U.S. prepares for qualifier against Honduras
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- The United States is used to playing tough away matches but its World Cup qualifier Saturday in Honduras will have a special twist.
The Central American country is in the midst of a power struggle following a June coup that pushed then-President Manuel Zelaya out of power. Interim President Roberto Micheletti is now in control, though there have been large-scale demonstrations in recent weeks and clashes between Zelaya supporters and security forces.
No matter their political preference, however, Hondurans are expected to unite behind the national team and pack Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula.
"We understand the political aspect going on down there," midfielder Stuart Holden said Tuesday after the team's practice in a Miami suburb. "You can guarantee it's going to be a hostile environment in that stadium."
The United States (5-2-1), seeking its sixth straight World Cup berth, can clinch a spot with a victory Saturday or a tie or win next week against Costa Rica in Washington. The U.S. leads the regional standings with 16 points. Honduras (4-3-1) is third with 13. The top three teams qualify, and the No. 4 team advances to a playoff against the fifth-place nation in South America.
But soccer is not the only concern this week.
U.S. team spokesman Michael Kammarman said there will be a "heightened awareness" to security issues while in Honduras. He said he could not disclose what extra measures might be taken by the team because of the situation.
U.S. players, as usual, have avoided taking a political stand. They also said they're not nervous about security issues.
"We're aware. But we're just going in there to play the game, so it's not going to really affect us at all," forward Charlie Davies said. "We know it's going to be a lot of passion, a lot of emotion in the stadium. They're trying to qualify for the World Cup, so it's not going to really change anything once you play the game."
On the field, the United States has its own challenges to overcome.
Midfielder Clint Dempsey will be out with shoulder sprain, perhaps to be replaced by Holden. The team also has to avoid another slow start if it hopes to be successful.
The United states withstood some early mistakes to beat Honduras 2-1 at Chicago's Soldier Field in a qualifier in June, then beat Honduras 2-0 at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July.
What U.S. players say is most important now is to keep the momentum going in what has already been a strong year. The United States upset Spain 2-0 in the semifinals of the FIFA Confederations Cup earlier this year to make its first-ever final in a men's FIFA tournament. The Americans lost to Brazil 3-2 in the final after blowing a halftime lead.
"I think the teams respect us more when we step on the field," forward Landon Donovan said. "In the past, there was kind of a relaxed manner the way they went about the game when they would play us. And now you can tell that it's a real game for them."
Although there is political unrest in Honduras, the Americans believe their experiences over the last year or so should help them maintain focus.
The United States traveled to Mexico's amped-up Estadio Azteca in August, played its first match in Cuba in 61 years in September 2008 and had to deal with the pressure of advancing in the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa in June.
"There's always a large amount of emotion for the other countries, and for some reason they always really want to beat the U.S," Holden said. "We're used to that now. We're no stranger to it. We just want to go in and take care of our business and qualify."