There's no way around it: The United States did not meet expectations in what was technically CONCACAF's third round of qualifying for Brazil 2014. Oh sure, the macro-level goal - win Group B - was fulfilled, but that's like going out to dinner and considering it a good night if you didn't choke to death at the table.
The USMNT could only beat Antigua & Barbuda 3-1 at home and 2-1 away, needing a 90th minute goal from Eddie Johnson to seal the latter result. That's Antigua & Barbuda, who draw the large majority of their squad from Antigua Barracuda FC, who came in dead last in the 2012 USL-Pro season. Despite holding the lead in both games, points were dropped at Guatemala and at Jamaica. For the first time in ages, the Yanks entered the final game of the round needing to avoid defeat against Guatemala to advance.
Throughout these matches, a theme developed: Jurgen Klinsmann's side was able to control possession for the most part, but lacked at least three of the ingredients of incisive play - ideas, speed of thought, actual physical speed, and the plain old courage to make something happen - in every single game. The Jamaicans, gifted as they are with their strongest generation since the group that got to World Cup 1998, didn't even show us the respect of bunkering at home; generally speaking, the only teams that do that against the USMNT are Mexico and Costa Rica.
With that need to improve significantly in mind, it's time to start looking at this year's Hexagonal. For newcomers, the Hex is CONCACAF's six-team round-robin duel to the death. It is our region's Thunderdome, but without Tina Turner...and actually only two of the six get eliminated outright (the fourth-placed team enters a home-and-away playoff against the winner of the Oceania region, which will likely be 2010 World Cup qualifier New Zealand).
So maybe it's not Thunderdome, but it's still a nasty, brutish series of ten games that are almost all going to be played on poor-quality fields and may involve more of the injury-feigning, time-wasting gamesmanship that everyone loves. If you expect the USMNT to suddenly start playing tiki-taka and winning 4-0, you are sorely mistaken. I've been watching World Cup qualifying since 1996, and the one thing you can bet on is that it's never easy, regardless of the fact that people will invariably say "it's only Jamaica/Honduras/Panama."
First up is a trip to Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano to take on Honduras, where conditions are going to be difficult. It's not so much the atmosphere - the Olimpico has a track surrounding the field, ensuring that this isn't quite the same thing as a trip to Estadio Azteca or Costa Rica's old home at Estadio Saprissa - as the weather: The afternoon kickoff is expected to see a temperature of 84, with humidity at 74% and increasing as the game goes on.
Los Catrachos qualified for the last World Cup, but the Honduran team that made it to South Africa is not the team the United States will see this afternoon. Many of those players were over 30 at the time, and the promising next generation of Honduran players that made it to the last Olympic tournament has pushed veterans like Hendry Thomas and Carlos Pavon to the side.
It's fair to say that the current squad is not as good as the team that we saw in the last Hexagonal, but the main issue is simply experience. The current group is more talented than the one it replaces, but is also far younger. Given the increasing number that are making it in Europe and MLS earlier in their careers, this is a team that is good today and will probably be the best Honduran squad of all time when qualifying for Russia 2018 begins.
With all that in mind, let's take a look at the likely starting eleven head coach Luis Fernando Suarez will send out:
While I normally take some pride in my knowledge of the Honduran game, the fact is that this was an easy team to predict. Honduran daily Diez has already run a story saying that this group is set in stone, though they have no actual quotes from anyone (as is tradition in the Honduran press). Normally there's plenty of reason to doubt them, but for this game they're probably spot on.
That said, there are surprises. Injuries to Celtic FC left back Emilio Izaguirre and midfielder/defender Andy Najar - recently transferred from D.C. United to Belgian champions RSC Anderlecht - have thrown a wrench into Suarez's plans. Izaguirre, arguably the most accomplished player in the entire squad, is normally a guaranteed starter at left back. His replacement will be Juan Carlos Garcia, a steady presence from CD Olimpia (easily the biggest club in Honduras). When compared to Izaguirre, the 24 year old Garcia is not quite as athletically gifted or as sharp in terms of soccer IQ, but he's still a solid defender who makes few mistakes and takes a lot of pride in his 1v1 defending. The benefit to Klinsmann's side is that Garcia will be more focused at staying home than jumping into the attack.
Najar, on the other hand, was most likely going to be an attacking substitute for Suarez (either replacing one of the wingers or right back Arnold Peralta). That leaves Suarez with few aces up his sleeve beyond sending in the very promising 20 year old Alexander Lopez, an attacking midfielder allegedly attracting interest from Wigan Athletic, Toronto FC, and the Houston Dynamo. The guys who replaced Izaguirre and Najar in the squad - CDS Vida left back Orlin Peralta and CD Marathon forward Christian Altamirano - are not likely to see any time, emphasizing that the Honduran pool of talent only goes so deep.
The other surprise is that the starting defensive midfielder will apparently be 22 year old Luis Garrido, currently playing with FK Crvena Zvezda (that's Red Star Belgrade's actual name) on loan from Olimpia. I had been expecting to see Hibernian's Jorge "Pitbull" Claros, but apparently Garrido has battled his way ahead of the man who survived being shot in the head (even driving himself to the hospital) during an attempted carjacking in 2011. Both players are tough and physical, though Claros is a bit more steady in terms of positioning in my book.
The central midfield axis of Garrido and Roger Espinoza might actually be an area the US can take advantage of. Espinoza is well known to American soccer fans for running like a man possessed, but a consequence of all that charging around the field is that he generally requires a positionally reliable player alongside him. Garrido is going to have to show a lot of positional discipline to be the right partner for Espinoza; otherwise, simply moving the ball quickly enough will open the door to drawing both central players to one point and then exploiting the fact that they've crowded one another.
In terms of how this formation will actually act on the field, it will be somewhere between a true empty bucket and a flatter 442. Oscar Boniek Garcia is very comfortable cutting inside, but will likely play more as a traditional right midfielder than normal to balance the presence of Mario Martinez on the left. Martinez is simply addicted to cutting inside as often as possible; he's a wide man that never learned that he's actually a wide man.
Both players are going to leave the US with some unconventional challenges. Garcia is a flexible player who can make something out of whatever you give him. Force him wide, and he can hit a good cross or round you and cut in along the endline; shepherd him inside, and he can play a through ball, look to combine, or go to goal himself. Martinez, on the other hand, is always looking to combine but also possesses a dangerous long-range shot that can come from seemingly nowhere.
With Garcia, the safer tactic is probably to restrict him to staying wide and prepare to defend the cross. The more often Garcia beats someone on the dribble or gets into the box with the ball on his feet, the more danger Tim Howard's goal will be in. For Martinez, however, the job is slightly different. Being prepared for his inevitable move inside will be important, so Graham Zusi (or whoever gets the start at right midfield) needs to be there to help the rest of the defense and defensive midfielder(s) to crowd out the Seattle Sounders man.
Up front, Suarez was always going to choose Carlo Costly, a player who he has endless confidence in despite the former Houston Dynamo man often going missing against top opponents. The question was actually more about his confidence in Lopez and whether Los Catrachos would be better off in a 4231. Right now, a 442 with Jerry Bengtson of the New England Revolution is the better choice, especially given the unimpressive form the USMNT has had for most of Klinsmann's reign.
Look for Bengtson to drift into wide positions and be a primary target for the wide midfielders in terms of combination play. He is the best Honduran forward and should function as a true target man, but like Kenny Cooper he has never given up on his dream of being a creative withdrawn forward with freedom to roam. Costly, meanwhile, will stick to a central role most of the time; his object will be to occupy the center backs and eventually find himself a yard of space for when the service comes in. He is a player our defense should be able to contain, but the troubles posed by the wingers and Bengtson might make Costly a beneficiary if our defending is not quite 100%.
In the attack, the Yanks should find plenty of joy on the wings. Arnold Peralta, who nearly moved to Toronto FC in the offseason, is a well-rounded player with no real standout qualities. He's actually more of a utility player than a true right back, and like most utility players does most things well but isn't capable of greatness. Peralta's speed and positioning could make him vulnerable if Klinsmann opts to play Eddie Johnson on the left wing.
However, if the choice is to play Brad Davis or Jose Torres out there, Peralta will not have to worry about an athletic disadvantage and could end up surviving this game unscathed. It is paramount that the US force Peralta to play on his heels, and that means getting EJ or even Herculez Gomez out there rather than the slower Davis or Torres. Speed of foot will exploit speed of thought in this case.
The center back pairing of Maynor Figueroa and Victor Bernardez is excellent, so playing through the middle might not be the best of ideas. The gap between those two and the fullbacks in terms of ability is steep, and there's really no reason the US should get away from putting Garcia and Peralta under constant pressure. This is a game for the US to win down the wings or struggle up the middle.
In goal, 35 year old Noel Valladares may end up being the weakest goalkeeper the US faces in the Hex. It's not that Valladares is poor positionally or anything like that; if anything, he's sort of the anti Sean Johnson: Positionally sound, makes few mistakes, but is simply not that athletically gifted. It's not just that Valladares is old (that was him in goal back in 2001 when the US won 2-1 at this venue); he's never been a spectacular athlete to begin with. If the US can place shots on frame, the chances are that Valladares will not be able to get to one or two that even your run-of-the-mill MLS GK comes up with. Of course, for the US the problem has been creating shots in the first place, so I could be placing the cart before the horse here.
I mentioned Suarez's potential subs earlier. Among his other options will be Olimpia goal-poacher Roger Rojas - who just said Honduras wants to "send the blondies back red-headed" in this game - CD Motagua's physical target man Georgie Welcome, or the aforementioned Lopez. If Honduras finds themselves in the lead, look for Claros to replace a forward or even Wisła Kraków center back Osman Chavez to come in (with a switch to 541 or 532 resulting).
Ultimately, while opening the Hex on the road is never a welcome situation, the Hondurans are not going to be the toughest foe of this cycle. The lack of experience at this level is a problem, as is the fact that their MLS-based players are in offseason form. Espinoza and Costly only recently changed clubs and are in an adjustment period professionally. The injury to Izaguirre is a significant issue as well, talented though Garcia is at left back. This fixture would have been a lot more difficult if it came later in qualifying. Despite the indifferent form shown by the Yanks under Klinsmann, a road draw is a reasonable thing for fans to expect out of the USMNT.