Nowhere is the grind of a World Cup qualifying campaign more evident than against a team such as Honduras. A country of less than 9 million, ranked 52nd in the world (the U.S. is 28th), there’s a reason that Honduras made the last World Cup: Los Catrachos can frequently punch above their weight. And what a better target than the bigger, richer Americans. The Hondurans connected last February, beating the Yanks 2-1 at San Pedro Sula in the first game of the Hexagonal, as the six-team competition for three guaranteed spots in the World Cup is called.
That’s why U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was happy to pocket the three points in a less-than-artistic 1-0 win over an under strength Honduras team in 90°F heat in Sandy, Utah. “This Hexagonal group proves how difficult it is and how balanced North and Central America is now in soccer terms,” Klinsmann said before the Tuesday match. “The Central American countries caught up. They challenge Mexico, they challenge us. There is no easy game at all anymore.” The scene in Utah was a polar opposite, if you will, from the Americans’ 1-0 win over Costa Rica, played in a blizzard in Denver earlier this year, but a heck of a lot easier on the fans.
That gives the U.S. 13 points from the first six matches of the final qualifying round. Although U.S. fans were singing “We’re going to Brazil” as the minutes ticked down, it’s not time to play samba music yet. Three more points from the last four games should do it.
The central defense remains a longer term issue for Klinsmann. The backfield must be giving him heartburn with its propensity to cough up the ball in bad positions. It happened again against Honduras, when Matt Besler’s feeble pass late in the first half was intercepted by Andy Najar, who then swooped down on Tim Howard’s goal only to be denied by the alert keeper. As we’ve seen, when a more experienced European or South American forward gets into that position—think Arjen Robben of Holland or Argentina’s Sergio Aguero, the result will often be far more damaging.
Three points is a dangerous distance for the U.S., even with four games to play. The U.S. travels to Costa Rica on September 6, and the Ticos, currently in second place in the Hex, are still seething about playing in the whiteout in Denver. They will be praying for 100° temperatures at 100% humidity, and maybe a noon start. Four days later the Yanks play Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. The Mexicans will be seething about not being very good in the qualifying so far. This will be a stress test, but based on the Honduras result, the Americans look ready to pass it.