SANDY, Utah — As goaltender Tim Howard looks out from in front of the U.S. net, he likes what he sees: the scoring of striker Jozy Altidore, the ball control of the midfielders and the steadiness of the defense.
Oh, yeah, and like the rest of his teammates, he also can see a spot in next year’s World Cup there for the taking.
Before 20,250 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium, the Americans remained atop the six-team CONCACAF group. The U.S. (4-1-1) has won three straight games this month, all since a 0-0 draw at Mexico gave it a boost toward the top.
Honduras (2-3-1, 7 points) did little to threaten the Americans offensively before and after the game’s only goal in the 73rd minute. It marked the fourth time in six games the U.S. earned a shutout.
“Every time we get a clean sheet, we feel like the best players in the world,” Howard said. “We’ve been on a roll. It’s good for the young guys in the back. It gets us feeling good about ourselves. Every time we have a good performance, we put it in our back pocket and save it.”
With four games remaining, the Americans are in excellent shape to qualify for their seventh successive World Cup. They have road games at Costa Rica and Panama, and home games with Mexico and Jamaica.
The top three teams in CONCACAF qualifying move directly to Brazil 2014, and the fourth-place team will face a playoff against New Zealand.
“We’re trying to keep our feet on the ground, of course,” Howard said. “But going back over the last 15-20 years, we know what points total gets you to the World Cup. So it’s been a hugely successful summer.”
And summer hasn’t even begun.
The visitors made it difficult on the Americans for much of the game, slowing the pace before Altidore broke through.
It was Altidore’s ninth goal in a qualifier as he finally develops into the scoring threat the United States has hoped for.
“We always told him from a coaching perspective that it takes a lot of hard work, it takes a lot of adjustment, it takes the right moment to be there, it takes the hunger,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “The energy he has put in the last four or five games has been tremendous. It’s not only that he scored those goals, the work he does for the team is awesome.”
Both teams played physical soccer in the first half, leading to an emphasis on defense and a limited number of scoring chances on either side of the field.
Just before the first period ended, though, Howard was forced to make a difficult save when Andy Najar launched a running right-footer from the right side of the box. He met the ball in the center of the box and deflected it outside the right post.
Eddie Johnson had a chance in the 17th minute when he latched onto a cross from Fabian Johnson, but his left-footed shot from the center of the box was knocked away by Valladares.
Klinsmann expected Honduras, even with a depleted roster, to force his players to slog through a tough first half. Their ability to be patient and grind down the Honduras defense offered an example of how much the Americans have grown in 2013.
“The team now understands it’s not only a physical grind you put into these games,” Klinsmann said. “It’s a mental one. Mentally we’re getting stronger. We’re getting tougher. We are now prepared to go through the games.”
When the U.S. stepped up the offensive pressure early in the second half, it put Honduras on its heels. Altidore, who did not speak to reporters, had the finishing touch to make the aggressive push count.
He even appeared to score earlier in the half. Moments after Graham Zusi sent a free kick into a crowd of players just outside the 6-yard box in the 56th minute, only to see Brad Evans’ header go right into Valladares‘ gloves, Altidore got behind the defense. Clint Dempsey sent a through ball ahead to Altidore, who was ruled offside and his score was negated.
His teammates knew Altidore couldn’t be denied forever.
“As long as we do our job in the back, they get the opportunity to score goals,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “Jozy is on fire right now. He keeps on scoring. Man, I love Jozy up top. He’s doing great.”
Valladares came up with another clutch save in the 69th minute. Zusi, who was particularly active all night after sitting out the win over Panama because of yellow card accumulation, sent a ball into Dempsey in the center of the box and he leaned into a point-blank header. The ball bounced off of Valladares‘ hands and Michael Bradley sent a follow-up shot too high.