Jerry Bengston took advantage of a defensive mix-up to score the winning goal in the 79th minute as Honduras beat the United States 2-1 Wednesday in the opener of the final qualifying round for next year’s World Cup.
Clint Dempsey put the Americans ahead in the 36th minute but the Americans, using a new-look defense that featured Omar Gonzalez and Timmy Chandler, gave up the lead when Juan Carlos Garcia leveled the score in the 40th at San Pedro Sula.
Bengston, who plays for Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution, scored the winner when defender Geoff Cameron and goalkeeper Tim Howard both went for a pass by Maynor Figueroa to Oscar Boniek Garcia. That allowed Garcia to tap the ball across to Bengston for a shot into an open net, and Gonzalez was too late to challenge him.
Playing without Landon Donovan, a veteran of three World Cups who is unsure whether to continue his career, the 28th-ranked U.S. was under pressure for much of the match. Honduras had the better chances, forcing Howard into several difficult saves.
Gonzalez had a chance to redeem himself, getting his head on a corner kick by Graham Zusi in the final seconds of stoppage time. But his shot from the 6-yard box sailed well above the crossbar.
The U.S. lost its final-round opener for the first time in five games since the “hexagonal” format was adopted in qualifying for the 1998 tournament. The Americans are seeking their seventh straight tip to football’s showcase.
The top three nations in the six-team group represent North and Central America and the Caribbean at next year’s tournament in Brazil, and the No. 4 country advances to a playoff for another berth, likely against New Zealand.
Gonzalez replaced captain Carlos Bocanegra in central defense, and Chandler was in the starting lineup to play right back in his competitive debut for the Americans — tying the German-American to the U.S. team.
The game marked somewhat of a generational change for the U.S. defense, with Chandler (22), Gonzalez (24), Cameron (27) and Fabian Johnson (25) in the backline. The Americans had played 16 consecutive qualifiers since 2008 with at least one 30-year-old defender in the starting lineup.
The U.S. went ahead when Jozy Altidore played the ball to Jermaine Jones, who flicked the ball over the defense. In full stride, Dempsey volleyed the ball with his right foot past goalkeeper Noel Valladares from eight yards. With his 31st goal in 92 appearances, Dempsey moved past Brian McBride into sole possession of third place on the U.S. career scoring list. Dempsey has six of the Americans’ 12 goals in qualifying for 2014.
But for the fourth straight road qualifier, the U.S. scored first only to give up the lead.
Oscar Boniek Garcia’s corner kick went all the way to the opposite side of the field, bounced four times and was played back to the center by Victor Bernandez after no American chased the ball down. Figueroa chested the pass up to Juan Carlos Garcia, who with his back to the goal scored on an overhead kick from 10 yards that went to Howard’s right, leaving the goalkeeper bent over in shock. It was Garcia’s first goal in 18 international appearances.
Honduras appeared for a moment to take the lead in the 56th minute, but Carlo Costly was ruled offside when he slotted the ball past Howard.