old, strong on the tackle and dominant in the air. He may have missed a wide-open volley from six yards out, but that miss didn't take away from the fact that Onyewu looked very much like a defender who will be a national team starter once the United States starts playing important matches.
Klinsmann's decision to start Orozco Fiscal over Onyewu wasn't the only head-scratching lineup decision heading into Saturday's match. His decision to go with Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman in central midfield, benching Michael Bradley, was curious considering Bradley's track record with the national team and impressive form for Serie A side Chievo Verona.
You could understand Klinsmann's logic from the standpoint that Edu has been on form for club side Glasgow Rangers while Beckerman has been very good in his previous national team appearances. On Saturday, both Edu and Beckerman missed chances to put some ground between themselves and Bradley on Klinsmann's depth chart. Both players struggled to impose themselves as Honduras's high pressure forced them both into mistakes, and the United States was forced to look to the wings for service and possession.
That changed when Bradley entered the match in the 65th minute. He outworked his Honduran counterparts and looked more comfortable on the ball and delivering passes. It probably wasn't the most fair direct comparison because he entered the match with Honduras already looking to have tired, but Tuesday's match against Ecuador should offer him another chance to show why his status as a starter really shouldn't be in doubt.
These sort of developments are what the early matches of his tenure are supposed to be about. They will show Klinsmann which systems, lineups and combinations work and which players really are the ones best-suited to lead the United States toward future success.
That sort of experimentation should continue, but Klinsmann still needs his team to put together better performances and keep getting results, because without good results, Klinsmann's tinkering will start to look less like progress and more like running in place.