2018 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, September 2017, USMNT

To Reach World Cup, US Must Earn Result Away In Honduras: The TYAC Preview

The Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula has seen some thrilling USA-Honduras tilts. But it’s hard to say one has ever had as much at stake as Tuesday’s.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

Bruce Arena called it correctly late last week when he said “If we lose (to Costa Rica) Friday night, all hell breaks loose.” 

That’s precisely where we are now, following the US being defeated decisively by Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena.

The US will enter Tuesday’s game at the heatbox cauldron that is the Estadio Olímpico sitting in third place, but only thanks to goal differential. Their opponent, Honduras, sit in fourth and are coming off a 2-1 win at Trinidad and Tobago where they played some of their best football under manager Jorge Luis Pinto. Couple that with Honduras’s motivation to avenge a humiliating 6-0 defeat to the United States this March, and you understand the intensity of the situation and pressure facing the Americans at a venue where every result earned has been a battle. 

Here are the HEX standings. Top three qualify automatically and the fourth place team earns a playoff bid against an Asian federation side (Bold denotes would qualify automatcially; * denotes qualified for Russia).

Team W D L GF GA +/- Points
Mexico* 5 2 0 10 2 8 17
Costa Rica

 

4 2 1 11 4 7 14
United States 2 2 3 11 10 1 8
Honduras 2 2 3 8 15 -7 8
Panama 1 4 2 4 5 -1 7
Trinidad and Tobago 1 0 6 4 12 -8 3

The US veterans know a battle is coming. They understand the heat of the moment.

“It’s going to be a grind in every sense of the word,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley told reporters Sunday evening. “These are the days that are hard to explain to people who aren’t here. This is our reality. We’re going to use [Monday and Tuesday] and make sure that come kickoff we’re ready to deal with whatever the game and the conditions are and be ready to go for it.”

One would think, given the heat expected Tuesday afternoon, a suspension to forward Jozy Altidore and some of the subpar individual performances Friday night in New Jersey, that Bruce Arena will make several changes to the team. Arena told reporters as much on Monday, saying that “if [European-based players] are going to play in one of these two games, it’s going to be the first one,” but then noting there were “exceptions.” But Arena is mindful that he has to be careful to strike the right balance between making thoughtful, calculated changes and appearing to panic when the stakes are highest. 

This isn’t a time for panic.

The US had some nice moments against the Ticos, especially in build-up play, and they looked like a team with ideas on the counterattack. They failed, repeatedly, to find the final combination passes around the goal- whether it was Bobby Wood or a hard-charging Jorge Villafana or even a slightly-off-kilter Christian Pulisic. But this wasn’t the type of US loss fans have seen at times this cycle, where the US are outpossessed, outshot and out-created. On the contrary, the Americans controlled possession, won the shots battle 14-9 and produced 1.26 expected goals to Costa Rica’s 0.6. They lost because a new backline on defense looked out-of-sync, because despite entering the game in torrid form Geoff Cameron played his worst game in a US shirt in years,  and because Costa Rica finished their chances well and received some tremendous goalkeeping. Soccer is so often interesting because these things happen. In international soccer, with its small sample sizes, these things can be particularly cruel.

The TYAC Preview then.  Usuals, then the particulars.

Series: 25th Meeting. The United States lead, 16-4-4. The US lead 3-1-1 on Honduran soil, including winning a mesmerizing 3-2 game in 2009 behind a brace from Conor Casey. Bob Bradley was roundly criticized by many for including Casey in that team- but he understood Honduras’s weaknesses in the center of the field and believed the target man would pose problems. It paid off grandly. Here’s a great piece by Matthew Tomaszewicz on that match- one of the best match recaps I’ve ever read.

Here’s the video highlights.

Bruce Arena is unbeaten in 7 contests against the Ticos, with the most recent win being the Americans’ dominant victory in March.

All told, the history of the rivalry,past and present, favors the US to get the points they need this afternoon.

Weather: Hot. Humid. Around 90 at kick with a chance of thunderstorms. The kick is set for just after 5PM ET, which is midday at 3PM in Honduras. There was a time where the Hondurans would play the US at night down there- but after 2009, the federation essentially vowed to never do it again. The federation believes the heat is their friend, and the daytime start serves to maximize their advantage. How much truth there is to that is hard to say. One could easily fashion a counterargument that playing later in the day gives Honduran fans more time to party and build-up their vitriol for the US. And it’s easier to cheer at night, when there’s a modicum of relief from the sapping heat. Couple louder and angrier fans with poor floodlights and visibility, and maybe a later start would be tougher. But Conor Casey happened so we get daytime.

Whatever the deal weather wise, it’s a tough one for the European guys, as Arena mentioned. With humidity around 90 percent, Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 10.

Alex Lopez, one of Honduran’s marvelous Olympians who helped the country finish 4th in Rio, is beginning to come into his own. He scored against Trinidad and Tobago Friday.

What to Watch for from Honduras:

A confident team playing better soccer for an under-fire manager. A better game plan than in March.

Pinto, one of the better tacticians in the international game, was stunned by Bruce Arena’s decision to play a high line with pressure in the March tilt. The US entered with a host of injuries and short on confidence after the troubling autumn leading to Klinsmann’s termination. Pinto felt the Americans would sit a bit deeper and allow his 5-4-1 (he’s one of the managers who made it fashionable, using to incredible effect guiding Costa Rica to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2014) room to absorb patient build-up play and pick spots to pressure passing lanes and break. Instead, the US played a diamond, with Jozy Altidore charging very high up the pitch and pinning the Honduran CB’s very deep. This caused shape problems for Honduras, and the the US, with Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic exploiting the space beneath Altidore, were able to punish Honduras for these deficiencies.

I don’t imagine Pinto will repeat this error- and with Altidore out- it’s fair to ask if Bobby Wood can replicate the plan, or if Arena would be wise to try.

Friday night, Honduras played to its personnel rather than the country’s historic tendency to play very deep and try to snatch a goal on the counterattack. 1-0 wins are part of Honduras’s lasting soccer history, they are why the small central American country has qualified for consecutive World Cups despite politically turbulent headwinds at home and the lack of dynamic playmakers.

The times they are a-changing.

Honduras finished 4th at the 2014 Olympics under Jorge Luis Pinto and while not all of that team has caught on abroad, the high-level playmaking talent has. Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto have played well in MLS. Anthony Lozano has scored 7 goals internationally in limited senior team time and is a prospect legendary club Barcelona gobbled up this summer, and opted to keep at home to develop, rather than loan. Alexander Lopez continues to play in Honduras, but there are whispers a Liga MX move is imminent and his play Friday night was marvelous, including this howitzer of a goal.

The main thing Pinto has done since March is play to this attacking talent.

The 4-3-3 he used against Trinidad and Tobago played like one, with Elis the tip of the spear and two wide forwards, Quioto and Lozano up top with him. Quioto’s pace dictated that he sit wider, almost on the sideline, to assure width and room for Lopez to float as the high man in the next line of three. Lozano, meanwhile, played a bit more central, running the channels.

The midfield behind the three forwards was essentially one attacker in Lopez and then the steady Jorge Claros deep and central. Alfredo Mejia, a no-nonsense defensive midfielder who plays in Greece, rounds out the group.

Pinto’s backline continues to pose some issues.

Donis Escobar was the goalkeeper in March. He was the least rangy and talented keeper in CONCACAF, and it showed early in the Hex. Pinto used the summer to get Luis Lopez valuable repetitions and started him Friday night in the Hex. His performance was strong and he helped the Catrachos earn three points instead of one. I think it is a substantial upgrade.

Henry Figueroa is the most talented of the Olympic group, but has struggled with consistency at the international level. Maynor Figureoa isn’t getting any younger, but with 142 caps, he’s basically indispensable. Ever Alvarado used to join him in the back; he was ushered out after the debacle against the United States. Felix Crisanto, a youngster that plays in Honduras and is good in the air, replaces him.

The Catrachos will be without Emilio Izaguirre tonight, who was sent off late in the match against Trinidad and Tobago. He was Honduras’s biggest threat on the overlap and it will be interesting to see how they replace him this evening. Pinto has talked about using Boniek Garcia in that role, but this eliminates one of his best bench options in attack. The remaining options are all Honduran-based players and the US would do well to work the Honduran left flank.

In the end, Honduras may be a bit more conservative than they were in Port-of-Spain Friday, given the opponent. But the lesson of the last game with the United States is that playing reactive soccer against the United States was a failure for the Catrachos. In the heat and comforts of home, look for Honduras to be a bit more aggressive, pressure some and try to stamp their authority on the game. I’d especially expect them to test the shaky American fullbacks, whether it is Villafana against Lozano or Quioto against Lichaj or Zusi.

All told, expect a vastly different look than the Americans saw in March.

Bruce Arena has some difficult decisions to make against Honduras.

What to Watch for From the United States:

This is the most important soccer match the United States has played in World Cup qualifying in many years. How does the US handle the moment? Can they give the team balance with smart changes without rewriting the wheel in a road qualifier? And can they seize the initiative and score early?

The latter point- scoring early, wouldn’t just help confidence. In the heat and humidity, it could prove vital. The later the game goes close, the more it favors a draw or Honduras.

Three key questions ahead of this game.

Expect the US to modify the formation. This begins with the forward decision.

In San Jose, the US played a diamond with a hard-charging Jozy Altidore forcing Honduras’s three man CB line to drop deep and choose between marking his hard runs or helping in the cleared out space behind. The US scored six times, suggesting they didn’t often make the proper decision. 

Altidore is suspended, of course, the product of a rash yellow card he earned Friday night that was a disappointing end to a night where he was quietly effective. In his stead, the Americans likely will start Bobby Wood.  The question is whether Wood will be isolated, in a 4-2-3-1, or if he’ll receive help, in the form of a sitting just underneath Jordan Morris or a side-by-side Clint Dempsey or Chris Wondolowski. 

Wood plays in a 4-2-3-1 for his club in Hamburg, and he showed Friday night again that he’s a capable hold-up player, at least until it becomes time to combine a pass. The lone forward approach would also guarantee the US aim to provide help to Michael Bradley in the center of the field, assuring that while Bradley does the yeoman’s work of shielding the backline, there’s always a distributional conduit to prevent the US from getting disjointed or cut off from the back to the midfield.

Then again, history dictates the US don’t do too well when they play with a lone forward, and Arena may decide that in this big a moment, it is too risky to save Dempsey for another appearance off the bench. Alternatively, he may opt to give the US the speed of Morris charging at Honduras’s backline, trusting Wood to peel away defenders the way Altidore did in San Jose. There is a risk Honduras is wholly prepared for this type of two forward approach, but Arena may think the juice is worth the squeeze, and gamble that even if Honduras knows it is coming, they simply lack the pace and defensive quality to deal with it.

It’s a tough call, but ultimately, sometimes if you set up to draw you lose. That’s the inherent risk in a lone forward, whether the US opt to go 4-5-1 or 5-4-1. We’d use Wood at the top with Morris underneath, trusting the speed of Morris to carve out extra space for the rest of the US attack.

A road game in the Honduran heat might be a perfect time for the Americans consummate grinder- Ale Bedoya.

What of the midfield? Should Bradley be isolated?

Michael Bradley was the Americans best player Friday night, but often found himself with little help, either covering defensive ground and shielding or, more vitally, in the form of release valves. Caught in between the desire to link up with the forwards and help, Darlington Nagbe was largely ineffectual, leaving the US fairly impotent moving the ball through the center. 

Honduras, however, suddenly appear to have dangerous attacking talents, and the Americans will likely want to help their captain out. Kellyn Acosta had a rough Gold Cup and hasn’t played particularly well for Dallas this summer either. Dax McCarty’s experience could be valuable, but would his lack of recovery speed and tendency to sit very deep damage the US shape, pushing them too deep? Would Alejandro Bedoya make sense centrally in this match, given his ability to track runners? 

This feels like a Bedoya game. He’s the consummate American grinder, and while it won’t be a popular call, it’s also worth considering that using Bedoya in a 4-4-2 ushers Pulisic out on the right flank.That makes sense in this match, affording Arena the liberty to play a somewhat deeper-situated central midfield. Pulisic, who plays wide for Borussia Dortmund, will be paired against a backup Honduran left back, spelling World Cup veteran Emilio Izaguirre. This is matchup soccer- and the US should deploy Pulisic where they can best exploit this matchup. Bedoya is a capable link-up player who also understands the import of keeping the ball to build possession, especially on the road. He’s the wisest choice, but only narrowly, over Dax McCarty. Either would make a good deal of sense.

Should the US switch goalkeepers? TYAC think so.

Finally, will the US make wholesale changes in the back? At Keeper?

This starts in goal, where Tim Howard had a bit of a howler Friday evening.

Goalkeeping debates always center around the following question: one game, have to get a result, who do you start?

For years, the answer to that question for Americans was always Tim Howard. Is it now? Would Guzan, a better distributor of the ball these days and a player in better form, be the choice? Is the choice even on this roster? Is that a debate for another day?

At TYAC, we’d go Guzan, despite the operative and reasonable assumption that Howard, long his most vocal critic, understands he had a poor night Friday and will respond. Here’s the thing: the US needed Friday night too, and Howard’s positioning and footwork, long strengths, were poor, especially on the opener. Guzan is also better as a distributor since Howard’s leg injury last year and he’s the guy who has delivered on the road this cycle. Another tough call, but time for the switch.

Potential US deployment against Honduras Tuesday.

In defense, Jorge Villafana was poor Friday and will likely be replaced by DaMarcus Beasley. The veteran is in camp for his leadership and the thinking was probably always to spare him for this particular match, just as the US did in the June sequence of qualifiers. Should the US opt to play five in the back, Beasley still slots in comfortably as a wingback wholly capable of helping the US keep the ball.

On the right, Graham Zusi was steady enough against Costa Rica, putting in perhaps the only decent performance in a series of poor defensive performances. He could get the call or Geoff Cameron, who has played right back once for Stoke this season, could move out there to help the Americans deal with the questions Honduras asks out wide.

At CB, look for the inclusion of positionally sound World Cup veteran Matt Besler, who won’t be bothered by the moment and warrants a start after Tim Ream’s struggles at Red Bull Arena. There have been calls for a Lichaj start- that’s hard to see in this big a game. There’s not enough track record there, and Zusi was fairly good at moving the ball Friday, which isn’t a strength for the sometimes turnover prone Lichaj.

Omar Gonzalez would be a good shout too because the Americans could use his emergency defense, especially against the hard-charging incutting of Quioto or the physicality of Elis. All told, this leaves a US lineup like the one at the inset.

A few final notes:

— Whatever the US do, they’ll want to usher Honduras wide, which is another argument for Bedoya and conceptually, a suggestion that the Americans will stay fairly narrow.

— Nagbe over another Fabian Johnson run out for me, but Johnson’s issues Friday were more about Villafana being poor than Johnson. Johnson did a ton of shading for Villafana- his average starting position with Villfana pinned back was almost behind the midfield line in the opening half Friday. It’s hard to be a chance-creator when there’s no overlap and you start from behind the midfield. Still, Johnson played a really long game and admits to being less-than-fond of these types of brutal conditions. Nagbe is the call, out wide where he’ll be most successful as an international.

— Five in the back wouldn’t be astonishing, and would give the Americans the chance to go Besler-Gonzalez-Cameron in the back with Beasley and Zusi the wingbacks helping to keep possession. That’s a formation that likely means Nagbe and Pulisic wide as well, with the latter on whatever side the Izaguirre replacement lands on.

Houston’s Alberth Elis will test whatever backline the US assemble.

Jon Levy on the Honduras Player to Watch: Alberth Elis, Houston Dynamo

The changing of the guard within the Honduran national team has been on the cards for years, and I’ve been talking myself out of featuring the poster boy for that change since he made his senior debut. Now we’re a couple years on from Alberth’s first cap, and he’s living up to the potential that tempted me to write about him when he was still a teenager. This is all going exactly as Jorge Luis Pinto drew it up, and that’s terrifying for the US.

Alberth Elis is a 21 year old forward currently on loan from Monterrey to Houston Dynamo. Spoiler alert!!

We’re featuring opposing Dynamo players in the “player to watch” sections this time. Dynamo dichotomy! I digress.

Elis was a star goal scorer for Honduran side Olimpia as a teen. He was also a star goal scorer for Honduras at youth level during that same span. He then transferred to Monterrey, and his career briefly stalled in Liga MX. Emphasis on “briefly.” He took a loan to Houston where he’s now a star goal scorer in MLS, and oh by the way, he’s turning into a star for the senior national team as well.

Barring his short time with Monterrey and his really early senior appearances with the Catrachos, Elis maintains a better than one in three strike rate everywhere he goes. This should be concerning to the Yanks for obvious reasons. If Alberth can take advantage of an unfamiliar sixth or seventh choice American center back pairing like the far more pedestrian Marco Ureña did on Friday night, he could simultaneous build his legacy for Honduras and take the US to the brink of elimination. Sadly, that’s not really even overstating it. Here’s hoping Pinto decides this is too big a moment for the young star. Then again, Carlos Costly still exists. This section isn’t turning out as reassuring as I thought it would. Let me start over. “Alberth Elis is a striker that Omar Gonzalez is going to put in his pocket for safe keeping on Tuesday.” There, that’s better.

How long can Beasley continue to deliver for the United States? For a fifth World Cup cycle, he’ll answer the bell Tuesday.

Jon Levy on the US Player to Watch: DaMarcus Beasley, Houston Dynamo

I can’t believe I’m writing a “player to watch” section about DaMarcus Beasley ahead of a massively important World Cup qualifier here in 2017.

It’s even more shocking after Jorge Villafaña’s “what hole at left back?” performances in this summer’s successful Gold Cup campaign. But sadly Jorge fell in line with the unfamiliar center back tandem and had probably his worst performance in the US shirt on Friday night. No, Arena didn’t do the defenders or Tim Howard any favors by using only one central midfielder against Costa Rica, but that tactical error doesn’t do much to take the well-earned stink off Cameron, Ream, and Villafaña (Zusi was actually okay, which is interesting since he was the pre-match question mark). So here we are, going into a must-win match on the road, and the old warhorse looks set to run the left flank once again.

It’s at this point in the blog that two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and we all come to agree that Robert Frost is an eternally overrated poet, overly formulaic and usually trite. I’m glad we could come to that understanding.

Okay, so from here we can either harp on the American left back problem for the thousandth time, or I can write about 35 year old DaMarcus Beasley. I’ve got about ten minutes before my kid wakes up and requires attention, so I’m going to opt for the latter since I clearly don’t have enough time to write The Book of Left Back: An American Soccer Travesty.

But Run DMB is worth just as many words as the decades long left back bugaboo. He’s a surefire US Soccer Hall of Famer, and he could be destined for his fifth World Cup… if we make it. Thankfully, he’ll probably once again be put in position to influence that tenuous proposition on Tuesday. Beasley’s lived many lives on the USMNT, and now he’s essentially in his second stint as a left back. He’s still got most of his speed, or he wouldn’t be with this squad, and likely wouldn’t even be playing in MLS anymore. And the type of quality he’s got in his left foot is always one of the last things to leave a player, so we can probably count that among the American assets if he does indeed start on Tuesday. It’d be very interesting to see an in-depth analysis on just how many World Cup qualifying points Beasley’s speed and quality have given the US over the years. Whatever the number, Bruce Arena will likely place the trust in Beasley to help usher three more back to the States on Tuesday. Here’s betting that move works.

Prediction: United States 2, Honduras 1. A late winner from Clint Dempsey, after virtuouso performances from Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley. Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 2009.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @TYAC_Jon and @nwblackmon.

 

 

 

Neil W. Blackmon