U.S.-Honduras looks to be scorcher
With win over Honduras Saturday, U.S. can qualify for its sixth straight World Cup
Honduras boasts perhaps its best team ever, will make things hard on Americans
U.S. hasn't done well on road in Central Americans, will be without Clint Dempsey
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- You'd be forgiven for thinking you had traveled in a time warp back to the 1980s for the U.S.' big World Cup qualifier against Honduras here on Saturday night (10 p.m. ET, closed-circuit TV in English and Spanish).
After all, the only way you can watch the game in the U.S. is via closed-circuit, a throwback to the days when you had to schlep to a theater to see heavyweight title fights. We're also in the middle of an old-school Central American political crisis here in Honduras, a country with two presidents locked in a post-coup standoff. And from a soccer perspective, Honduras is on the verge of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
I'm half-expecting to see Oliver North, the Miami Vice guys and the U.S. players wearing majestic '80s-style mullets on Saturday night.
So you'd be right if you thought that tensions might be high in advance of the game. As my cab driver Carlo told me outside the U.S. team hotel on Wednesday, "There's more security at the hotel than when Hillary Clinton stayed here!"
Despite all the complications, the stakes are relatively simple for Game 9 of this 10-game World Cup qualifying tournament. With a victory, the U.S. will clinch a berth in the 2010 World Cup. As for Honduras, a win (and beneficial results elsewhere) could put the Catrachos in the field of 32 for South Africa. And a tie? Well, a tie probably wouldn't do much good for either team.
That's why we could be in for a barn-burner of a game, the kind of back-and-forth, high-scoring shootout that we'd be talking about for years. "We know it won't be easy," U.S. forward Jozy Altidore said, "but we all would like to throw everything at them on Saturday and just be done with it."
Why, even U.S. coach Bob Bradley is expecting fireworks, and he's not usually a fireworks kind of guy. "We will certainly start this match with the idea that we want to be the aggressor," Bradley said. At the same time, he added, "It would also be naive to think that they're not going to be flying and going with everything at the start. So hopefully, we can match that and get this game off to a fast, good start."
Both teams will be missing important players. Midfielder Clint Dempsey is out with a shoulder sprain for the U.S., and Bradley said his primary replacement options will be Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber. I suspect we'll see Holden, who plays more of a traditional right-sided role than either Dempsey or Feilhaber would. Both Holden and probable right back Jonathan Spector are capable of serving good crosses into the box, something we haven't seen much of from the U.S. of late (unless it has been Landon Donovan).
For its part, Honduras will be without midfielders Amado Guevara and Danilo Turcios, who are both out on yellow-card suspensions. "Amado's typically their captain, he's a creative midfielder and he's capable of also contributing defensively," said Bradley, who coached Guevara with the MetroStars. "All of those things they'll miss. But they've got a talented group of players, so we're expecting others to step up in a big game like this."
Indeed, this Honduran team is being hailed as perhaps the best Catrachos outfit of all time. Better, even, than the '82 World Cup team that tied host Spain. Honduras boasts four starters from top European leagues in Wilson Palacios (Tottenham Hotspur), Edgar Álvarez (Bari) and Hendry Thomas and Maynor Figueroa (both Wigan Athletic). David Suazo made a name for himself in Italy and is still with Inter Milan. And if you could believe it, 36-year-old L.A. Galaxy castoff Carlos Pavón is playing like he's 25 again.
"They're a little bit different than other countries in Central America," Donovan said. "They're not as technical as some of the other teams, but they're physically more gifted. They're stronger, they're faster, they play more direct. So it's going to be a good matchup, because that's similar to how we play, too."
Throw in the usual challenges of playing a road World Cup qualifier in Central America, and the U.S. has its work cut out to beat Honduras, which is 8-0-0 with a 23-3 goal differential in 2010 World Cup qualifiers at home.
U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said he has a hard time explaining Central American qualifiers to his club teammates back in Germany. "It's easy for guys in a locker room in Germany to say, 'Honduras, you should win that game,' or 'Guatemala, that's an easy one,' " Bradley said. "But unless you've been there and played in these games, it's not something you can understand."
"I don't want to say it's not soccer, because of course it is," Bradley continued. "But it's something completely different. It's two teams that go on the field and just fight like hell to impose their will on each other. And in the end, who wins is who does that better. That means so many things -- the field, the crowd, the weather, the referee -- on top of the things that go into a normal game. How sharp are you? How many guys do you have playing well?"
From a psychological perspective, Honduras knows that it really needs a win in its final home game to avoid a November playoff against the fifth-place team from South America (perhaps Argentina or Ecuador). At the same time, the U.S. players know in the backs of their minds that they can lose here and still clinch a World Cup berth with at least a tie at home on Oct. 14 against Costa Rica.
But while Honduras will be the favorite at home on Saturday, keep in mind that the Catrachos have a history of choking on home soil when they're on the verge of a World Cup berth. Witness their 1-0 loss here to bottom-feeding Trinidad and Tobago on Matchday 9 in 2001, a shocking defeat that made the difference in Honduras finishing three points out of the running for the '02 World Cup.
Still, the U.S. needs to overcome its own hurdles when it comes to playing in Central America. It's no coincidence that the Yanks' two worst performances in this World Cup qualifying round have taken place in El Salvador (a 2-2 tie) and in Costa Rica (an ugly 3-1 loss).
"You're not sure what kind of U.S. team you're going to get when you travel to Honduras or El Salvador or Costa Rica," former U.S. captain John Harkes said. "At this point when U.S. Soccer has grown and competed in World Cups throughout the years, shouldn't we be above that?"
Perhaps. In the end, the goal of World Cup qualifying is to qualify, and style points don't count. Yet even Altidore is aware that the Americans tend to play to the level of their competition, for good and for bad.
"A lot of the guys feel like we haven't been at our best since the summer," Altidore said. "We've played good football, but at the same time, how we played last summer is different from how we're playing now. But it's natural to go through those ups and downs, and we're still getting the job done. That's the most important thing."
If all goes well for the Americans, the job will be complete by Saturday or, at the very least, by next Wednesday. Not many teams qualify for six consecutive World Cups. This is their chance to make it happen.
Grant Wahl's New York Times Best Seller, The Beckham Experiment, is in bookstores everywhere. You can order it here. He'll be providing commentary before and during Saturday's game from Honduras on Twitter.