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US aims to end stretch with high note

FOX Soccer News: Jurgen Klinsmann, United States prepare for Honduras test.
FOX Soccer News: Jurgen Klinsmann, United States prepare for Honduras test.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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After the last time the United States men's national team played Honduras, it could hardly have imagined how unfettered it would go into their next World Cup qualifying bout with the Catrachos (live, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET).

In the 2-1 loss in San Pedro Sula back in February, the Americans were so resoundingly outplayed in their hexagonal round opener that the future for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his ambitious modernization project looked grim indeed.

But the Americans now saunter into the final installment of their three-game set of June qualifiers, set here in this splendidly situated city, having won the previous two in Jamaica and over Panama in Seattle.

In all, they took 10 points from the four qualifiers since Honduras – a 1-0 home win over Costa Rica and a 0-0 away draw with Mexico being the other outcomes. And so, with just four games remaining after this one, they sit on top of the six-team Hexagonal group, which will send three teams directly to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and a fourth into a playoff with New Zealand.

Meanwhile, regional archrival Mexico has faltered badly, settling for unconvincing ties in five of its six games. “No one could have expected that,” said veteran USA goalkeeper Tim Howard. “It’s a pleasant surprise for us.”

All of this means that any points the Yanks pick up against a heavily diluted Honduras are not so much essentials as they are extras, little pillows to make a soft situation even cushier. No pressure weighs on them that isn’t self -imposed. There is a noticeable lightness about the team.

“The morale has been super-duper high and that kinda is easy to do when you have good results,” said Howard “I don’t think we’re any different than any other team. You win and everyone feels great and you don’t and life isn’t so good. We’ve been winning so it’s been upbeat, it’s been light-hearted. There is no pressure when you’re winning. Things feel easy and you feel in a rhythm and there’s nothing really to talk about.”

Honduras, on the other hand, has quite a lot to talk about. Since beating the USA, they’ve gone 1-2-1 and find themselves in a dog fight for one of the qualifying spots. They are without several star players. Defenders Victor Bernardez and Maynor Figueroa are out with a suspension and injury, respectively, while Osman Chavez and Emilio Izaguirre and midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia are question marks. Star striker and leading goal-scorer Jerry Bengtson, who scored the winner against the USA, reportedly got himself kicked off the team for blowing up at manager Luis Suarez following his benching in their most recent game.

The Americans are without left back DaMarcus Beasley, who is suspended, but get winger Graham Zusi back after sitting out a game. Concussed central midfielder Jermaine Jones, meanwhile, is also expected to make his return.

And the USA is a much matured side from the team that stumbled over these same opponents four months ago, argues Howard. “On the day we were probably a little bit naïve and not expecting them to come at us the way they did,” he said. “Since then, I think we’ve put a lot of things right. We’ve not been nearly as naïve. We’ve pressed teams, we’ve tried to smother them and suffocate them by pressing them and been strong physically; using the ball and making it work for us.”

What’s more, they’ve conceded just one goal over those four qualifiers. But the loss is fresh in the mind, and begs for caution.

“I don’t think we’re overconfident in any way,” said right back Brad Evans. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. This is a team that spanked us in Honduras and that got after us.”

Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley hope to lead USA's attack on Tuesday (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Getty).  

The Americans will want to get out on the front foot this time, added Evans, pointing out that a Honduras with a handful of fill-in players eager to prove themselves could be even more dangerous than the first string. “It can go both ways,” he said.

Klinsmann has called this game a “six-pointer,” which is to say that given the failures of their biggest rivals, three points will bring added value to the Americans. “That’s why Tuesday is so important,” said Howard. “Because if we can get that [win], then all of a sudden you’re staring at a couple of points [remaining to qualify] and it makes everything a bit easier to do.”

“There’s also a serious feel about the team right now that starts with Jurgen and the rest of the staff,” said defender Matt Besler. “They’ve really tried to push on us the last couple of days about finishing out this trip on the right note. Most of the guys are going on vacation after this and we want to make sure that everybody leaves with the right taste, getting all nine points.”

It will be loud at Rio Tinto Stadium. It always is. But it will also be hot, and the 4,200 feet of elevation will further drain the energy reserves. The Americans gave themselves five full days to acclimate though. And those conditions were never obstacles here before.

The USA left Salt Lake City with wins in each of the previous two World Cup qualifying cycles, beating Costa Rica 3-0 in 2005 and El Salvador 2-1 in 2009. If they can do it again on Tuesday, well, that would be just dandy.

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