Heading into Friday, the United States men’s national team felt comfortable about their path through World Cup qualifying. Coming off of a summer victory in the Gold Cup, a home game against a team that hadn’t beaten them on American soil since the Reagan administration seemed to point towards the USMNT putting themselves in a great situation. There was even a possibility that a win in New Jersey followed by a win over Honduras and some help in other games could have sealed qualification for Russia 2018.
Instead, the Americans got their lineup and tactics wrong, saw Costa Rica make all the big plays, and all the sudden the good work done to turn qualification around earlier this year felt like it was almost completely undone. The USMNT is still currently in an automatic qualification spot out of CONCACAF, but Honduras is only behind them based on goal difference, and they’re hosting today’s game. With Panama hosting Trinidad and Tobago later tonight, a loss would see the US fall entirely out of the picture with just two games to play. In other words, hold onto your butts.
Key player: Bobby Wood
Jozy Altidore is suspended, Clint Dempsey might be better suited to a substitute’s role, and the rest of the American forwards...OK, we’ll get to that in a second. The point is, Wood is a sure starter, and he’s going to have a lot on his plate whether Arena chooses to stick with a two-forward formation or goes to 4231.
Generally, we see Wood stretching defenses and getting into scoring positions with smart movement and good ol’ fashioned hard work. Today, he’s going to have to do that, be an option with his back to goal, and be far cleaner as a passer than he was against Costa Rica. If Wood can do that, he should be able to spearhead a US attack that, frankly, should be able to create the chances needed to beat Honduras even in what will be a typically sauna-like atmosphere (the forecast calls for humidity around 80%, and temperatures somewhere just below 90 degrees during the game).
If Wood can’t be a big factor, though, the US will again have to lean extremely heavily on Christian Pulisic and set pieces to create their goals. Pulisic is great, and the USMNT has good set piece targets, but are you comfortable going into a nerve-wracking, high stakes game relying on a teenager and some hit-or-miss free kick service? Wood needs to carry a lot of the weight in this one.
Location: Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano (San Pedro Sula, Honduras)
Kickoff time: 5:30pm Eastern
Projected USMNT starting 11: (4231) - Tim Howard; Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron, Jorge Villafaña; Michael Bradley, Kellyn Acosta; Paul Arriola, Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson; Bobby Wood
Bench: Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando, Eric Lichaj, Tim Ream, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley, Dax McCarty, Alejandro Bedoya, Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Chris Wondolowski
Altidore’s inexplicable decision to compound a bad loss by chest-bumping Johan Venegas got him suspended for this one, which means the USMNT is going into a kinda-sorta-must-win road qualifier with Wondolowski as the only out-and-out striker on the bench. It was irritating when Bruce Arena chose experience over ability when it came to the third-string goalkeeper, but now it may actually come back to haunt us all. With all due respect to Wondo and his amazing consistency in MLS, more talented players like Juan Agudelo and Christian Ramirez being left out is exasperating.
Anyway, hopefully it won’t make a difference. I’m expecting a move to a 4231, with Acosta coming in (as he should have alongside Bradley back on Friday) for Nagbe. Arriola, meanwhile, adds some defensive ability and speed on the right wing, while Pulisic takes his place as the #10. Dempsey will remain Arena’s game-changing sub, with a possible move to a 4312 if the USMNT finds themselves trailing.
Projected Honduras starting 11: (4231) - Luis Lopez; Felix Crisanto, Henry Figueroa, Johnny Leveron, Maynor Figueroa; Jorge Claros, Alfredo Mejia; Alberth Elis, Alexander Lopez, Rommel Quioto; Anthony Lozano
Veteran left back Emilio Izaguirre got sent off on Friday, meaning that Jorge Luis Pinto has to make an adjustment. The only natural replacement is Carlos Sanchez, who has just four caps, so instead I’m thinking former Vancouver Whitecaps center back Johnny Leveron will come in at center back, with Maynor Figueroa of FC Dallas moving to left back (where he plays for the Toros, so it’s not an adjustment for him).
Other than that, don’t look for many changes. Honduras doesn’t have a deep pool of players, especially with Andy Najar unavailable, so the group that beat Trinidad and Tobago will otherwise stay intact.
Available TV: beIN Sports, NBC Universo
Available streaming: beIN Sports Connect USA, Universo Now, Telemundo Deportes En Vivo
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What are you drinking?: The weird kickoff time makes for a good happy hour kind of vibe, so I’m probably going to pick up some beer that I don’t currently have on my way home.
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