For U.S. in Honduras, Hot, Hotter, Hottest

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

Russia logoThe United States men’s national team doesn’t quite face a must-win in Honduras on Tuesday — it’s more like a must-not-lose proposition in the game in San Pedro Sula.

The 2-0 loss to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena last Friday night dropped the American team into what is basically a three-team tournament with Honduras and Panama for the final automatic berth from CONCACAF for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fourth-place team in the Hex will advance to a playoff against a team from Asia in November.

A win against Honduras (2-3-2, 8 points) would give the U.S. (2-3-2, 8) an edge for third place. A tie would leave the U.S. in the lead on goal differential, the first tiebreaker. But a loss would take it out of the hands of the U.S. and plunge it into a tough competition with Panama (1-2-4, 7), the opponent in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 6 and at last-place Trinidad and Tobago (1-6-0, 3) on Oct. 10.

“It’s so clear and it’s all right there for us,” the captain Michael Bradley said after the loss to Costa Rica. “It’s three games, a little three-team tournament to see who goes to the World Cup directly, who is going to play in the playoff [against an Asian foe in November] and who is going to be out.

“In every World Cup cycle, you play games where everything is on the line and you’ve got to get a result. That’s what the next three games are.”

By sheer coincidence, it all could down to the final game against Trinidad and Tobago, where the U.S. ended a 40-year drought in the World Cup when it scored a 1-0 victory in 1989.

“I don’t think our players will go into the game feeling too much pressure,” U.S. Coach Bruce Arena told a group of reporters in Honduras on Monday. “I think they realize the significance of the game and all that, but I don’t think they’ll be nervous where they can’t perform.”

Arena’s squad faces a difficult game in difficult conditions. The temperature is expected to be in the 90s with high humidity. Arena has already commented on the heavy field at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano and the expected hostile atmosphere that will great the U.S. team.

The U.S. lineup is certain to be different from the one that faced the Ticos on Friday night. For one, striker Jozy Altidore is suspended after picking up his second yellow card since the start of the fourth round of qualifying. Six other U.S. players are also walking a tightrope with one yellow card. That group includes Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Paul Arriola and Alejandro Bedoya.

Arena told reporters: “Officiating in CONCACAF is highly unpredictable. You have no idea what’s going to go on in games. It seems to me that the referees are refraining from issuing yellow card because of that rule, which is — without going into a long debate — it’s just a stupid rule.”

Arena was especially critical of the treatment, or lack thereof, of Christian Pulisic by Costa Rica, which went unpunished by the game’s Panamanian referee. Pulisic, the team’s budding 18-year-old star, was basically kicked into submission and denied any opportunity to influence the match against Costa Rica.

“He can’t get frustrated by it, and if he’s a little wiser about it, maybe it will help create some advantages for us, as well,” Arena said. “Find the next play in the right spots of the field to draw fouls and maybe we get a penalty or a free kick that is dangerous. … We’ve talked to him. We’ll find out if it’s gotten any better.”

With Altidore suspended, it seems likely that Arena will go with a single striker, probably Bobby Wood. After Friday’s game, questions swirled about the U.S. back line, particularly the central defenders in the game, Cameron and Tim Ream. Options at center back include Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, while the DaMarcus Beasley is a good bet to replace Jorge Villafaña on the left side. The midfield seems problematic. Bradley was hounded by Costa Rica, but remains the key for the U.S. Better things are expected from Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe, but it remains unclear if Arena will go to Kellyn Acosta and bench Fabian Johnson.

Even tough Tim Howard looked bad on Costa Rica’s opening goal, there’s little likelihood he would be replaced by Brad Guzan.

Notes

The U.S. has a 3-1-1 record at Honduras in World Cup qualifying … Four Honduras players play in MLS Houston Dynamo trio of Alberth Elis, Rommell Quioto and Oscar Boniek Garcia (all with Houston) and the captain Maynor Figueroa (FC Dallas). … Honduras will be without defender Emilio Izaguirre, who was sent off in Friday’s win at Trinidad & Tobago after receiving two yellow cards.