Connolly: Caballero holds head high
As Samuel Caballero walked towards his team's bus after his Honduras side lost a heartbreaker to the USA, he was met by Tony Sanneh. The two embraced and shared a quick laugh as the two Chicago Fire teammates knew they'd be back together on the same team later this week after being on opposing national teams for the past three weeks during the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
If anyone on Honduras deserved to walk out of Giants Stadium with his head held high despite the 2-1 loss in a hard-fought semifinal matchup, it's Caballero. The 6-foot-1 center back continued his strong play for the catrachos with an impressive performance against the U.S. For the majority of the match, he was the main figure in the back who found a way to make a tackle, win a head ball and generally disrupt the U.S. attack.
"You could see how he's more comfortable in the middle of a three-man backline than where he plays in Chicago," said Sanneh, who is also in his first year with the Fire. "Especially in the first half, he won all the balls in the air and was the one guy we somehow couldn't find a way to get past. He played really well."
Caballero often found himself marking Josh Wolff, as the U.S. striker was positioned up higher than any other player on the team in a target-like role. He did a nice job staying with him on runs and by using his muscle when he needed to. Things only started to change in the second half when Honduras seemed to tire, and bunkered in on defense in hopes of holding on to the 1-0 lead they had thanks to a 30th-minute goal by Ivan Guerrero, yet another member of the Chicago Fire involved in this match.
Once Honduras stopped pressuring the ball with their forwards and midfielders in the same manner that they did successfully earlier in the match, the U.S. was able to dictate the play and pick and choose where to attack.
"We tried to hold the game as much as possible because we knew the U.S. has a strong attack," said the 30-year-old from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. "We knew that they would not give up and that they would keep coming at us."
Caballero said he was pleased with the way the team defended Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley because those were the two players identified by their manager as the ones that needed to be stopped. For the most part, they were successful carrying out such a game plan, as Donovan's touches were less than usual throughout the first half and Beasley only was dangerous on a few occasions.
However in the end it was two defensive lapses that led to two U.S. goals in the final seven minutes of play that decided the match. John O'Brien struck in the 86th minute after a clearance by Erick Vallecillo was botched, giving the American midfielder an open shot on goal with his left foot from well inside the box.
"It's unfortunate," said Caballero. "Their first goal was a bit lucky. It was a lack of concentration. It hurt us tremendously."
Oguchi Onyewu's game-winning goal came in stoppage time off a free kick that Donovan sent into the box from the right side of the field. Honduras failed to properly mark the 6-foot-4 defender, which allowed him to powerfully head the ball past a helpless Junior Morales.
So even after outplaying the U.S. for much of the match, Honduras is out of the Gold Cup and will have a long wait before having any games of real consequence since they failed to reach the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Even so, Caballero felt that his team showed how strong they are as a side by winning their group as well as giving the U.S. its toughest match yet.
"Personally, I'm satisfied because our team tried," said Caballero, who is among the more experienced Honduran players, having spent time with Udinese Calcio in Italy's Serie A as well as with Uruguayan powerhouse Nacional. "But unfortunately we couldn't get another strike, which was most important."
Caballero will now return to a resurgent Chicago Fire side that suddenly finds itself in first place in the Eastern Conference with an MLS-high 36 points. Having him back in the mix will only help matters for Dave Sarachan's team.
"I'm happy to being going back because I've been away for a long while," he said. "But I'm also sad because I thought we could go further in this tournament."
Sanneh said that Caballero has integrated himself well with his teammates in Chicago, many of which knew him as a rival from his several years of play with the Honduras national team.
"He's only gotten better and better," said Sanneh. "It's been an easy transition, but I think he notices a change in style of play a bit. He's also been moved around as far as his position, which he's probably not used to. He's someone that will help us going forward once we get all our national teamers back."
Caballero has played in only 10 matches due to national team commitments and has scored one goal. For the most part, he's played on the left side when the Fire have gone with a back three, but has also seen time as a center back whenever Chicago has played with four defenders.
With Caballero, Guerrero, Sanneh and U.S. midfielder Chris Armas, who started in Thursday night's match as a right-sided midfielder, all returning to the Windy City, it'll be interesting to see how well the Fire will do in the second half of the season. The New England Revolution sit only one point behind them despite playing three less matches. It could be a dogfight down the stretch.
"We've really started to play well," said Sanneh. "It all started against Colorado back in May (a 2-1 victory on May 21). We feel like we could have more points, as well, since we gave away a result to New York (a 2-1 loss to the MetroStars on May 31) after playing very well for 90 minutes. And we also should've won against Kansas City (a 1-1 tie on a late strike by Preki on June 18) after playing what I feel was our best game of the year. Our first eight games were pretty bad, but now we're winning games and are one of the better teams in the league."
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs