U.S. seeks statement-making victory in Honduras
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- From a player's perspective, the U.S.'s final-round World Cup qualifying opener here on Wednesday against Honduras is probably the most physically challenging test of any of the 10 qualifiers they'll play in 2013. Because this is the only single-round fixture date, some players like Clint Dempsey had to play 90 minutes on Sunday for their European clubs, fly to Miami on Monday to join the national team and then fly again to Honduras on Monday night.
"These single-fixture dates that fall in the middle of our seasons are always a challenge," said U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who played in Italy for Roma over the weekend. "It's important for every guy to come in with the right mentality and be ready from the time that plane lands in Miami. We have a good group of guys who have the experience of doing this for a few years. When you get ready for games like this when so much is on the line, you don't need a whole lot of motivation. There's a real sense on our team of excitement where we can see the World Cup on the horizon."
Dead legs and jet-lag will only be part of the equation in Wednesday's game (4 p.m. ET, BeIN Sport). So will the afternoon kickoff time, the better for the Hondurans to take advantage of the 85-degree heat. And so will the intimidating sold-out stadium, made possible by a national holiday being declared in Honduras for the game.
"It's hard," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who played on Saturday in England for Everton and will get in two training sessions with the U.S. before the game. "You're trying to catch up on your rest with the jet-lag. It's not a lot of time to train and game-plan, but that's why the last couple years have been important. You build up that trust so you can get together at the drop of a dime and put it all together."
Make no mistake, Honduras is a tough opponent. The *Catrachos* qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years in 2010, and their team on Wednesday will include several of the players who reached the quarterfinals in last year's Olympics, beating Spain and losing 3-2 to Brazil along the way. Honduras has more athleticism and force than their Central American counterparts, combined with more traditional Latin American skill on the ball. It's why players such as Maynor Figueroa, Roger Espinoza and Wilson Palacios have been good fits in the hard-running English Premier League.
That said, the U.S. has enjoyed more World Cup qualifying success in Honduras than in Mexico and Costa Rica over the years. The Americans won at Honduras in 2001 (thanks to a majestic Clint Mathis free kick) and in 2009, a wild 3-2 victory that clinched the U.S.'s berth in World Cup 2010. For all the insecurity outside the stadium here—the U.S. State Department considers San Pedro Sula the world's most violent city—the atmosphere inside the Estadio Olímpico is friendlier and less openly hostile than in Mexico and Costa Rica. That's partly due to the running track and moat between the fans and the field, but Hondurans also seem more welcoming in general.
How will this game look? Expect a lot of pressure from the Hondurans, as well as some from the U.S., and keep a close eye on Bradley, whose bombing runs from midfield have become even more common in Italy lately. If there's going to be one other difference-maker for the U.S., it's Dempsey, who has been in good scoring form of late for Tottenham Hotspur.
As for Honduras, its lineup figures to have more current MLS players (four) than the U.S. (one). The punishing midfielder Espinoza has made a seamless transition so far from Kansas City to the Premier League, and Costly and Bengtson have been effective scorers at times for Honduras.
Earning a tie and leaving Honduras with a point would be a decent result for the U.S., even if Klinsmann says his team has come here to win three. But as Howard said on Tuesday, "I think a draw is always O.K. on the road in CONCACAF. But having said that, given that we have a few road games, it would be good to pick up a win somewhere along the way. Tomorrow would be a good win."
• United States (projected): Tim Howard; Timmy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson; Danny Williams; Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones; Clint Dempsey, Hérculez Gómez.
• Honduras (confirmed by coach Luis Suárez): Noel Valladares; Arnold Peralta, Víctor Bernárdez, Maynor Figueroa, Juan Carlos García; Óscar Boniek García, Roger Espinoza, Luis Garrido, Mario Martínez; Jerry Bengtson, Carlo Costly.
The on-again, off-again saga of German-American right back Timmy Chandler is finally ready to end for good on Wednesday. After waffling for more than a year about committing to the U.S., Chandler is here with the team and (with Steve Cherundolo's injury absence) seems likely to start. By playing in an official competitive game (i.e., not a friendly) with the U.S. for the first time, Chandler would be cap-tied to the U.S. permanently.
To hear Chandler describe it, his decision-making process had a lot to do with German Jurgen Klinsmann being the U.S. coach. "I spoke with him a lot, and he told me what he wanted to make in the future with USA and at the Brazil World Cup," Chandler said here on Tuesday. "That's why I come here. I want to help the USA, and I hope I can do it ... This whole team is like a family, and I like it very much."
Chandler, an explosive 22-year-old flank player for Nuremberg in the Bundesliga, has the talent to be a starter for the U.S. in the coming years. He has played in nine friendlies for the U.S., but Chandler skipped the 2011 Gold Cup and last fall's World Cup qualifiers, which would have tied him to the U.S., and he only rejoined the U.S. team last November for the friendly at Russia.
In soccer terms, he could become American forever on Wednesday.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard smiled when asked about Chandler on Tuesday. "It was about time, you know?" he said. "There's been a lot of back and forth, probably too much if you ask me, but that's my opinion. We think he's a big part of the team. He's young, but he brings a lot of grit and he's a really good player. Obviously, commitment is a big thing for us, so if that's what he's going to do then we're excited. He's a fantastic player. To have Fabian [Johnson] and Timmy kind of book-end the back four would be great for us with their youth."
• It's hard to believe three-and-a-half years have passed since the last time we were in San Pedro Sula, when the U.S. beat Honduras 3-2 to punch a ticket to World Cup 2010. A couple things that stick out to me about that game: Twitter was already becoming a thing. It was also the last time Charlie Davies started for the U.S. national team. (His awful car accident took place in Washington D.C. a couple days later.) And it was right around the last time we saw a full-strength Oguchi Onyewu in a U.S. uniform. (He suffered a serious knee injury in the next game against Costa Rica.)
• When Klinsmann was asked about the U.S.'s difference-makers in Tuesday's press conference, he mentioned Jermaine Jones in the same breath as Dempsey and Bradley. Clearly, Klinsmann considers Jones to be one of the U.S.'s best players, so expect to keep seeing him in the lineup (unless he picks up another yellow-card suspension).
• The U.S. player selected to join Klinsmann at the formal press conference was Bradley, who sounds more and more like a future captain every day.
• The rest of the U.S. players had the chance to speak to media in a mixed zone before Tuesday's training session at the stadium, but Dempsey decided not to speak. Not sure why.
• Kind of a bummer how much security there needs to be here. I never usually stay in the hotel the whole time, but after hearing reports from the U.S. Embassy and getting mugged in Honduras the last time I was here, I'm not taking any chances.
Let's hope for a good game Wednesday ...