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Skin in the Game: Pregaming USA v Honduras
- Updated: February 6, 2013
San Pedro Sula. The words come off your tongue with dark poetry. They sound like rain and heat and jungle. There’s a weight too; the weight of the blue and white masses, the thunder of their voices pounding into the pitch, the sound echoing and intensifying off the wet concrete. Welcome to Honduras. Welcome to the murder capital of the world. Welcome to the Hex. The Yanks are coming.
United States vs Honduras
Hexagonal Round, CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying
Estadio Olympico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Wednesday, February 6
TV: BeIn Sport (English & Spanish)
Pre/Half/Post Game Coverage: The Best Soccer Show
If it’s true that qualifying matches in Europe are duels, then the Hex is a knife fight in the dark alley behind a bar. It’s grimy, there are few rules, and sometimes the spectators get involved. Its fitting then that the USMNT should kick off the final round of qualification in a city that both the State Department & Interpol openly call the most violent in the world.
The last time the Yanks took the field in San Pedro Sula, in the immediate wake of a coup that had overthrown the Honduran government and had almost lead to the relocation of the match, they overcame a weak and confused back line, whose best player was a completely unironic Jonathan Bornstein, and won with the shocking play of Conor Casey, who became his own apotheosis in a performance that would have been called a breakout if he had ever followed it up.
Casey’s stunning performance, two goals and an absolute domination of the Honduran defense, sealed the American qualification for South Africa in the next to last game of the 2009 Hex. This year’s edition of the matchup, though lacking the political ambiance and sense of an imminent finish line, is no less vital. With three of the first four qualifiers on the road, the Yanks must make hay while the sun shines, or the rain falls, in the case of Honduras.
With only two days of full squad practice prior to the match, and in a hostile environment, Klinsmann is likely to rely on veterans and play a defensive, controlling formation against what is likely the best Honduran squad the US has ever faced. The Catrachos return a good part of their surprising Olympic side, not notably Roger Espinoza, the former Sporting KC mid who just transferred to Wigan. Former DC United right back Andy Najar, now of Anderlect in the Belgian Superliga is out with an injury and won’t make the match day roster, but nine of the Honduran players have spent time in MLS. Their speed and short passing game could give the US defense trouble, and their paired strikers, Carlos Costly of the Houston Dynamo and Jerry Bengston of the Revolution move very well off the ball. Captain Carlos Bocanegra will have to call the defensive line very well to maintain the offside trap.
Look for the US to deploy something like this:
Who’s the Boss? While the 2009 match will forever be remembered as the Conor Casey game, it was a bravura performance by Landon Donovan, dictating the flow of play, that allowed the Americans to recover from the early Honduran assault and find the gaps for the target man to exploit. Without Donovan, who will the Americans look to to control the match from the midfield? This sort of match seems tailor-made for Michael Bradley, but it would be good to see Graham Zusi assert himself as playmaker on a big stage.
Deputy Mayor? Another qualifier in Honduras, and once again the right side of the US back line won’t be manned by the ageless Mayor of Hannover, Steve Cherundolo, who is recovering from an injury. In his place we should see Timmy Chandler finally cap tie to the United States. Chandler possess great speed and tactical skill, and the sheer pace on the US wings with Chandler and Fabian Johnson offers intriguing possibilities, but he has never played in a road qualifier and as they say, you don’t know until you know. You have only to look at the 2011 Gold Cup final to see what can happen when a Mayor-less US backline places in front of a hostile crowd. Will the defense suffer, or will Chandler take a step twards a right back coup?
Yellow means caution. Five USA players are currently carrying yellow cards from the last round of qualifying: Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Maurice Edu, Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi. Their next caution will result in a one-match suspension. Playing in San Pedro Sula, with questionable refereeing and in front of a hostile crowd, will the Americans be able to come out clean? It would almost be preferable for the Yanks to take a yellow in this match, and miss the home contest against Costa Rica, rather than perhaps be absent for the assault on the Azteca in March.
Get out of the kitchen. The Hondurans scheduled the game at an odd time, 3 p.m. local, in order to take advantage of the heat and humidity of the capital. The forecast at kickoff is 85 degrees, 90% humidity and rain. The American squad is almost certainly better conditioned, but come from playing in winter conditions in Europe and Northern Mexico, or from the MLS off season while the Hondurans have been training in tropical conditions, but are almost all out of season. Which side’s energy will flag in the latter stages of the match, as the heat and dense air take effect? The answer to that question could well determine the match.
The US gives up a goal early, but comes back to draw 2-2 in the rain. Goals for Graham Zusi and Hercules Gomez. Man of the match goes to Roger Espinoza in a star-making turn.
The PSL Soccer Desk Staff will be at The Crossbar in Havertown for the game. Feel free to find us, or follow a stream-of-consciousness tweeting @PSLsoccerdesk or @RichardMcGovern.
Stick with Philly Sports Live for continuing coverage of the USMNT as they make their way to Brasil 2014.