United States facing heat in Honduras, in more ways than one
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- There is a grim awareness surrounding the United States national team ahead of Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Honduras. The table doesn't lie, and the difficulty and magnitude of the match has enveloped the side, much like the heat and humidity that was present at Monday's practice session.
The U.S. finds itself level with Honduras with eight points, and only goal differential is keeping the Americans in the third and final automatic qualifying spot. Panama is just a point behind both teams in fifth place. The U.S. also is coming off a humbling 2-0 defeat at home to Costa Rica, which has complicated an already difficult qualifying journey. The key now is for the U.S. to find a way to thrive within the conditions and circumstances, rather than be suffocated by them.
"It's going to be a grind in every sense of the word," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "These are the days that are hard to explain to people who aren't here. We understand that, we have no problem with that. This is our reality. We're going to use [Monday and Tuesday] and make sure that come kickoff we're ready to deal with whatever the game and the conditions are and be ready to go for it."
U.S. manager Bruce Arena indicated that any processing of Friday's defeat had been completed by Saturday afternoon. At that point, it was time to start to thinking about Honduras. But there also is no ignoring the Americans' situation. Goalkeeper Tim Howard added that there has been little in the way of impassioned speeches over the past few days and that an even-keeled approach has been adopted.
"You have to be careful how much you push going forward and making it feel is as if it's doom and gloom," he said, sweat dripping down his bald head. "The more rah-rah you are in these situations, the more tense everybody gets. We've had a good couple of days, and we know what we have to do to get a result [on Tuesday]."
Arena spent considerable time at his news conference on Monday bemoaning the lack of protection provided to midfielder Christian Pulisic by CONCACAF referees. At a roundtable with reporters later in the day, Arena expanded on his comments, though he indicated he doesn't expect things to change from a refereeing standpoint. Skill players have been cynically fouled by opponents since the game's beginnings.
"I remember Pele getting brutalized [at the 1966 World Cup]," he said. "I remember in '82, [Diego] Maradona getting killed. Obviously, it's different today. The fouls that Christian is dealing with are nothing like the old days. In the modern game, players don't get away with those fouls, but [with Christian] they have been getting away with it. Panama was ridiculous how bad he was fouled. There was some good shots the other day [against Costa Rica]."
Arena said he didn't want Pulisic -- who wasn't made available in the mixed zone by U.S. Soccer -- changing his game or releasing the ball earlier in a bid to avoid physical confrontations. Rather, he wants his midfielder to remain aggressive in a bid to create opportunities for his teammates.
"He has to [deal with it]," said Arena about Pulisic. "He can't get frustrated by it, and if he's a little wiser about it, he can create some advantages for us."
How can Pulisic get wiser?
"Just not get frustrated, find the next play in the right spots on the field to draw fouls, and maybe he'll get a penalty or free kick that's dangerous," Arena said.
It would help matters if some other elements of the U.S. attack stepped up to provide another threat. To that end, it appears that Arena will make some changes to his lineup. One of those will be forced on him, as Jozy Altidore's yellow card against Costa Rica was his second of World Cup qualifying, thus resulting in a suspension. That has raised questions as to whether Arena will go with one striker or two. It has been suggested that Pulisic be moved centrally in a bid to get on the ball more. But Arena insisted that Pulisic won't be limited to his starting position on the field.
"[Pulisic is] not tied down as to where he plays," Arena said. "He has the freedom to move where he wants to."
Just how many more changes Arena will make is unclear, though there are quite a few options. He said that a poor performance in one game means a player isn't an automatic to play in the next. Arena also revealed that against Honduras he will lean more heavily on MLS players due to the fact that they're in the middle of their season and thus fitter than their European-based counterparts. Arena said the heat and humidity make that difference even more noticeable.
"You'd have to think that if [European-based players] are going to play in one of these two games, it's going to be the first one," he said. "Common sense would tell you that, but there are exceptions to the rule."
That would seem to hint that Fabian Johnson -- who had played only 10 minutes for his club side prior to going the full 90 against Costa Rica -- will start the match on the bench, with Tim Ream likely to join him. Arena could opt for DaMarcus Beasley's experience at left back, as well. Arena likely won't stop there, but he'll also strive to find that middle ground where some continuity is maintained.
Regardless of who takes the field, the collective performance will need to be better than it was against Costa Rica. Both Arena and Bradley stressed that the team's overall play against the Ticos wasn't that poor. But when you go down the lineup, the list of players who underperformed on the day gets long, indeed. The U.S. also came up short in big moments. A repeat of that could prove fatal, but Bradley, for one, isn't thinking that way.
"The idea of big games, the idea of everything on the line, that can't faze us," he said. "In every World Cup qualifying cycle I've been a part of, even the ones that looking back appear to have gone a little easier than the others, you play games when everything is on the line, you play games where your backs are against the wall and you've got to get a result. That's what the next three games are."
Getting a result against the Catrachos would be a good place to start.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.