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Heat and pressure: US at Honduras in qualifier play
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SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — Wiping sweat from his forehead under a broiling sun even before warming up, Tim Howard said he understands the difficult position the United States faces going into Tuesday afternoon’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
By losing home games to Mexico in November and Costa Rica on Friday, the U.S. needs at least a tie against Honduras at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano to stay on track for the third and final automatic berth in North and Central America and the Caribbean. A loss would mean that even with wins in their final two games next month, the Americans could wind up in a playoff against an Asian team or miss next year’s tournament entirely.
Howard, the 38-year-old goalkeeper who started in the last two World Cups, cautioned against an all-out attacking approach for a U.S. team that will be missing forward Jozy Altidore because of his one-game suspension.
“You also have to be careful of how much you push going forward and making it feel as if it’s doom and gloom,” Howard explained. “The more rah-rah you are sometimes in these situations, the more tense everybody gets.”
Temperatures in the low 90s with high humidity are forecast for the start (3:36 p.m. local, 5:36 p.m. EDT). That could make it feel like 110 degrees in a stadium set in the Sula Valley near the Merendon Hills.
“It’s going to be a grind in every sense of the word. These are the days that are hard to explain to people who aren’t here,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “The idea of big games, the idea of everything on the line, that can’t faze us.”
The grass was long, moist and heavy for Monday’s practice, a sign play could slow Tuesday, when rain is possible.
“Obviously the field we’re playing on tomorrow, nobody plays on fields like that. So that’s a bit challenging,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “It’s a little spongy, too. Who knows what they’ll do in the next 24 hours with it?”
Mexico (5-0-2) leads the six-nation final round with 17 points and has clinched a berth, and Costa Rica (4-1-2) is second with 14. The U.S. and Honduras (both 2-3-2) have eight points each, with the U.S. ahead on goal difference, plus-one to Honduras’ minus-seven. Panama (1-2-4) has seven points and Trinidad and Tobago is last with three (1-6).
The U.S. concludes the round against Panama on Oct. 6 at Orlando, Florida, and four days later at Trinidad and Tobago. The last time the U.S. fate was uncertain going into its final qualifier was in 1989, when a 1-0 win at Trinidad put the Americans in the World Cup for the first time since 1950. That started a streak of seven appearances in a row.
“When I took the job in November and we had zero points after two games, we fully anticipated the fact that this would go a full 10 games in order to qualify the U.S. team, and that looks to be the case,” said Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after a 4-0 wipeout at Costa Rica.
Altidore received a yellow card in the 71st minute of that Costa Rica match for running into Celso Borges, and a second yellow on Friday for pushing Johan Venegas in the 80th minute. That earned him an automatic suspension.
“It seems to me that the referees are refraining from issuing yellow cards because of that rule, which is, without going into a long debate, just a stupid rule,” Arena said.
Joel Aguilar of El Salvador will officiate Tuesday. He worked the infamous Snow Classico, a World Cup qualifier four years ago in Colorado in which the U.S. beat Costa Rica 1-0 in a snowstorm. Aguilar also was on the field for the Americans’ 1-1 draw at Mexico in a qualifier in June and for their win over Costa Rica in the semifinals of this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“I don’t think the referee is going to favor the United States when we go on the road in World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF,” Arena said.
Arena is likely to make lineup changes, but not as many as the seven in June. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan could replace Howard, whom Arena said is still not 100 percent following leg surgery in November.
Center backs Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, left back DaMarcus Beasley, midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Alejandro Bedoya, and forward Clint Dempsey are among the possible additions, while Europe-based Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream and Bobby Wood could move to the bench,
“There’s a big difference at this time of the year for the European players. They’re not that fit yet and they’re not used to these conditions,” Arena said.
Honduras, seeking its third straight World Cup appearance, lost 6-0 in March, the Americans’ first qualifier in Arena’s second stint. Christian Pulisic, the Americans’ star 18-year-old midfielder, had a goal and two assists in that match. He was denied by Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas on Friday and was repeatedly hacked by defenders.
“He’s fouled just about every time he touches the ball,’ Arena said. “The referee hasn’t protected him in a number of situations.”
Howard said Pulisic’s emergence has caused that kind of treatment.
“He’s a marked man. He’s the golden boy for us,” he said. “Every time you see us play a qualifier he’s been getting kicked around.”