SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS – If World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region is a marathon, the US men's national team started off the fourth and final phase of the process at a saunter, suffering an ugly 2-1 loss to an eminently beatable Honduras on Wednesday.
There were mitigating circumstances to be sure. In a heaving stadium assaulting all the senses -- the incessant thrum of drums and hum of air horns, the deafening howls and cries of some 30,000 Hondurans, the humid 90-degree air, the smoke and smell of burning meat, the permanent hive of activity all around you -- the field appeared to play heavily, quickly sapping the Americans' energy.
"It's a hot day, they feed so much off the crowd," said US midfielder Michael Bradley. "I think we start to get pulled around a little bit and they start to find these little gaps to cause us trouble."
Indeed, the US faced difficulties all afternoon. But that was as much a symptom of their environment as it was their own doing. The Americans mustered no pressure, no sharpness, no urgency, no cohesion, no imagination, no width and no depth.
"We gave too many opportunities to this Honduras team and they took advantage of it," said US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann following the game. "We gave them far too much space. There were too many mistakes done and too many players didn't reach their individual potential."
A litany of jittery or simply unacceptable errors put a modestly talented Honduran side in the driver's seat in a tortuous and unsightly game. The Catrachos were given ample time and space to attack, aided further by American turnovers.
"I thought we didn't play nearly as well as we could have and got outplayed in a lot of facets of the game," US goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "They were a much better team than us today."
Consequently, the USA's opening goal was surprising. In the 36th minute, Jermaine Jones sprung Clint Dempsey with a delicate ball over the top of the Honduran defense. The Texan deftly side-footed the ball into the netting behind Noel Valladares.
Just four minutes later, however, the Americans' sloppiness caught up with them. They conceded a cheap corner and let Honduras serve the ball into the box twice more. On the last one, Juan Carlos Garcia smacked a magnificent bicycle kick past Tim Howard.
All manner of liquids sailed towards the Americans as they headed back into the player tunnel at halftime, but their body language had blended exhaustion with dejection long before then.
Frustration was apparent not only on the players but on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, too. That wouldn't disappear: matters wouldn't improve much for the USA in the second half. They continued to let the Hondurans run at them, yielding a slew of chances for its strikers Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly.
Oscar Boniek Garcia, meanwhile, was free to pelt Howard's goal from afar. In the 79th, Honduras got its seemingly inevitable winner. Boniek easily broke through the disjointed defense and tapped the ball square for Bengtson, who ran away from the disappointing Omar Gonzalez and slotted into the empty net. The US was well vanquished by then, and had no reserves of energy of inspiration to turn to.
The loss ramps up the pressure on the US to collect points in CONCACAF's 10-game hexagonal round, which will send three teams directly to the World Cup and a fourth to a playoff with the Oceania region's best.
"This is a long road," said Bradley. "We can't lose our heads. We can't let ourselves be thrown off course."
To remain on that course to Brazil, the US will need to take points at home against Costa Rica and away to Mexico on March 22 and 26, respectively. This is no straightforward task. Yet Klinsmann remains as optimistic.
"Tonight it didn't work out the way we wanted so we have to make sure that from the next games we collect the points we need to qualify for Brazil -- which we will do," Klinsmann said.
But the loss can scarcely be written off as an incident wherein too many players happened to underperform on the same day. All game, the US suffered from a dearth of quality possession and rhythm, stranding on the tightly packed Hondurans time and again when they ventured forward.
This must be blamed at least partly on Klinsmann's deployment of three defensively-minded central midfielders in Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones and Bradley. The choice was somewhat understandable, given that this approach was bedrock to the US grinding out their first ever win on Mexican soil in a friendly back in August.
But it was also the cause of the United States' unimaginative and feckless attacking. Not until the final 30 minutes of the game did Klinsmann start inserting more able ball-distributors in the form of Sacha Kljestan and Graham Zusi, but by then their cohorts had run themselves ragged. If few players delivered today, the formation they were fielded in did them no favors either.
"We'll see a totally different team in the next game," promised Klinsmann.
If the Americans are to negotiate the road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil successfully, they had better be unrecognizable from Wednesday's calamity going forward.