A month ago against Jamaica, with the US holding on to a 1-0 lead for dear life, it was the defense that looked just fine while the midfield and attack — for the last 25 minutes, anyway — looked like total strangers.
This time through, even with the result decided, it was the defense that caused the US fans all sorts of indigestion. Carlos Bocanegra, goal aside, played one of his worst games in the US shirt. And with that in mind, we'll take a look at the three things we learned in the 3-1 US win that secured passage into the Hexagonal...
The US need a new answer in central defense
Giving up such a rudimentary goal to as predictable and banal a side as Los Chapines is cause for concern. Michael Bradley's midfield turnover was needless and the dislocation between the central defenders — Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron — was reason to worry with more dynamic, better teams waiting in the Hexagonal.
It's beyond time to get Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez some serious run alongside Cameron. They've been the two best US defenders in the league this year, and both among the four best, along with Víctor Bernárdez and Carlos Valdés — who are starters for Honduras and Colombia, respectively. Hanging onto the old guard was the original sin of Bruce Arena, and Jurgen Klinsmann would be wise to learn that lesson before it dooms him in a game that matters.
And they're going to start to matter — a lot — come February.
Where's the killer instinct in the attack?
"Job done" is what Ian Darke said just over a minute into stoppage time, and mathematically there's no real argument with him since the the US qualified, after all.
But compare the US job to what Honduras did to Canada earlier in the day. Klinsmann's side had every chance to lay a 5-1 or 6-1 hurting on a Guatemala team that was missing their top three central defenders, and lacked either the ability or the desire to do so.
To put it into perspective: one of Guatemala's starting central defenders was 20. The other plays in the Guatemalan second division. This was not a Hexagonal-level backline.
And this US wasn't ruthless or relentless; it was haphazard and ad hoc. That'd be the reason Klinsmann's side has scored more than one goal in just five of 20 games.
Is it disappointing on an "I hate Guatemala" level? Absolutely. But it's even more disappointing on an "I'd much rather face Jamaica than Guatemala in the next round" level. The US could have knocked Los Chapines out, and didn't do it. Jamaica did it.
Needs more nasty in the box, not in the tackle.
"We need him"
That's what Clint Dempsey said about Landon Donovan, and Deuce is absolutely right.
But even more important is finding whoever Donovan's heir is, and finding him soon. As the last 18 months have shown, Landon's not 25 anymore. He'll be an injury-prone 31-year-old by the time the Hex starts, capable of breathtaking moments only in short bursts. Someone else needs to be the creative hub come February.
It's the existential crisis US fans have been dreading since 2001, and Klinsmann needs to take a longer view with it than he has with the defense. And it needs to start with the next camp.
One final thought...
That may be the last time I ever watch Carlos Ruiz play soccer. Can't say I'll miss him in the slightest.