Leave nothing to chance. That's the mantra emanating from the U.S. men's national team as they prepare to face Honduras for Saturday's World Cup qualifier in San Pedro Sula, a match that looks to be anything but straightforward.
On paper, the objective for the U.S. is clear: Secure victory over the Catrachos, and the Americans will have reached their sixth consecutive World Cup. But if Costa Rica collects more points against Trinidad & Tobago than the U.S. does against Honduras, the Yanks will find their quest going down to the last game; a white-knuckle, World Cup-qualifying decider against the Ticos four days later.
At that point, the U.S. would need only a draw to advance to South Africa, but they are plenty aware of the risks involved in having their qualifying fate rest on one game. All the more reason to go for victory on Saturday.
"There's no real point in going for a draw in Honduras, because a draw won't really give us anything," said U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber. "We have less pressure on us than Honduras because we have three more points than them, but we're going to try and win that game, so we don't have to worry about that last game."
Yet the challenges of prevailing in Honduras are considerable. The Catrachos have been dominant at home during World Cup qualifying, posting an 8-0-0 record with 23 goals scored and just three conceded. The political turmoil that has enveloped the country in recent months following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya represents a massive yet understandable distraction for the home side, but if there is one cause that can unite the country, at least for a moment, it's the possibility of qualifying for their first World Cup since 1982.
As striker David Suazo told Honduran media outlet La Prensa, "We are almost touching South Africa."
On the field, the return to health of Suazo gives the Catrachos a considerable boost in attack, one already possessing a dangerous frontline tandem in Carlos Costly and Carlos Pavon. But perhaps the biggest obstacle for the U.S. will be coping with a Honduran midfield that is formidable, even without suspended players Amado Guevara and Danilo Turcios. Wilson Palacios, Hendry Thomas and Julio Cesar de Leon all have the pedigree of playing for overseas clubs, and a U.S. team that has struggled with its possession in the best of times will be tested on Saturday, especially in front of what is expected to be a vociferous home crowd.
"A lot of times in those situations, especially on the road, you can't even hear someone who's 10 feet away," said U.S. midfielder Ricardo Clark. "So [to keep the ball] it's a situation where you just have to be familiar with each other."
Given the infrequency with which national teams get together, achieving such chemistry can be difficult, but having a full week of training should help the U.S. in this regard.
|U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Honduras
Estadio Olimpico; San Pedro Sula, Honduras
10 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Costa Rica
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
8 p.m. ET
Less clear is the impact of Clint Dempsey's absence due to a shoulder injury. The Fulham midfielder has popped up for some critical goals for the U.S. in the past six months, but his play in other areas of the field has been lacking in recent matches. So when it comes to keeping the ball, the Yanks just might be better off with a player like Feilhaber, Stuart Holden or Jose Francisco Torres in the lineup.
And maintaining possession, at least for a few stretches in Saturday's match, will be critical for the U.S. to emerge with a victory. This was the lesson they took home from their 2-1 loss to Mexico in August, when El Tri simply wore the Yanks down with wave upon wave of attacks.
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"When you're playing away, you have to keep the ball as much as possible to keep the crowd out of it," said Feilhaber. "Obviously, you get tired when you don't have too much of the ball, so that will be an important part of it.
"How you do it is you have to remain calm and try to focus on the game. And as much as you can, keep the crowd noise out of your head. If we're organized, that will help as well."
Another worry for the U.S. is the glut of players carrying yellow cards into the match. All told, six players who likely will see the field on Saturday are just a single caution away from being suspended for the Costa Rica game. It's a list that includes Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Carlos Bocanegra, and imagining any one of that trio sitting out the final qualifier, assuming it means something, is enough to send chills down the spine of almost every U.S. fan. That will require them to walk that fine line between being composed yet still aggressive.
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"The yellow card situation is a challenging one," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "That includes players who play the same situation who may be both carrying yellow cards, making some decisions in those ways. And finally our discipline is important. We were very pleased that in the last two games we didn't pick up any yellow cards and so we've got to once again make sure that our players understand that will work in our favor as we play through this match."
Of course, if the U.S. emerges from Saturday's contest with a victory, none of that will matter. Qualification will be assured, a Maalox-infused finale will be avoided, and Bradley can turn his attentions to next summer's festivities in South Africa.
"We've worked hard as a group," said Bradley. "We understand the challenge going in, we understand the responsibility. Now we're excited to finish the job."
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Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.