Four months can be an eternity in sports. It was only back in February that the United States went to Honduras and lost 2-1 to open the CONCACAF thunderdome that is the Hex. USMNT fans were already willing to question Juergen Klinsmann,and a first-ever loss in our opening Hex match seemed to confirm every issue people brought up. Honduras, meanwhile, were being looked at as potentially able to do even better than they did in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. With Mexico being Mexico, Costa Rica looking to have improved after missing out on qualification last time, and the improvements seen from Jamaica and Panama, the Hex was looking awfully difficult.
My, how things change. Klinsmann's squad has taken ten points from twelve since then, and only conceded one goal. A 0-0 draw at the Azteca against Mexico appears to have confirmed who our best players are at the previously troublesome center back positions, Clint Dempsey is still awesome, and Jozy Altidore has found his scoring touch. Even the absence of Landon Donovan has been reduced to background noise. A win tonight would give the Yanks 16 points, a mark that has been good enough to qualify for the World Cup in every Hex bar one (2010, where Honduras and Costa Rica both had 16 points; the Ticos ended up losing a playoff to Uruguay).
As good as things are for the USMNT, Honduras has gone off the rails to a certain extent. They've taken just four points from four matches since winning in San Pedro Sula, and with a loss could easily end the night in 5th place (i.e. out of even a playoff spot). Losses at Panama and at Costa Rica have handed rivals for the final direct spot three points, while they also dropped points at home against Mexico. Last week's 2-0 win over Jamaica was a huge result, as both teams were essentially battling for the right to maintain realistic hopes of qualifying. Reggae Boyz head coach Theodore Whitmore resigned after the loss; had the game gone the other way, it would have been no shock to see Luis Fernando Suarez out of his post in charge of Los Catrachos.
The vital win for Honduras came at a cost. Center back Victor Bernardez and defensive midfielder Luis Garrido are both suspended due to yellow card accumulation (thanks, absurd CONCACAF rules that suspend a player for picking up two cards at any point!). Starting forward Jerry Bengtson was thrown off the squad after lashing out at Suarez, who (correctly, it must be said) started Roger Rojas as his lone striker after changing to a 4141 for the Jamaica match. Livewire winger Oscar Boniek Garcia, who scored the opener against Jamaica, is a huge doubt after subbing off with a pulled muscle in the 29th minute of that match.
Throw in an injury that prevented a call-up for center back Maynor Figueroa - a Premier League regular for Wigan Athletic who will stay up after signing with newly-promoted Hull City - and it's safe to say these are tough times for Honduras. The shortage of players is likely to mean a start for Osman Chavez (himself questionable with an injury) at center back, and Honduras has also called in Johnny Leveron of the Vancouver Whitecaps for the first time in the Hex as defensive cover. Attacking left back Emilio Izaguirre is also a bit of a question mark, though Suarez has been comfortable using CD Olimpia's more conservative Juan Carlos Garcia - the dude who scored a bicycle kick equalizer against the US - away from home.
Suarez scrapped his preferred 442 to play a 4141 against Jamaica for two roughly equal reasons: Honduras clearly needed to change something, and Jamaica's strength is a strong central midfield marshaled by Rodolph Austin (note to the D.C. United front office: maybe give Leeds United a phone call about him? Don't know if you've noticed, but without John Thorrington we are even more awful than the team that lost to Toronto FC this weekend).
One would expect Suarez to stick with it for a road game at altitude against CONCACAF's most in-form team, but he might not be able to. The loss of Garrido leaves Honduras with no viable option at right-center midfield, unless they want to move Arnold Peralta up from right back (to play a role that he's not as good at). While Suarez could replace Peralta with another good player in Brayan Beckeles, the fact is that Beckeles is likely too attack-minded for this fixture. The same goes for Andy Najar, who we all miss terribly (and who isn't seen as a right back by Suarez anyway).
Between their lack of central midfield options and Suarez's recent use of Roger Espinoza at left midfield against Costa Rica, I'm expecting a somewhat asymmetrical 442:
As you can see, the asymmetry would be in the midfield, where Espinoza would play left midfield in a very narrow fashion - essentially giving Honduras three in the middle - while the wing play would run through Marvin Chavez and Izaguirre coming up from left back.
However, that's not a sure thing due to the number of missing players for Suarez. He could choose J.C. Garcia at left back, which would signal a real effort to bunker down (and may be his only option if Izaguirre can't shake off that minor injury he's carrying). Honduras could also use Espinoza in the middle instead of Claros, who is more than a little redundant alongside Wilson Palacios, and give a start to Mario Martinez on the left. If Suarez does choose that last option, look for Garcia to be the more likely left back to make up for what would be a weakened midfield in terms of defensive play.
At center back, O. Chavez (a former United target currently playing with Wisla Krakow in Poland) is a sure starter if he's able to play through his injury. Juan Pablo Montes of Honduran side CD Platense started due to Chavez's injury against Jamaica, so he has the edge to now partner Chavez given the absences of Bernardez and Figueroa. However, Jose David Velasquez (CD Victoria) and Leveron (Vancouver Whitecaps) are both in the running as well. Leveron is the most comfortable of the trio as a left-center back, but is also the smallest of the three and was left out of the initial squad for this set of qualifiers.
Marvin Chavez is probably going to start at right midfield, given the doubts surrounding O.B. Garcia. Suarez also has Najar to call on, and he did prefer our former #14 over Chavez off the bench at Costa Rica when chasing an equalizer. That decision stands out as an unusual one, as Suarez has typically shown a lot more trust in his veterans in the midfield than promising youngsters. That's why Najar only has 4 caps, and why promising attacking midfielder Alex Lopez isn't even in the squad right now. As such, look for Chavez to start and for Najar to come in - with Espinoza moving into central midfield - if los Catrachos fall behind.
The final question mark is up top, where Carlo Costly - another Suarez favorite - will likely return if the switch back to 442 happens. Costly is too old and relies too much on a forward partner to play up top in a 4141, which is why Rojas started against Jamaica. Bengtson would normally be an easy choice to partner him, but he was thrown off the team, opening the door for Jerry Palacios. Palacios is a natural second striker comfortable with dropping off the front line, while Rojas and Costly would likely be redundant as dual #9s.
The other options are the uncapped Real Sociedad (that's the Honduran club, not the Champions League-qualifying Spanish side) duo of Rony Martinez and Diego Reyes, both of whom are unlikely to see time. If there is a threat from that pair, it'll be Martinez, who came from nowhere to finish as the top scorer in the recently-finished Clausura with 12 goals (plus 3 more in the playoffs). Sociedad only scored 23 goals as a team in the Clausura, so you'd have to expect Martinez to be full of confidence right now if he does get in.
If Suarez prefers a 4141, look for W. Palacios to drop deep into the anchor role and M. Martinez to come in on the left flank, with Espinoza moving to his preferred central midfield "run forever and ever" role. Rojas could then be in line to start by himself up top, though it's less of a sure thing than the midfield shift would be.
As we've established, the Hondurans are missing their starting center back pairing as well as a first-choice defensive midfielder. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this means the US should be able to create chances via the in-form pair of Dempsey and Altidore. It's vital, though, that the USMNT doesn't take this to mean funneling their attack through the middle, where the Hondurans will still be strong in the midfield.
Instead, the American attack needs to make sure to spread the field as much as possible. The more stretched-out the Honduran defense is, the more likely we'll expose the new-look central defense to having to deal with Altidore's superior strength and Dempsey being Clint friggin' Dempsey. Teams that create width force their opponents into disorganization, and Honduras will already have some trouble staying organized due to the lack of familiarity in the back. We should be looking to exploit that all day, and keeping the game spread out is the best way to do so (plus, it'll emphasize the altitude at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium).
Through the midfield, keeping the ball moving quickly is the best way to mitigate Espinoza's bottomless energy reserves while getting around W. Palacios and Claros, who are both positionally sharp players. The good news is that we have the players for the job in Michael Bradley and the returning Jermaine Jones. If Jones is dropped for Geoff Cameron, we don't lose much at all if Cameron's showing against Panama is any indication.
Nonetheless, playing quickly is a team-wide job. As we've seen time and again during this nightmarish DCU season, one or two players can bog down the whole group by taking unnecessary extra touches or by not knowing what they plan to do with the ball before it arrives. The rest of the USMNT must be able to play at the speed that Bradley and Jones/Cameron dictate, rather than our engine room having to slow down to accommodate others. If we can only meet that latter standard, we'll struggle to bypass Honduras and likely see the game be played with little in the way of rhythm. An ugly, choppy game would favor Honduras even more than it typically would a generic road team.
Defensively, the main threat will come from M. Chavez. As MLS fans are aware, he is quietly just as important to the San Jose Earthquakes as Chris Wondolowski is, thanks to his speed and the variety of things he can do to create chances. Chavez is a good crosser of the ball, but is even better at rounding players to enter the box along the endline. With DaMarcus Beasley suspended, this is a big job for likely replacement Edgar Castillo. If he (or Fabian Johnson dropping back) can force Chavez into passing the ball off to others or lumping the ball forward early rather than isolating people 1v1, we can force him into being a non-factor.
That's a tricky job, though, because of Chavez's talents. If Castillo sells out on the dribble and the central defense covers up any crossing options, Chavez is still a threat to shoot from long range. If you step too aggressively into Chavez, he has a knack for drawing fouls thanks to the combination of his speed, his size (he's tiny), and a rather convincing ability to flop on minor contact. Chavez is a big threat on those free kicks, so we can't just try to batter him into submission.
Instead, the focus should be on staying well-organized, which will prevent Chavez from getting isolated on the wing and will also help keep the Honduran possession down the middle or to the left, where the threat will mostly consist of crosses from Izaguirre. Those crosses will likely be somewhat predictable early balls, where US center backs should be able to sort out their marking and use the superior height of Omar Gonzalez to clear with ease.
All in all, this is a game the USMNT should win. Honduras is in disarray right now thanks to a variety of causes, and the fact that it's the spine of their team where the absences are plays right into American hands. The central defensive absences in particular are very inviting for a US team that is playing the best attacking soccer they've ever managed under Klinsmann. If the Yanks can carry their recent form over to this game, there should be no shortage of goal-scoring chances created via stretching the field out, playing one- and two-touch soccer, and making the right runs off the ball.
Still, the last team to come to the United States and win during qualifying was Honduras, all the way back in 2001 at RFK Stadium (those with very long memories will recall that the game was a doubleheader; United beat the Tampa Bay Mutiny 5-1 during an otherwise miserable season), and they still have plenty of quality on their team. A regression by the US to our form in some previous games would open the door to the Hondurans getting what would be a huge result for them. This is the kind of game where the USMNT needs to push down on the accelerator and really make sure this game ends up in the win column rather than allowing the Hondurans to build confidence that they can get a result while short-handed.