Jerry Bengston took advantage of a defensive mix-up to score the go-ahead goal in the 79th minute, and Honduras rallied to 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 U.S. 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 tied the score with a bicycle kick 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.
"Overall, there were too many mistakes done and too many players today just didn't reach their usual potential," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "They stayed behind their own game and therefore, it's really difficult coming away with a win here if you're not having everybody 100 percent at their limits."
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. No. 59 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., which had been 12-3-3 against Honduras, 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 soccer's showcase.
Klinsmann used his three substitutes in the early part of the second half, inserting Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljestan and Zusi for Danny Williams, Eddie Johnson and Jermaine Jones.
"We had problems closing down the passing lanes, also on the outsides throughout the whole first half and also in the second half," Klinsmann said. "I think with Maurice Edu, things kind of calmed down a bit. He cleaned more up. He played simple balls. We kept more possession. That's what we were asking for."
The general rule in qualifying is to win home games and pick up points on the road. 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.
In openers later Wednesday, Mexico hosted Jamaica and Costa Rica was at Panama. Qualifying resumes next month when the U.S. hosts Costa Rica on March 22 at Commerce City, Colo., then plays four days later at Mexico.
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) on the backline. The Americans had played 16 consecutive qualifiers since 2008 with at least one 30-year-old defender in the starting lineup.
Chandler and Gonzalez, the 6-foot-4 center back from the Los Angeles Galaxy, had never played together before.
The U.S. went ahead when Jozy Altidore played the ball to Jones, who flicked the ball over the defense. In full stride, Dempsey volleyed the ball with his right foot past goalkeeper Noel Valladares from 8 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 -- on a play strung together by three defenders.
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.