Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras– You would think that having posted victories here in their past two trips would have the U.S. Men’s National Team feeling bullish about leaving the murder capital of the world with a precious three points, but the team is all too aware that the intensity of the Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying will make every game of the cycle extremely difficult. Particularly the road games.
While many of the U.S. squad’s players have experienced World Cup qualifying, a good number of them have not experienced the Hexagonal round, the final round of qualifying to reach the World Cup. They will face better competition and more intense conditions.
“There’s a difference for sure,” Michael Bradley said when asked to compare the HEX to the earlier rounds of qualifying. “You get to this round and everything gets cranked up a few notches. The quality of the opponents is better. The spotlight comes on brighter. The margin for error is that much smaller.
“In all ways, everything gets cranked up,” Bradley said. “That’s exciting. These are exciting games. They’re big games and there’s so much riding on each one. I think when you look at the six teams that have made it to this point, for me it’s clearly the six best teams in the region at the moment.”
The first U.S. opponent is a Honduras side that has undergone a period of transition, with long-time leaders like Amado Guevara and Carlos Pavon stepping aside for an exciting generation of young talent that includes several MLS standouts, like Oscar Boniek Garcia, Jerry Bengtson, Victor Bernardez, Mario Martinez and MLS alumnus Roger Espinoza.
“It’s a very gifted technical team, also physical,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “They grew over the last couple of years so they have a bit more confidence. Going to a World Cup gives you confidence. Having that learning experience, and so they’ve done well.
“It’s definitely a team to respect.”
“It’s a younger team. Some of the older guys from the last go-round have moved on,” Bradley said. “It’s a different team. It’s never easy comparing, but in some ways this is a more dangerous team.
“Some of these younger guys have really a good combination of athleticism, skill, grit, so it’ll be a difficult game for us,” Bradley said. “We know that going in so we’re not expecting anything different.”
Honduras will be leaning on many of the players who helped the Catrachos enjoy a successful run to, and through, the 2012 Olympics. That young generation has picked up the mantle from the older group that led the country to the 2010 World Cup before seeing several key veterans retire.
Those retirements have served to clear the way for new faces to impose themselves and help make this Honduras team more dangerous than past versions.
“Sometimes the older established veteran guys, it’s the wrong phrase, but they hold the team because you’re such a big, strong character that other guys don’t come out of their shell,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I’ve been on teams with big characters on the team and I haven’t come out of my shell.
“But when you get a bunch of guys who can come together and express themselves and really show their true talent, that sometimes can make them very dangerous,” Howard said. “That’s what you see with this Honduras team.”
For the Americans, the challenge will be staying organized defensively and creating enough chances to challenge a Honduras defense that will be missing potential starting options Emilio Izaguirre and Andy Najar, who are both injured.
The Honduran attack will be lead by a midfield that features dangerous wingers Boniek Garcia and Martinez, as well as the in-form Espinoza, who should provide a must-watch battle with the likes of Bradley and Jones.
“It makes it really tough if you don’t get points early because you’ll fall behind, but it’ll be great to pick up points with home games waiting down the road,” Howard said. “We know it’s not going to be easy on Wednesday for a variety of reasons but we just have to play our game and be smart and play the way we know we can play and we can get out of here with the points we need.”