DATE: Tuesday, Sept. 5.
TIME: 2:30 p.m. PT.
VENUE: Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano — San Pedro Sula, Honduras
TV: beIN SPORTS, Universo
No es como comienza, sino como termina.
"It is not how it begins, but how it ends." That's the rallying cry broadcast to their fans and the wider world by FENAFUTH, the Honduran soccer federation, this week via its Twitter account, ahead of a simply enormous World Cup qualifying clash with the United States that figures to have a huge influence on which of the two nations will reach Russia 2018.
This is the very definition of a "six-pointer," a match that both sides need to win, but neither can afford to lose. Los Catrachos and their yanqui visitors sit deadlocked in third place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal standings on 8 points apiece, separated only by the hefty goal-differential advantage the U.S. national team built with their 6-0 thrashing of Honduras in San Jose, California back in March.
Tuesday's hosts may fancy their chances at revenge, given that they've turned San Pedro Sula into one of CONCACAF's most imposing away locales. A muggy afternoon kickoff under the tropical sun will crank the heat index up towards the triple-digits in Fahrenheit terms, while past occasions have seen a long, overgrown playing surface and large, loud crowds.
Third place in the Hex represents the region's third and final automatic qualifying spot for next summer's showcase. The fourth-place finisher's hopes will survive, but only via the heart-pounding path of a two-legged intercontinental playoff series with one of the Asian confederation's runners-up.
A win for Honduras on Tuesday would devastate the USMNT, leaving them in need of both victories and help in October's final round of qualifiers. Conversely, a U.S. win or draw would hand them a major advantage down the home stretch. And with fifth-placed Panama widely expected to beat basement dwellers Trinidad & Tobago at home on Tuesday and thus climb to 10 points, every point counts as those three teams compete for those precious third and fourth slots.
Thanks to their surprising 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica on Friday, USA simply cannot afford another misstep on their qualifying journey. That setback, combined with November's home loss to Mexico in the opening match of this Hex, constitutes a whopping six dropped points on friendly soil, a series of stumbled unprecedented in the modern history of the program.
Friday saw a perfect storm of errors and letdowns from front to back, leaving coach Bruce Arena and his entire squad with much to prove on Tuesday. Arena is expected to make several changes to his starting XI, in addition to the one that has been imposed for disciplinary reasons: Jozy Altidore's late caution vs. Costa Rica means he is sidelined one game for yellow-card accumulation.
No one's place is secure, from goalkeeper Tim Howard to Altidore's erstwhile strike partner Bobby Wood. And the ease with which Los Ticos cut open the USMNT back four poses tactical conundrums, too. Would a move from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 shape provide more strength and stability in the face of Honduras' athletic, aggressive attack? Or might Arena flash another new wrinkle like the 3-4-3 he rolled out at Mexico in June?
Despite their overall history of struggle against the U.S., including the fresh memory of that "ugly, shameful" (in coach Jorge Luis Pinto's words) rout back in the spring, Los Catrachos have reasons to believe they've got the U.S. right where they want them this time.
They're more familiar with their adversaries than ever, thanks to the steady stream of Hondurans playing their club soccer in MLS, headlined at present by the Houston Dynamo's menacing young strike duo of Alberth Elis – who scored in Friday's 2-1 road win over Trinidad & Tobago – and Romell Quioto. That pair, along with frontrunner Anthony "Choco" Lozano, could pose real problems for the U.S. defense.
They're also catching the USMNT in the wake of the destabilizing home loss to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, just the sixth U.S. loss in 69 all-time home World Cup qualifiers. Honduras will probably look to multiple the impact of that catastrophic result by jumping all over their guests in the early going, forcing the U.S. to dig deep in hot, hostile conditions. The hosts will be without defender Emilio Izaguirre, though, thanks to his ejection vs. T&T.
Tuesday marks the 25th overall meeting between these CONCACAF counterparts; the USMNT enjoy a marked advantage in past results with a 16-4-4 all-time record, a 6-2-1 mark in World Cup qualifying matches, and even a 3-1-1 record in qualifiers on Honduran soil.
That said, Los Catrachos have inflicted some memorable wounds on their northern neighbors. In 2001 Honduras upset the U.S. on their own turf with a wild 3-2 win in front of a mostly pro-Catrachos crowd at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., a result that ended a 15-year home unbeaten run in qualifying for the Yanks.
The sides' last meeting in San Pedro Sula, on Feb. 6, 2013, was also a painful outing for the USMNT. Goals from Juan Carlos Garcia and onetime New England Revolution striker Jerry Bengtson paced a 2-1 comeback victory for Honduras in both teams' opening match of the 2014 Hexagonal.
The underwhelming performance was soon followed by a revealing Sporting News exposé of the disorder behind the scenes in the U.S. camp, which helped spur a closing of the ranks and an improvement in form that saw 2013 become one of the most successful years in program history.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA — Christian Pulisic
Friday marked the first real, public setback in the teenage phenom's international career to date, as he was harangued and frustrated by Costa Rica at every turn, and saw his impact on the game tail off dramatically as a result. Given his young legs and unique talents, he's one of the few U.S. players likely to see just as many minutes on Tuesday. All of American soccer fandom (and surely no shortage of Honduran defenders) will be watching closely to see how he responds to the adversity and pressure.
Honduras — Alberth Elis
La Panterita ("The Little Panther") has been one of MLS's most exciting newcomers this season, epitomizing the Dynamo's high-octane counterattacking style. The pacey, skilful wide man will look to attack the Yanks' fullbacks and make this match a defining performance in his burgeoning international career, while USMNT supporters will hope that his occasional tendency towards inconsistency and inefficient finishing will rear its head.
Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City / ENG), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca / MEX), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest / ENG), Tim Ream (Fulham / ENG), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna / MEX), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Midfielders (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach / GER), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund / GER), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
Goalkeepers (3): Ricardo Canales (Vida), Donis Escober (Olimpia), Luis López (Real España)
Defenders (8): Ever Alvarado (Olimpia), Bryan Beckeles (Necaxa / MEX), Felix Crisanto (Motagua), Henry Figueroa (Motagua), Maynor Figueroa (FC Dallas), Jhonny Leverón (Marathón), Jhonny Palacios (Olimpia), Carlos Sánchez (Honduras Progreso)
Midfielders (10): Bryan Acosta (Tenerife / ESP), Jorge Claros (Real España), Juan Ángel Delgado (Honduras Progreso) Carlos Discua (Motagua), Boniek García (Houston Dynamo) Alexander López (Olimpia), Alfredo Mejía (Xanthi / GRE), Oliver Morazán (Olimpia), Esdras Padilla (Juticalpa) Sergio Peña (Real Sociedad)
Forwards (7): Carlo Costly (Olimpia), Alberth Elis (Houston Dynamo), Eddie Hernández (Unattached) Ovidio Lanza (Juticalpa) Anthony Lozano (Barcelona B / ESP), Rony Martínez (Baoding Rongda / CHN), Romell Quioto (Houston Dynamo)