Like any match, Friday’s clash between the U.S. Men’s National Team and Honduras will have its difference-making moments. Every match has them, split-second decisions or bounces that go one way, helping mold a result from a 90 minute marathon.
Lately, the U.S. has been on the wrong side of those moments, especially in World Cup qualifying. On Friday, they can’t afford to be in a match that could go a long way towards their pursuit of Russia 2018.
The U.S. can seal a new lease on life on Friday night, as a win would all but erase the missteps against Mexico and Costa Rica. A draw, or worse, would only amplify them, putting the U.S. in danger ahead of a difficult trip to Panama.
On the other side, Honduras is a team that has players that can cause problems and an apparent gameplan to frustrate the U.S. attack. Managing that will be vital, as the U.S. looks to pick up a major victory to start the second Bruce Arena era.
Here’s a look at several aspects to watch out for when the U.S. takes on Honduras:
LIMITING THE SPEED OF HONDURAS
Honduras will, almost certainly, be on the back foot throughout a majority of Friday’s match. On paper, at least, the U.S. is the more technical team and should benefit from that by maintaining a majority of the possession on home turf.
Where Honduras is most dangerous, though, is in transition, and they have the wheels to create havoc at a moment’s notice.
Several familiar faces lead the Honduras attack in Houston Dynamo speedsters Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto. The two forwards have combined masterfully for the Dynamo this season, helping lead the club to a surprising start in the difficult Western Conference.
There is no doubt that Honduras is faster than the U.S., especially the current group. With players like DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson missing, the athleticism just isn’t there in the defense. Geoff Cameron and Michael Orozco, the two favorites to start at right back, are far from pacey enough to even contend with Honduras in a foot race, let alone win one. On the other side, Jorge Villafana and DaMarcus Beasley are better suited, but one would still favorite Honduras in the open field.
That makes the transition game vital. After set pieces, the U.S. must rush back, and quickly, to prevent Honduras counters. There can be no lapses defensively as Honduras looks to find just one break and one gap that could prove vital.
Jozy Altidore is the U.S. Men’s National Team’s all-time leading World Cup qualifying scorer, and he’ll be relied upon heavily once again on Friday night.
The forward position, once viewed as one of the deepest on the roster, is suddenly in disarray. Bobby Wood is out, injured before camp. Jordan Morris is a mystery as he remains day-to-day. Clint Dempsey, ideally, is limited to being a 50-60 minute player for the time being, one who can still provide an impact at the right moment.
That puts pressure squarely on Altidore’s shoulders as he looks to push the U.S. on Friday night.
Altidore has stated several times that he prefers to work with a partner up top, and the absence of Wood is certainly a blow. Wood and Altidore are a dynamic duo atop the field as each brings a unique blend of pure athleticism and hold-up play to the top of the field. In Wood’s place will likely be Dempsey, who tends to drift deeper and deeper to retrieve the ball in dangerous areas.
Dempsey and Altidore have worked plenty of time sin the past, and that connection will need to be on point on Friday night. Questions remain over Dempsey’s gas tank and his ability to press Honduras’ back line, giving Altidore even more responsibility to work hard and work smart on Friday.
Altidore will need to step up in a big way on Friday even if his night doesn’t end with a goal to his name. He’ll have to do the little things, and do them well, if the U.S. is to break down the Honduras defense.
STARTING, AND FINISHING, STRONG
There are certain moments in a game where is at its most dangerous, moments where attacks switch on and defenses switch off in equal measure. The opening and closing of Friday’s match have the potential to be those moments that could be definitive in a pivotal matchup.
In the team’s previous qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras unleashed early, firing two goals before the 20th minute to all but win the match. In rapid succession, Honduras jumped on and then promptly finished off an opponent, sealing a qualifying win. On the other side, the U.S. has shown the tendency to start slow in recent months, lacking rhythm through the first few moments. Now, that can all change under Arena, but it remains concerning that the U.S. has struggled through starts.
Honduras’ other goal of that 3-0 win over T&T came in the 81st minute. In their opening two World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. has failed to finish strong, conceding a late goal to Mexico in the 2-1 loss before completely capitulating against Costa Rica in the second half of their November clash. You could say the Mexico goal was fortunate and the Costa Rica match was just a lack of effort, but it’s still something to look out for.
The U.S., generally, has looked solid in the middle portions of these big games, finding rhythm and possession as the games have wore on. However, Honduras will be most dangerous early and late as they look to steal a goal, and maybe some points, against a favored foe.
Throughout the build-up to Friday’s match, Christian Pulisic has garnered headlines for his play with Borussia Dortmund, and rightly so. The young midfielder has been playing out of his mind in recent weeks as he has become an integral part of a Champions League quarterfinalist.
Now, Pulisic gets his first run out under a new coach in Arena, and he should be handed the reigns.
Since his rise, Pulisic has been compared to Landon Donovan, a player that Arena worked with extensively during his first stint. Comparisons such as those are almost always fruitless, especially when it comes to comparing an 18-year-old to a USMNT legend, but there’s still something to takeaway. Arena wasn’t afraid to trust a young Donovan back in the day and he shouldn’t be afraid to trust a young Pulisic now.
It’s not just the technical skill or the speed; it’s the intelligence. Watching Borussia Dortmund, few players make runs quite like Pulisic, a player that darts in and out of backlines at precisely the right moment. His ability to time his runs and read his teammates’ is probably unmatched in the current player pool, making him one of this group’s most dynamic attacking forces right now.
With that in mind, Pulisic needs to be given room to roam. He’s shown the ability to defend with Dortmund, so he should be more than comfortable marshaling the wing as the U.S. dominates possession. At times, Pulisic could also play as a No. 10, giving him more room to penetrate a Honduras defense that will be prepared to defend.
Look for Pulisic to become more and more involved throughout the game as he looks to give the U.S. the ability to penetrate, a characteristic that has been lacking for quite some time.