2014 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, February 2013, USMNT

Hex Begins in Honduras: Tall Order for Yanks in Qualifying Opener

One last hexagon for captain Carlos Bocanegra, who has been through these battles before.

One last hexagon for captain Carlos Bocanegra, who has been through these battles before.

Jon Levy

I really couldn’t have said it better than the US Soccer official site myself.

We’re not just playing Honduras, the third best team in CONCACAF. We’re not just playing them in one of the largest, loudest, most hostile venues in CONCACAF either. No, Honduras had to go and declare a national holiday for the afternoon. So you can be sure the stadium will be full, the fans will be in full voice, and the cervezas will be flowing. Maybe we should have brought Jonny Bornstein, King of Honduras, just to pacify the crowd.

In all honesty though, this is the perfect match to start what should be the toughest ever version of the CONCACAF final World Cup Qualifying round. If we’re gonna be in a fight, and we are, might as well take the shirt off and get a little bloody as early as possible. Time to acclimate.

The Series: The United States lead, 12-3-3. The Americans have fared pretty well against Los Catrachos in World Cup qualifying, sporting a record of 4-1-1, with the lone loss actually coming on American soil in 2001. More interestingly, the Yanks are 3-0 at he Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula. The Americans won 3-2 at this same venue in October 2009. The Americans are 3-1-1 historically in Honduras.

Weather: Mid-80’s at kick. Hot. Sticky. Humid. Chance of rain around 30 percent. Chance of urine bags and batteries hurled: 100 percent.

Fun Fact about San Pedro Sula: Tallying 159 homicides per every 100,000 residents, San Pedro Sula was named the “World’s Most Violent Place” in 2011. Figures on 2012 aren’t conclusive at the time of this writing.

What we will see out of the Yanks? Timmy Chandler, for one.

What we will see out of the Yanks? Timmy Chandler, for one.

What will we see out of The Yanks?

We’re about to see three quarters of the backline of the future. Unless he changes his mind about America being awesome at the last minute (and yeah, if you were following in the Twitterverse, the “just saw Timmy Chandler at the Miami Airport, just saw Timmy Chandler at a hamburger stand, etc. tweets were a bit extreme), we’ll see a newly cap-tied Timmy “Son of Frankenstein” Chandler at right back. Put that together with Fabian Johnson at left back and you’ve got a lean, mean, pair of Germerican full backs. Add center half Geoff Cameron to the mix, and these are the guys we’ll probably see anchoring the American backline for many years to come. And yes, you can still expect to see captain Carlos Bocanegra alongside Cameron in this match and for many still to come. This is all the more likely given the fact that the Americans lost 2-1 without Bocanegra on the road in Kingston earlier in the qualifying tournament. The Captain’s nerve and experience is still essential to this team, particularly on the road.

As for the midfield and the attack, Jurgen will be looking for consistency and calmness on the ball as always, but he should also be looking for a cutting edge that can turn possessions on the edge of the Honduran box into chances. If you watched the dreadfully boring friendly against Canada, you know of the general offensive impotence of which I type (even if that was the fourth string American team failing to find the seams). This inability to spring the lock on opposing disciplined defenses has sadly been a constant under Klinsmann, and unless you want to bite your nails through all of 2013, that better change soon. Thankfully, I think it will. The offensive nous of Chandler and Fabian Johnson will help the attack, as will the off-ball movement of players who’ve played together long enough to develop some semblance of chemistry. After a bad night in the Canada friendly Graham Zusi might just look good again when his teammates aren’t standing around, slack jawed, looking at him and wondering what he might do with the ball.

Among a glut of holding midfielders, Sacha Kljestan's creativity and ability to play three-touch football may be useful Wednesday off the bench.

Among a glut of holding midfielders, Sacha Kljestan’s creativity and ability to play three-touch football may be useful Wednesday off the bench.

There are two other things to note. First, the omission of Kyle Beckerman may simply say something about the depth the Americans have at the holding midfielder spot. If it does, that’s fine. That said, it may also say something about his intended formation. The 4-3-3 might be discarded, for the time being, for the comfort of the 4-4-2. Unless Sacha Kljestan (who deserved very much his inclusion in this roster) starts, you’re still dealing with a glut of two-touch midfielders who in general protect and distribute, and although this label also applies to Beckerman, his exclusion may suggest Klinsmann is more comfortable, at least on the road, utilizing MB 90 and Jermaine Jones in these roles rather than allowing them to advance forward more freely. In the 4-3-3, especially on a roster without say, Benny Feilhaber, there aren’t many three touch options to unlock defenses and if you are fielding the “Best Available”, there isn’t much width unless you are demanding it come from your fullbacks. So it seems to us, at least, that the 4-4-2 is very likely the formation and Bradley and Jones will be your holders. Maurice Edu is the next option, though given his sparse club playing time until late, and his recent loan, it would seem unlikely he would start.

Second, even without Beckerman (who has seen hostile central American pitches and venues in his CONCACAF Champions League adventures), Klinsmann still has plenty of gritty veterans who have fought these wars before. As Jason Davis writes here, Carlos Bocanegra is still the outward leader of this team, and he’ll play, as will Clint Dempsey, MB 90, Mo Edu, Jermaine Jones, Herculez Gomez and Jozy Altidore. For all of these players, the challenges of hostile, urine-bag tossing, locker room wall shaking, tiny country national holiday having qualifying adventures will not be new. Even with the inclusion of some “green faces” to this process- Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Brad Davis– most the battle will be won or lost by the grizzled war horses. And there’s always the Americans Alamo: that man in goal.

The San Pedro Sula will be rocking, but Honduras have never beaten the States in that building.

The San Pedro Sula will be rocking, but Honduras have never beaten the States in that building.

What to watch for from Honduras:

Aside from a well-lubricated crowd on a national holiday? Luis Fernando Suárez is a perfect fit as coach of Honduras, and the team should be harder to break down because of him. Suárez coached the gritty Ecuadorian 2006World Cup team that England needed a Beckham free kick to beat in the first match of the knockout round. This manager gets a lot out of a little, and lucky for him, relative to CONCACAF, the talent on the Honduras roster doesn’t even fall into the “little” category. Over the course of the last couple World Cup cycles Honduras has shown the preference to possess the ball, but they’re not slicing through a solid defense. Meanwhile, they’re also comfortable hitting on the break, and their strikers are adept at slotting the ball into the back of the net given only a peasant’s share of chances (not just Carlos Costly either, Jerry Bengston also bangs them in). That’s a Luis Fernando Suárez squad, and they’ve been playing that way since well before he got there in 2011. So the manager’s job will be to make minor adjustments, emphasize what Honduras already does well, and minimize the weaknesses that have kept Los Catrachos steady defending their spot as number three in CONCACAF rather than challenging for top two status. Seems like a lot less work that what Jurgen’s doing huh?

Another advantage Los Catrachos have Wednesday afternoon, beyond the inevitably rabid San Pedro Sula crowd, is continuity. In their final three matches in the third round of qualifying (a 1-0 win over Cuba, a scoreless draw at Panama, and a 8-1 shellacking of Canada), Los Catrachos fielded the same exact lineup twice and one with only mild changes in the other match (the win over Cuba). Georgie Welcome, Mauricio Sabillon, Roger Espinoza and Marvin Chavez were the only field-player changes in those matches, and none of them saw the field in the final two matches. Of those four, only Welcome and Espinoza made this roster, and with many from this group gaining even more experience playing together in the central American championship this winter, this is a unit that is cohesive, together and ought to be ready to go Wednesday. That’s not something to underestimate, especially given how well Los Catrachos have played of late.

Roger Espinoza is off to a bright start at Wigan Athletic. Will he key a victory for Honduras Wednesday evening?

Roger Espinoza is off to a bright start at Wigan Athletic. Will he key a victory for Honduras Wednesday evening?

Honduran Player to Watch: Roger Espinoza

Just the type of player who can give the Yanks hell. Roger is a defensive midfielder primarily, but he can also play defender, and he knows his way around the opponent’s side of the field as well. But it’s not versatility of opportunism that defines Espinoza, it’s work rate. Whether you saw Espinoza impress in the 2012 Olympics, with Sporting KC, or now with Wigan Athletic in the Premiership, you know exactly what he brings to the table. He works his socks off, disrupting offensive flow, dispossessing opponents and generally wreaking havoc on any patient buildup play the opposing team is trying to execute. Not good news for an American squad that aspires to a patient and dangerous attack. Especially since that attack is still a work in progress.

Thankfully Roger Espinoza isn’t a lock to start every match for Honduras, but one would think he’d get the nod on Wednesday, particularly after his heroics last week against Stoke City, where he rewarded Roberto Martinez’s faith in him with two laser like precision passes to set up goals by James McArthur and Franco di Santo. The goals allowed Wigan to steal a point that looked surely lost at the Britannia, and it’s the type of inspiring performance that often serves as a springboard into international play. But hey, maybe Suarez will keep his butt on the bench in this one, and this section will be for nought.

Hostile crowd, no Landon Donovan, CONCACAF's best back four. Sounds like a job for Tottenham's Texan.

Hostile crowd, no Landon Donovan, CONCACAF’s best back four. Sounds like a job for Tottenham’s Texan.

US Player to Watch: Clint Dempsey

It’s no stretch to name the USMNT’s best field player the “Player to Watch,” but Clint’s importance is only growing as we kickoff the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying. Unlike Bob Bradley, Klinsmann likes Deuce to play centrally, not on the wings, and that’s where he’s increasingly more comfortable. So throughout the qualification process we should see Clint in the opponent’s penalty area more often than we did during the hexagonal round of qualifying in 2009. But will Dempsey operate more as an attacking midfielder or a center forward? Obviously he’s a player that can excel in either role, but his killer instinct in front of goal might just unseat Altidore and/or Herculez Gomez. That is, if Jurgen ever finds another central attacking midfielder that he can trust. What’s more- unless you think Jozy fits this role (we don’t)- this roster lacks a target forward. Clint Dempsey, at the least, is a ballstopper, and he’s good enough with the ball at his feet to play a hybrid version of the target forward role in a match where the US will absolutely need to make the most of its forays into the Honduran final third. Dempsey will need to be at his finest Wednesday night. This is the first away final round qualifier in three cycles without Landon Donovan, and it happens to be in one of the most hostile places, against CONCACAF’s finest back four. That’s a Texas-sized challenge.

Prediction: Honduras 2 – 2 USA

On paper this match looks like a one-nothing win for somebody, but the Super Bowl wasn’t supposed to be a 65 point thriller either. Two defense-first teams find space against each other, make numerous tactical adjustments, and play a four goal barn burner. It’s just got that feel to it. I’ll be hoping the Yanks spoil the Honduras national holiday and somehow get out of dodge with three points. Enjoy the match and Go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon

Jon Levy