U.S. rolls into match with Honduras, but don't chalk up a 'W' yet
SALT LAKE CITY -- Let's be honest. The soccer schedule-makers don't always make a lot of sense. For some reason, the U.S. men's national team must wait a full seven days between World Cup qualifiers ahead of Tuesday's Hexagonal game here against Honduras (9 p.m. ET, ESPN, Unimas). And while that may have given the U.S. players time to hone their Vine-making skills together, the delay also means 1) the U.S. has to work harder to keep its positive momentum, and 2) the non-MLS players have even fewer vacation days at the end of long, punishing season.
So be it. If the U.S. can maintain its focus after last week's 2-0 win over Panama, the team's best qualifying performance under Jurgen Klinsmann, Tuesday's game presents a terrific opportunity to grab a perfect nine points out of nine in June qualifying -- and, in so doing, put one foot in Brazil for World Cup 2014. But the Americans shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security. While victory would mean at least a two-point lead over second-place Costa Rica (and a five-point margin over struggling Mexico), a surprise loss would throw the group into chaos.
Here are the current win-at-home, tie-on-the-road standings in the Hexagonal (with Mexico and Jamaica having played six games and the other teams five):
United States +1
Costa Rica -1
Honduras should provide a decent measuring stick for the U.S., not least because the Catrachos are the only team that has beaten the Americans in this Hexagonal. Those were dark days for Klinsmann's outfit back in February, when the U.S. was alone in last place and questions began emerging over whether Klinsmann was losing his team.
Now look. The U.S. is rolling. Jozy Altidore has scored three goals in three games, all victories, and the team is playing with signs of the flow, speed and panache that Klinsmann promised when he took the U.S. job back in August 2011. It's enough to make you wonder if the U.S. players just needed the extended time together -- this camp started in late May -- to develop a better rhythm and understanding. (The barely two days of prep work for the Honduras game in February showed in the U.S.' disjointed effort.)
In fact, this (relatively) long stretch of qualifiers has me wondering more than ever if the FIFA calendar should be changed so that all national team games take place in one two-month bloc instead of spread out through the year. The continuity would improve the level of play, and players wouldn't waste so much time traveling back and forth across oceans. (Unfortunately, the clubs won't ever let it be anything but a pipe dream.)
As for the U.S., Klinsmann now has the luxury of depth, so much so that Geoff Cameron (who was terrific against Panama) may not even start on Tuesday if Jermaine Jones is able to return from his mild concussion. Right midfielder Graham Zusi also comes back after a yellow-card suspension, which means Eddie Johnson might also be dropped from the lineup through no fault of his own. The big lineup question comes at left back, where DaMarcus Beasley is out on yellows and Klinsmann could either insert Edgar Castillo or move Fabian Johnson back from left midfield (with Eddie Johnson slotting in there).
The Hondurans' depth will be tested even more. Tough center back Muma Bernárdez and midfielder Luis Garrido are suspended. Meanwhile, injuries have taken out Maynor Figueroa and (most likely) Óscar Boniek García, and forward Jerry Bengtson left camp after clashing with coach Luis Suárez. Truth be told, Honduras is close to being in disarray, but as long as stalwarts like Roger Espinoza are around, you'd be foolish to write off the Catrachos.