Rough World Cup qualification travel: U.S. faces many tricky Hex road trips
The formula to reach the World Cup from this part of the world is simple. In CONCACAF, it goes like this: Win at home and try like hell not to lose everywhere else. So it was for the Yanks during the last four-year cycle, when they posted an 8-0 record stateside en route to Brazil 2014 and in five of the six Cups before that. (The U.S. received an automatic invite to the quadrennial party as host in 1994.) They have only lost one World Cup qualifier at home in 15 years: Friday's 2-1 defeat to Mexico in Columbus.
Elsewhere, it's another story. Take Costa Rica, where Jurgen Klinsmann's team will play four days after opening the final Hexagonal round of qualifying on Nov. 11 against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. The Americans have never beaten the Ticos there in nine tries within World Cup qualification. In the Lower 48, though, they're 6-1-2.
Why the huge difference?
"What people don't realize in America is that when we go to these small Central American or Caribbean countries, everything stops," said veteran keeper Tim Howard. "The game is all anyone cares about. It means the world to them, and they'll do anything they can to give their team an advantage."
Like hurling urine-filled bags at opposing players, causing traffic jams to interfere with visitors' training schedules and countless other forms of gamesmanship. Add in emboldened foes, atrocious fields and unbearable heat and humidity, and it's easy to see why it's a whole new ballgame when U.S. arrives on enemy turf.
Nov. 15, 2016: Costa Rica vs. U.S.
Venue: Estadio Nacional de Costa Ric, San Jose, Costa Rica
U.S. away record in qualifying: 0-8-1
Last visit: 3-1 loss in 2013
With its stable government and economy, Costa Rica is the Switzerland of Central America. But the normally welcoming nation was anything but when the U.S. last visited. Angry about the Yanks' win in a Colorado snowstorm six months earlier, Costa Rica's federation exacted revenge by denying Jurgen Klinsmann's squad training sites and practice balls before the rematch. They even tried to move the game to dilapidated Saprissa Stadium before FIFA deeded it unsafe. The fans made up for it.
"I look out the window of our bus and there's all these people standing outside of their cars, just stopped on the highway," defender Matt Besler said. "Our 15 minute ride to practice took over an hour. We had a police escort, but there was nothing they could do."
Even at the sparkling new national stadium, with its pristine grass field and surrounding track that helps prevent players from projectiles -- the U.S. filed a protest after a player was hit by a coin at Saprissa, a venue in need of repair, back in 2000 -- the Americans suffered a fourth consecutive multi-goal loss. Fortunately, relations have improved.
"It's extremely rare that a federation goes out of their way to mess with us," said Tom King, U.S. Soccer's managing director of administration. "What happened there is long behind us now." The Americans aren't taking chances, though. They'll fly into San Jose a day later than usual this time due to securing a practice facility well ahead of their trip.
March 28, 2017: Panama vs. U.S.
Venue: Estadio Rommel Fernandez, Panama City, Panama
U.S. record in qualifying: 2-0-1
Last visit: 3-2 win in 2013
Baseball is king in Panama, but the beautiful game is on the rise. Los Canaleros might even have qualified for the 2014 World Cup if not for American midfielder Graham Zusi and forward Aron Johansson, who scored in stoppage time goal in Panama City to prevent Mexico, which reached the knockout stage in Brazil, from being eliminated instead.
"I remember how deafening it was when they scored," Zusi said of Luis Tejada's 83rd minute strike, which put the hosts up 2-1. "And how deathly silent it was after we equalized. That stadium was a microcosm of the country. I think they were in shock."
Not least because the U.S. had already qualified for Brazil. It was the last match of the Hex and Klinsmann's lineup comprised several reserves hoping to make the final roster.
"Late in the game, some of the Panamanian players kind of asked us to relax because we were already through," Zusi said. "But that's never been our mentality, and we were trying to earn spots on the World Cup team."
With a modern capital, classy supporters and a decent playing surface, Panama City has been kind to the U.S. through the years. "But that could easily change now with the history that we have," Zusi said.
June 13, 2017: Mexico vs. U.S.
Venue: TBD, Mexico, Stadium TBD (but probably Azteca Stadium in Mexico City)
U.S. record in qualifying: 0-13-2
Last visit: Scoreless tie in 2013
Prior to 2013, Mexico's only World Cup Qualifying loss in Estadio Azteca was in 2001 to Costa Rica. But the 87,000-seat behemoth -- the first stadium to host two World Cup finals -- is losing its hoodoo as more Mexicans migrate to European clubs. Now that the altitude (7,200 feet) and smog affects them as it once did visitors -- El Tri won one of five games there last Hex -- they're considering sea-level options. But Mexico's biggest venue still has advantages.
"It was my first start in qualifying, and I was really looking forward to singing our anthem," said Besler, who made his road debut and first-ever start for the U.S. there in 2013. "Then I realized we couldn't hear it because the entire stadium was whistling. Seconds later it was over."
The thin air has a huge impact, too. "It affects the flight of the ball," said Howard, who was beaten on a long-range blast in a 2-1 loss in 2009. "Shots drop slower, and they're on you quicker." The U.S. staff provides oxygen tanks for its starters at halftime, but that doesn't help with the pollution in Mexico City, which has twice the population of Los Angeles.
"The day after I had a sore throat, I was coughing constantly, and when I blew my nose it was just black gunk," Besler said. "I hadn't really thought about the air quality until then."
Sept. 5, 2017: Honduras vs. U.S.
Venue: Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula, Honduras
U.S. record in qualifying: 3-1-1
Last visit: 2-1 loss in 2013
The U.S. hadn't lost in Honduras heading into their last Hex opener, leading defender Timmy Chandler to assume that the conditions in San Pedro Sula couldn't be that bad.
"It's still the most difficult game I've ever played," said the German-born Chandler, who has now made almost 150 Bundesliga appearances. "I'd never experienced heat like that; my feet burned in the first half it was so hot. It's a big change from Germany. After two or three sprints I was finished."
The hard field, long grass and daytime kickoff didn't help, nor did the off-field vibe in the world's second most-dangerous city. "We spend an inordinate amount of time working with the embassy before we go into San Pedro Sula," King said. "They have very legitimate concerns from a safety standpoint."
"They told us not to go out," Besler said. "We were essentially on lock down in our hotel. We'd get off the elevator on our floor and there'd be two soldiers with AK-47s posted there. It's not quite that way anywhere else."
Oct. 10, 2017: Trinidad and Tobago vs. U.S.
Venue: Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
U.S. record in qualifying: 4-1-2
Last visit: Scoreless tie in 2015
The U.S. hasn't gone into the Hex's final match day needing a result since 1989. That match was in Trinidad, where Paul Caligiuri's famous goal stunned the Soca Warriors and took the Americans to their first World Cup in 40 years. If Klinsmann's team needs to go the distance again, they could do worse than Port of Spain.
The twin island nation is friendly and safe; it boasts the highest GDP in the region behind the U.S. and Canada. It's not easy to get to, though. Located just 700 miles from the equator, Port of Spain is further south than the Colombian city of Barranquilla.
It's also hot and the hosts always play the Yanks close, like they did in the semifinal round last November. "Their players are so used to running in that heat, eventually we have to be careful that it doesn't wear us out," Howard said.
Off the field, it's relative paradise.
"The hotels are a lot cleaner, the people are a lot more easygoing," Howard adds. "It isn't as daunting as some of these other places, which could help. We hope to take care of business before then. But you never know how things pan out in the Hex."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.