The United States has simply not been in this bad of a World Cup qualifying position this early in the CONCACAF Hexagonal at any point in the last 28 years. After just two games, the USMNT is dead last in their region, having already lost a home game and fired a coach. Tonight against Honduras, the Americans face as close to a must-win situation as they’ve dealt with since 1989.
A win for the U.S. would significantly lessen the pressure the team is feeling. In fact, with help from Trinidad & Tobago earlier in the night, the USMNT could be in position to vault back into an automatic qualification spot with a win in next Tuesday’s match at Panama. However, a draw would mean another wasted home game, and a loss could see them as far as six points out of even a spot in the CONCACAF vs. Asian Football Confederation playoff.
Key player: Clint Dempsey
Dempsey had been out of the national team picture for months after a heart issue discovered last August threatened his playing career. Even after he completed preseason matches, Bruce Arena downplayed the possibility that he’d be back for this round of qualifiers.
However, Dempsey has played nearly every second of this season for Seattle, and he’s already got two goals in three games. The USMNT badly needs Dempsey to be at his best, because a slew of injuries up top have left Arena with few options (and one of those, Jordan Morris, has essentially not trained during this camp in hopes the rest will let him be ready on gameday). If Dempsey isn’t at or near his best, the U.S. will either need Chris Wondolowski to bolster his reputation in a national team jersey, or switch to a 4231 with Sacha Kljestan - initially left out of the squad for these games - playing underneath Jozy Altidore.
Speaking of Altidore, Dempsey has shown some chemistry with him in the past, and the USMNT will most likely be looking at a conservative opponent in Honduras. Their ability to play as a duo is likely to be enormously important, as the longer this game remains scoreless, the more likely los Catrachos are to start believing they can snatch all three points.
Location: Avaya Stadium (San Jose, CA)
Kickoff time: 10:55pm Eastern (the broadcast will start at 10:30)
Projected USMNT starting 11: (442) - Tim Howard; Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, John Brooks, DaMarcus Beasley/Jorge Villafaña; Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya/Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe; Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore
Bench: the entire rest of the squad, bar Jermaine Jones (suspension)
Bruce Arena loves to simplify things for his players, and few things are simpler than a traditional 442 that gets Dempsey and Altidore playing off of one another up top. There are a couple of question marks here. A rash of injuries at right back probably mean Cameron shifts to the right, with Gonzalez (who is doing very well in Liga MX) stepping in. Cameron isn’t a natural right back, but he’s the best one on this roster, and Gonzalez is a far better center back than Michael Orozco or Graham Zusi are as right backs. Remember, Arena keeps it simple.
At left back, I suspect Arena will start Beasley in one of the games in this window, but not both (he’s 34, after all). I’m just not clear whether he’ll prefer Beasley’s experience in this must-win game, or in the always tricky road game that is Tuesday’s trip to Panama. In central midfield, I’d strongly prefer to see Acosta start regardless of his experience; he’s simply the best available player for the job right now. However, I will not be surprised to see Bedoya get the call instead. Finally, out on the left, Nagbe seems to be the clear choice to fill in for the injured Fabian Johnson.
Projected Honduras starting 11: (4141) - Donis Escober; Brayan Beckeles, Allans Vargas/Henry Figueroa, Maynor Figueroa, Emilio Izaguirre; Jorge Claros; Andy Najar, Oscar Boniek Garcia/Mario Martinez, Roger Espinoza, Mario Martinez/Rommel Quioto; Alberth Elis
Honduras has traditionally been very conservative when playing against the US, and with no compelling two forward partnership available, I suspect they’ll add an extra midfielder in an effort to grind this game to a pulp. There are a ton of familiar names on this list, including former D.C. United homegrown wide man Najar and roughly half of the current Houston Dynamo lineup.
Speaking of which, Quioto’s form recently is strong enough to push him into the frame on the left wing, which in turn might see Martinez - always a threat from long range - playing in the middle instead of Boniek Garcia, who is currently sitting the bench in Space City.
If coach Jorge Luis Pinto does opt to field a second forward, look for Claros and Espinoza to partner in the engine room and for Anthony Lozano (currently with Tenerife in the Spanish second division) to step in alongside Elis. That’s also a possibility if they need to push for a goal, though they could also shift into a 433 (moving Najar to right back, Elis wide right, and bringing Lozano in for Beckeles).
Referee: Walter Lopez (Guatemala)
Available TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), Univision, UniMas, Univision Deportes (all Spanish)
Available streaming: Fox Sports Go, Fox Soccer 2Go, Univision Now, Univision Deportes app
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What do we have to say about it?: Since we didn’t do a USMNT piece, my suggestion is to head over to Stars and Stripes FC. They’re covering this one from all angles.
What are you drinking?: I’ll be taking this one in at Dock FC, so depending on what I do for dinner, it’ll either be a pint of Guinness or a local beer that I pick once I see the tap list.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion of a game the U.S. pretty much has to have. Hold on to your butts.