Now comes the hard part for the U.S. national soccer team. It’s time for “The Hex,” the six-team, 10-game final round of regional qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The United States opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday against Honduras in the sweltering heat of San Pedro Sula, where a capacity crowd of nearly 40,000 is expected to rock El Estadio Olimpico. This match is such a big deal to Hondurans that the president declared Wednesday a national holiday. Businesses and schools will close early in time for kickoff.
The six teams left standing are the United States, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Jamaica. Only the top three earn berths to the World Cup. The fourth-place team enters a playoff against the winner of the Oceania region for another spot.
Tough as it is to win on the road, the United States is eager to get a result early, as three of its first four matches are on the road.
“It’s huge,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “You have to set the tone. You have to send a message to the rest of the region that we’re here and we mean business. I think it’s a great chance for us to go into a hostile environment and really try to impose our game on them. It’s not going to be easy of course, but it’s something you have to do when you play in CONCACAF.”
Altidore, the Boca Raton resident who has been in top form for AZ Alkmaar in Holland, has played in his share of hostile environments. Just last week, he had to endure racist monkey chants from fans of Dutch club FC Den Bosch.
“It was an unfortunate event and very disappointing for everybody involved,” Altidore said. “I’ve spoken on it, and I felt I let all my thoughts out in that moment. I just hope that we can all just be better and that it never happens again.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann complimented Altidore on his handling of the situation. He is pleased to see the 23-year-old maturing on and off the field. Last fall, the coach left Altidore off the roster to try and motivate him. It seems to have worked, and now Klinsmann has challenged the young striker to step up and score for his country.
“We are very pleased with how he’s scoring goals in Holland, but he knows and we all know international games are different a story compared to the Dutch league,” Klinsmann said. “We hope he can start scoring those goals for us, as well. The last game in November, he was sharp, a presence on the field, did a lot of work for his teammates. He’s growing, maturing, getting more consistent. Hopefully one day he’ll get in same scoring rhythm with us as with his club team, but it’s far more difficult on our level.”
The U.S. attack will be missing one of its most famous and prolific players, Landon Donovan. The Los Angeles Galaxy star is taking an extended break and deciding what to do with his future. So Klinsmann will rely on Altidore, Herculez Gomez, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley to push the ball forward. Slick passer Graham Zusi, a 26-year-old from Longwood, also could be called upon to play a big role.
“Landon’s a fantastic player, but the show goes on,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Landon’s situation is what it is. I love Landon, love playing with him. Hopefully, he comes back, the sooner the better.”
The game will be shown on BeIn Sport USA.