The 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off tonight, with the United States facing Honduras in the back half of a doubleheader in Texas. The USMNT has gotten some favorable Gold Cup groups in past years, but this time they've ended up in the toughest of the three. Group A features half of the teams - the US, Honduras, and Panama - that made the Hexagonal in World Cup qualifying last time around, and Haiti has been improving in recent years as well. The US will be on a high after huge recent wins against European powers, but a slip-up here will essentially turn their second games into must-wins if they want to lower the possibility of playing Mexico or Costa Rica in the quarterfinals.
Key player: Fabian Johnson
Breaking down what will likely be a conservative Honduran side is going to require a team effort going forward, but one thing it will definitely require is width. As the composition of the US roster indicates that he'll be more left back than anything else, Johnson will be the main source of overlapping runs for the Americans. His ability to either a) stretch Honduras out or b) punish them for staying narrow and not challenging him along the touchline is going to be vital.
Of course, that might not even be Johnson's most important role tonight. Honduras will be relying heavily on Andy Najar to spark their attack, so Johnson's defending needs to be very strong. In particular, Johnson needs to show some 1v1 defensive chops that he frankly has only displayed sporadically with the USMNT. I don't need to tell a D.C. United audience what Najar can do, and with several new faces in their attack los Catrachos will be banking heavily on Najar being the terror we all know and love. If Najar ends up having a big game, the US is going to have a real problem when it comes to taking the expected 3 points here.
Key question: Can the USMNT continue the unexpectedly sharp attacking play up?
This game will be nowhere near as open as the recent wins against the Netherlands and Germany were. Unlike those sides, Honduras will come in knowing they have to shut up shop to get something from this match. As anyone who has seen CONCACAF games before, that means getting 9 or 10 players behind the ball and slowing the tempo down to a crawl. While I don't expect Honduras to be 100% playing for 0-0, I do expect to see a wall of royal blue and white massing within 35 yards of the Honduran goal.
That doesn't mean the US will be blameless if they don't create chances in this game. An opponent that sits deep makes things difficult, but a smart team can still open up some gaps with good movement and precision on the ball That means putting passes right where they need to be rather than simply within reach of the target, and it means taking one touch rather than two. Eventually, sharp ball movement will open up some spaces that the US can attack. The style of play might not be as thrilling - sometimes it takes two to tango, after all - but we should still be demanding that the US carves out enough moments to score some goals.
Match date/time: Tuesday 7/7, 9:30pm Eastern
Venue: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, TX)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), Univision Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.