- Rain is in the forecast, Jozy Altidore is suspended and the occasion calls for a veteran presence as the USMNT goes in search of three much-needed World Cup qualifying points in Honduras.
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The U.S. men’s national team is under more pressure to qualify for a World Cup than at any time since 1989, and the conditions for Tuesday’s qualifier here aren’t going to make things any easier. Honduras, which is fighting tooth and nail with the U.S. for a spot in Russia 2018, has slated kickoff for 3:36 p.m. local time (5:36 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports, Universo), the better to take advantage of the 90-degree heat.
What’s more, there’s an 80% chance of rain showers on Tuesday. Combined with the long, spongy grass at Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, the conditions will likely produce a slower-than-usual tempo in a huge game for both teams.
“It’s going to be a grind in every sense of the word,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said here on Monday morning as the oppressive sun beat down on him. “These are the days that are hard to explain to people who aren’t here. We understand that. We have no problem with that. This is our reality. So we’re going to use today and tomorrow and make sure that come kickoff we’re ready to deal with whatever the game and conditions are and be ready to go for it.”
Through all his trips in CONCACAF over the years, Bradley has combined the skills of inspecting all manners of playing surfaces and describing how they’re affected by the weather conditions. If he ever wants to become a professional groundskeeper or weatherman someday, he could probably do it.
“The heat and humidity combined with the long, slow field just means the likelihood I would imagine is that it’s going to be a slow game,” Bradley said. “It’s not easy to put together a ton of passes, especially in certain parts of the field. If there’s rain coming down, then in some ways that can speed things up a little bit, but if it rains and stops raining it can add to the humidity. These are all things that are out of our control, and ultimately we’ve got to have the mentality to deal with whatever, and we’ve got enough guys who have been through this before and know how to do that.”
One theme that came up time and again on Monday was experience—which U.S. coach Bruce Arena suggested would have an influence on his lineup choices for Tuesday. Four years ago, the U.S. lost 2-1 in similar weather conditions here, not least because several American players (including Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson) wilted in their first exposure to playing in Honduras.
“I think you need to have the experience in playing under these conditions,” said Arena, “which I think a majority of our players surely have. Our MLS players play a lot of games in hot and humid conditions on artificial fields, traveling in worse conditions. This is not like it’s going to be anything new to our players. It’ll certainly be a challenge.”
Arena added: “We’ll have changes in our lineup, partly due to our game on Friday and the conditions as well.”
What might that mean? Well, Jozy Altidore is definitely out on a yellow-card suspension. Arena’s highlighting of experience might increase the chances of Clint Dempsey starting up top in place of Bobby Wood. DaMarcus Beasley might also benefit from those considerations at left back, especially since two of Beasley’s Houston Dynamo teammates, Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, are expected to start in attacking roles for Honduras. The high-energy Alejandro Bedoya and Paul Arriola are also options, while Johnson might be a question mark as a starter.
The U.S. is coming off an awful 2-0 home qualifying loss to Costa Rica on Friday that left the Americans with just eight points from seven Hexagonal games—the lowest point total ever for the U.S. after seven games in the six editions of the Hex. The U.S. likely needs five points from its final three games to qualify for Russia 2018 automatically. A playoff against Asia’s fifth-place team in November will await the fourth-place finisher in CONCACAF.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said the team leaders haven’t said or done anything unusual inside the squad over the last couple days following Friday’s defeat.
“Not a whole lot,” he said. “You’ve just got to go again. In qualifying, there’s a lot of ups and downs. We’ve had some tough days and had some good days. Friday night was a tough day for us. But we try and bounce back. You also have to be careful about how much you push going forward and making it feel as if it’s doom and gloom. The more rah-rah you are sometimes in these situations, the more tense everybody gets. We’ve had a good couple days, and we know what we have to do in order to get a result tomorrow.”
The party line is that the U.S. is gunning for three points but would settle for one if absolutely necessary. A loss would mean the U.S. would probably have to win its last two qualifiers: At home against Panama and away to Trinidad and Tobago in October.
Two other topics that came up on Monday were 1) the targeting of Christian Pulisic by opposing defenses, and 2) CONCACAF’s odd yellow-card suspension rule, in which two yellows at any point in the two-year-long World Cup qualifying process will lead to a suspension. (Yellows aren’t wiped clean at any point.)
Arena said he thinks those two topics are actually connected. On Pulisic, Arena said: “He’s fouled just about every time he touches the ball. The referee hasn’t protected him in a number of situations [by issuing yellow cards].”
As for the yellow-card suspension rule, Arena said: “Officiating in CONCACAF is highly unpredictable. You have no idea what’s going to go on in a game. It seems to me referees are refraining from issuing yellow cards because of that rule. Which is, without going into a long debate, just a stupid rule. Over 18 games you can be punished for having a second yellow card. That’s essentially what it is.”
“I think it keeps cards in the pockets of the referees.”
Bradley, for his part, noted that the home loss to Costa Rica on Friday was deeply disappointing, but he disagreed with the notion that the team’s performance was awful.
“We lost a big game at home, and we understand that in terms of the result we let ourselves down,” he said. “And what was a slim margin has now virtually been erased altogether. We can talk about little football details, about things that on the night weren’t quite to the level they should have been. But to act like this was a terrible performance is not accurate in my opinion. We played against a good team, against a team that was very committed to making the game difficult, to being organized, to being hard to break down.
“We still dealt with things in a pretty good way. On the night we weren’t sharp enough in some of our attacking moments when we had little advantages to cross, to make the final pass, to shoot. We couldn’t get those plays right. You play against a team like that, and the first goal is huge. If we can get the first goal, then obviously it changes their approach. They’ve got to come out a little bit. But that’s past us. There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. There’s no time to spend worrying about what happened on Friday night. It’s about the next three games. It’s so clear, and it’s all right there for us.”