The U.S. national soccer team practiced in relative anonymity at FIU on Monday morning before boarding a flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier between the United States and Honduras is such a big deal the day has been declared a national holiday.
Businesses and government offices will close early, and schoolchildren will be released early so that everyone can watch the match. The game was scheduled at 3 p.m. so the home team can take advantage of the heat and humidity against an American team with 14 Europe-based players who have been playing in cold weather and had only 48 hours to get acclimated to the tropical climate.
Those 14 players flew overseas Sunday and Monday, and have a very short turnaround to prepare for the first match in the final round of regional World Cup qualifying. There are six teams remaining — the United States, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama. The top three advance to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The fourth-place team enters a playoff against the top team from Oceania, most likely New Zealand.
The United States has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, so it’s a safe bet to assume the team will make it to Brazil. The United States is 12-3-3 against Honduras and was the only team to beat Los Catrachos at home in nine qualifying matches before the 2010 World Cup.
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Honduras and the United States wound up qualifying four years ago, and the U.S. players expect another tough battle on Wednesday.
“It’s important to get across to the American public that when we go down to these places, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad, the country stops,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “The U.S. and Mexico have traditionally been powerhouses in the region and the rest of the countries, they want a scalp, want to knock us off. The whole country stops just for this game. It’s hard for us as Americans to fathom, but it does. It’s like their Super Bowl Sunday. Everybody’s focused on that.”
Howard recalled the last time they played at Estadio Olimpico, in 2009. They wound up qualifying for the 2010 World Cup after a hard-fought 3-2 match. The atmosphere was electric.
“We got there two hours before kickoff and the stadium was packed, fans yelling, so we thought something was going on,” Howard recalled. “Nothing was going on. It was just them waiting for the game. Those are the types of environments you want to play in, tough as heck. Really tough for a visiting team. But it’s so special.”
Forward Herculez Gomez, who plays in Mexico, is accustomed to the chaotic conditions, less-than-ideal fields and projectiles flying from the stands.
“It’s very difficult to play on the road in this region,” Gomez said. “Being the home team is a huge factor. Four o’clock, the heat, humidity, the field, the fans, conditions against us … We need to impose ourselves on them and try to take them out of their rhythm.”
Howard said the addition of German-American and Mexican-American dual citizens, such as Gomez, help the team deal with the challenging conditions in Central America. German-American Timmy Chandler is expected to start at right back against Honduras in place of injured Steve Cherundolo, and has committed to the U.S. team after some waffling about whether he’d play for the United States or Germany.
“Guys like Fabian [Johnson], Timmy [Chandler], Danny [Williams], they’ve got that strong, cold, hard German mentality,” Howard said. “Even though they play for us, they were brought up that way. It’s a good wrinkle to our team. I also think the Mexico dual citizens have also been fantastic because they offer flair in CONCACAF that we’ve not necessarily had. It’s important when we go to the Spanish-speaking countries and have Spanish-speaking referees that we have real strong Latin influence players able to be on field and adapt to environment, speak to referees; those are real important things we never really had before.”
The goalkeeper said the United States hopes to “get on the board” with a tie or win on Wednesday, but it won’t be as easy as casual fans expect.
“I don’t think there’s enough appreciation from the American public,” he said. “You look on paper, America vs. Honduras, America wins, done finished, come home. It’s never that simple.”