What we learned from Wednesday’s U.S. loss to Honduras in World Cup qualifying

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Final round World Cup qualifying is off to the rockiest of starts, and the disillusionment with U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will surely reach critical mass after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Honduras.

Overall, the United States was on its way to managing out a 1-1 draw, which would have been a satisfactory result. But what could have been a routine defensive play in the back fell apart in spectacularly and well …

Here’s what we can take away from the match in hot and humid San Pedro Sula:

Why the loss hurts:

As we’ve said before, a loss on the road in World Cup qualifying is hardly a deal-killer. Nine matches remain, including five at home, where the United States has been next to unbeatable through the last few qualifying cycles.

But the final round qualifying schedule, which fell so unfavorably to the United States, adds pressure. Consider that the United States may well lose its next match road match, at Mexico. That makes the March 22 contest at home (in Denver) against Costa Rica an absolute must have victory for Klinsmann and Co.

Otherwise, the United States could go into final round Match Day 4 with zero wins. That would be very, very bad.

(MORE: Which U.S. men needed to be better)

The bold linecup selection that backfired:

You can’t say Klinsmann is afraid of changes or bold gambits. Lots of them, in fact, especially considering such a short camp to rehearse the adjustments. Jozy Alitdore’s inclusion at striker over the usually preferred Herculez Gomez fell as a surprise.

Same for Eddie Johnson as a starter, once again nominally along the left, as we saw toward the end of semifinal qualifying.  But none of the changes ticked the shocker box like the eye-catching choice across the back line. Klinsmann adjudged that the future was now in making a brave switcharoo: captain Carlos Bocanegra took a seat on the bench as Omar Gonzalez was blooded in the harshest of CONCACAF environments in his first World Cup qualifier appearance.

Gonzalez, of course, just came off his first extended U.S. camp. On Honduras’ goal, it wasn’t so much that Gonzalez was in there; the problem was more about someone not taking charge. Had Bocanegra been there, perhaps communication – so important from the center backs in a flat four defense – would have been sharper and catastrophe could have been dodged.

(MORE: Discussing the Carlos Bocanegra/Omar Gonzalez switch)

Lots of blame to go around on the winning goal:

Tim Howard is everyone’s hero, but he didn’t do well on the home team’s game-winner. Bottom line there, if the U.S. goalkeeper comes for that ball, he’s as to get it. Period.

Meanwhile, Geoff Cameron needed to clear the danger. Period. Even if Howard was screaming for it – we may know more later after hearing from the U.S. men – no one would fault Cameron for putting that menacing, sneaky little through ball somewhere into urban San Pedro Sula.

And then there was Gonzalez caught ball watching rather than tracking behind the play.

Credit to Honduras’ Oscar Boniek Garcia, the Houston Dynamo jitterbug attacker for his committed work to create that goal. But from the U.S. side, that goal in three words: What a mess.

(MORE: Klinsmann addresses the loss)

The formation:

Klinsmann lined up his team in a modified 4-4-2, with Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson sometimes swapping positions, striker for left-sided midfielder.

The United States did a reasonable job of pressing up high, as a unit, which is the only way to make that effective, of course. On the other hand, getting the ball back doesn’t help much if you can’t do much with it.

The U.S. passing out of the back: pedestrian.

The U.S. passing in midfield: uninspired.

Still, strategically, the United was managing out a solid, tactical match in hot and humid conditions. (So debilitating that Klinsmann had used all three subs by the 66th minute.) The visitors sat deep and waited for chances, like the 29th minute hook-up between Johnson on the left and Jozy Altidore, who needed just a little more separation from his defender to get a little better effort on goal.

No, the Americans didn’t create a bucket full of chances, and Honduras had far more possession. But neither did the home team bother Howard often. Well, except for …

(MORE: Missing Landon Donovan. A lot)

Bad defending on the first Honduras goal, too:

We saw shades of USMNT 2012 on the Hondurans first half goal. The overhead kick finish by Juan Carlos Garcia was wonderful, no doubt, and all credit for getting his team back into the match with something truly special. But it should not have gotten there.

The marking and inability to organize and react quickly after the initial corner kick clearance is disappointing at best, perhaps inexcusable for a team that wants to be at a higher level. It might be tempting to say this is what you get from having two inexperienced center backs, but the fact is that goals were allowed in 2012 where the same missing element (failure to organize quickly after a restart) was in play.

Klinsmann warned that it was all about being competitive, vigilant and alert. His men were anything but as Maynor Figueroa was uncontested to chest down a ball 14 yards from goal, arranging Garcia’s equalizer.

Jermaine Jones good, Jermaine Jones bad:

Dempsey’s first half goal was great stuff, a clever run to match a precise, technical finish. But it was only the punctuation mark on a great sentence, so to speak, one written by midfielder Jermaine Jones.

Jones is among the chief whipping boys of U.S. fans, and for good reason. Klinsmann loves him some Jones for the infectious warrior spirit and ability to inspire that fearlessness in others. But the man’s technical ability and speed of play kills the United States possession time and again. It certainly did on plenty of occasions Wednesday.

Klinsmann contends that Jones has game-changing passes in him, and the Schalke man showed it for one very important moment in San Pedro Sula, arranging Dempsey spectacularly with the best U.S. pass of the afternoon.

(MORE: U.S. Man of the Match Wednesday in San Pedro Sula)

Pochettino: “Challenge is to keep going” ahead of North London Derby

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Mauricio Pochettino was thrilled to see Tottenham Hotspur’s title push continue with a win over in-form Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

Spurs won 1-0 on a beautiful Christian Eriksen goal from distance, moving back to within four points of Premier League leading Chelsea.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs ]

Pochettino’s men didn’t stop fighting for the winner despite relentless fight from the home side, with improving mettle on display this season.

“Unbelievable. Very good performance. I think second half we played much better than in the first half. It was difficult in the first half for us to move the ball and find the space but we changed the shape at half time and it was more fluid, we started to find the space and started to push Palace deeper and deeper.”

After two tough London Derbies — Spurs fell 4-2 to Chelsea in Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal — Tottenham now has the big one: a visit from Arsenal in the North London Derby.

“It was good to get the three points and be alive in the race for the title. The challenge is to keep going. It is always better to win but it is true [the Arsenal game] is a big derby, perhaps the last at White Hart Lane and I think it will be an exciting game.”

We’re ready for it. Spurs will be favored to pick up all three points, but all bets are off when it comes to the NLD. That’s especially true considering the ticking Top Four clock for Arsenal and the title fight for Spurs.

Palace 0-1 Spurs: Eriksen saves the day

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  • Sakho stretchered off
  • Eriksen rescues title hope
  • Spurs four back of Chelsea

Palace made them work for it.

Tottenham Hotspur didn’t exactly sends chills down the spine of Chelsea with its performance, but Spurs found a way past tricky and in-form Crystal Palace on Wednesday at Selhurst Park.

Christian Eriksen‘s pretty goal sealed the three points for Spurs, who have five matches to chase down four points from the Blues.

Palace sits 12th, seven points clear of 18th place Swansea City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Two in-forms started with confidence, Harry Kane lashing wide of the frame for Spurs and Wilfried Zaha driving Palace on the right wing.

Another in-form Eagles attacker, Christian Benteke, did well to create space and hit a low shot that forced Hugo Lloris to ground.

Victor Wanyama was on yellow when he slid to intercept Andros Townsend, taking the Englishman to the turf. Jon Moss gave Wanyama a harsh warning, but did not produce the red card.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-min were called upon soon after the break to liven up Spurs attack.

The substitution that stood to shake up the match was Palace center back Mamadou Sakho, who was hurt with about 40 minutes to play.

Eriksen stung a shot across goal for the eventual winner, a rare moment of class from a three-match day that didn’t quite fit the standard of the Premier League.

Arsenal 1-0 Leicester City: Only an own goal

AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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  • Chances at a premium
  • Monreal forces Huth own goal
  • Arsenal moves sixth
  • Foxes six clear of drop

Nacho Monreal‘s desperate shot ricocheted off Robert Huth‘s chest and gave Arsenal a 1-0 win over Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.

Entertainment value wasn’t high over the course of the match, as Arsenal had trouble piercing Leicester’s congested back four.

Arsenal is now three points back of Manchester United and four behind Man City before Thursday’s Manchester Derby.

Leicester is six points clear of 18th and has played one less game than most of the teams chasing them.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Arsenal had most of the ball to start the match, but needed to make the first big stop. Petr Cech kept the match goalless when he flew to stop a left-footed whip from Riyad Mahrez.

At the other end, Mesut Ozil set up Theo Walcott for a chance that prodded a solid save from Kasper Schmeichel.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Wilfried Ndidi was again a monster in the middle third for Leicester, arguably the main reason the Foxes have rebounded from their relegation plight.

Arsenal had a chance pushed away from danger by Robert Huth after Alexis Sanchez misjudged his time on the ball in front of goal in the 56th minute.

Schmeichel then dove to slap away a deflected Francis Coquelin shot.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Laurent Koscielny went down in pain after landing awkwardly in the 79th minute, leaving a gap in space that Shinji Okazaki would’ve exploited were it not for a block from Gabriel Paulista.

Leicester’s Yohan Benalouane should’ve seen red with 10 minutes to play following a leaping boot to the back of Olivier Giroud, but only a foul was given.

Ndidi made a sliding intervention on Mesut Ozil in the 85th minute, another terrific bit of work from the Nigerian.

That’s when Huth’s unlucky moment lifted Arsenal to the lead.

Middlesbrough 1-0 Sunderland: Derby honors and a bit of life

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  • Boro’s first PL win since Dec. 17
  • Smoggies move within six of 17th
  • Sunderland on verge of relegation

Marten De Roon snared Middlesbrough new hope at safety and a derby win as Boro scored early to complete a season sweep of Tees-Wear Derby rivals Sunderland on Wednesday.

The 1-0 win means Sunderland is 12 points back of 17th place Hull City with five matches to play. Hull has four matches left.

For Boro, it’s six points back of Hull but a devastating run-in that includes Man City, Chelsea, Southampton, and Liverpool.

The win was USMNT backstop Brad Guzan‘s second of the Premier League season, the first coming in the reverse fixture.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

De Roon tilted the Tees-Wear Derby to Boro’s side with an opening goal that could signal the end of Sunderland’s slim safety hopes.

Stewart Downing tempted 2-0 with a hard low shot that Jordan Pickford did very well to save with a leg.

Sunderland did find a bit of danger when Didier N’Dong forced Brad Guzan into a save, but Billy Jones nodded over the frame.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]