SAN JOSE (AP) — A new coach is making the decisions after a pair of historically bad games. Nearly half the projected starters are sidelined.
Fans are freaking out that the United States’ streak of consecutive World Cup appearances might end at seven.
On the eve of his first competitive international match in nearly 11 years, Bruce Arena was calm and confident.
“The last thing we’re going to do is concern ourselves a whole lot if players go down, and I haven’t done that. I’m actually eager to see how some of these other players are going to perform,” the old-turned-new U.S. coach said Thursday at the last training session before the qualifier against Honduras. “My guess is we’re going to be OK.”
Another misstep and the Americans would be winless in the final round of World Cup qualifying with seven games left. Only one team has qualified from a similar start in the North and Central American and Caribbean region, Trinidad and Tobago in 2006.
“We don’t like to say ‘panic.’ It’s not our job to worry about the fans,” said Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who two weeks ago became only the youngest American to score in the Champions League. “We just have to win the game for us. The fans will support us throughout.”
Arena, 65 years old and a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, coached the U.S. from 1998-2006. He was brought back in November to replace Jurgen Klinsmann following a 2-1 home loss to Mexico and a 4-0 debacle at Costa Rica.
“We felt like we let some different things slip,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “He’s come in and found the right way to work and talk and show some things and make sure that we understand who we are and what we’re about and ultimately we’re stepping on the field giving ourselves the best chance to win.”
Midfielder Fabian Johnson, right back DeAndre Yedlin and forward Bobby Wood are hurt. Brad Guzan, who might have started in goal, skipped the match because of the birth of his daughter. Timmy Chandler, the right back in November, is serving a one-game suspension because of yellow-card accumulation, as is midfielder Jermaine Jones. Jordan Morris, who might have replaced Wood in the lineup, is doubtful due to an ankle injury.
Tim Howard, 38 years old and a starter at the past two World Cups, is expected to be in goal after recovering from a thigh injury sustained against Mexico. Clint Dempsey, a 34-year-old forward, has returned after a length absence caused by an irregular heartbeat.
Geoff Cameron, who missed the November qualifiers because of a knee injury, could be shifted to right back — he plays midfield for Stoke and usually is in the U.S. central defense.
DaMarcus Beasley, at 34 a veteran of four World Cups, is an option at left back along with Jorge Villafana, Tim Ream and Matt Besler. John Brooks and Omar Gonzalez could remain in central defense.
The math looks bad for now but not terrible. Costa Rica leads with six points, followed by Mexico and Panama with four, Honduras with three and Trinidad and Tobago, and the U.S. with none.
Because the top three teams qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia, and the fourth-place nation advances to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 finisher, a loss Friday would not be fatal.
“Seven games remaining, you’re still there,” Arena said, pointing out that Mexico reached the playoffs four years ago with just 11 points. “The general rule of thumb is 15 points, but it always changes.”
The U.S., 30th in the FIFA rankings, plays again Tuesday at Panama. Honduras is 65th after opening the final round with a loss to Panama and victory over Trinidad and Tobago, both at home.
Celebrating the second anniversary of its opening in February 2015, Avaya Stadium is among MLS’ 16 soccer specific stadiums, with a capacity of about 18,200. There is a single deck in a U shape with luxury suites at field level. Seats are blue except for a handful in red; Earthquakes fan Anders Young won a Crack the Code contest two years ago, determining those seats spelled “GO EQ” in binary.
Quite a difference from old RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., where Arena’s Americans lost to Honduras in a 2001 qualifier.
“We managed to make our home game into a home game for our opponent,” Arena said. “I’m hopeful tomorrow that when we step out on the field that there’s going to be some support for the U.S. team, and I think there will be.”
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.