The stakes are high
USMNT head coach Bruce Arena will be participating in his third Hex on Friday. However, this time he will have to dig the United States out of a hole when they face Los Catrachos on Friday. If the US want to qualify for their eighth consecutive World Cup, the journey will have to begin in San Jose.
The fifth round of the CONCACAF qualification stage (Also known as the Hex.) is the final stage in this regions long road to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Only six nations compete in the fifth round, with only the top three qualifying for the World Cup.
The fourth place has to face the fifth place from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in a two-leg (home and away.) inter-confederation playoff series this November. The winner of that series will secure their ticket to Russia for the following summer. All six nations in the fifth round will have 10 matches to their name, an equal amount of home and away games. The Hex will be over for all of the countries this October.
So far all six teams have played two matches and for the first time, the US have failed to acquire a single point in the first two games. The Red, White, and Blue currently sit in the last place of the group. Before this, the USMNT lowest amount points earned in the first two games of the Hex were three in 2014 and 2006. Both times they were able to recover and qualify for the World Cup as winners of the group.
Has anyone been able to come back from a 0-2 start?
In the history of the Hex, there have been three occasions that a country failed to earn a single point in their first two matches. Canada started the 1998 Hex with two defeats and finished the group in the last place. The following cycle, Trinidad and Tobago had the same start, and history repeated itself with the Soca Warriors finishing in last.
However, the same Caribbean nation in the 2006 Hex started 0-2 as well but they still managed to qualify for the World Cup. The Soca Warriors finished the group in fourth place with 13 points and beat Bahrain with a 2-1 aggregate in the AFC-CONCACAF playoff to secure their spot in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Trinidad and Tobago were only able to squeak into fourth place by winning three out of their last four matches, which included a 2-1 victory over Mexico in their final match of the Hex.
How did the USMNT get to this point?
In the fourth round, the US showed signs that this World Cup qualifying cycle was not going to be a walk in the park for them. They first were forced to settle for a hard-fought scoreless draw to Trinidad and Tobago on November 17th, 2015. Then Guatemala upset the United States with a 2-0 defeat at the Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala City on March 26th, 2016.
That defeat gave the US a slight scare with only earning four points out of a possible nine. They were seating in third place of group C, and only two of the four countries in the group would advance to the Hex. However, the US was able to recover and won the group by winning their last three games with ease. The Yanks ended the fourth round by outscoring their opponents 14-0.
However, former USMNT’s manager Jürgen Klinsmann issues that plagued the start of the fourth round returned in the Hex. The US were defeated by their bitter rivals, Mexico 2-1 in Columbus, Ohio on November 11th, 2016 to start the fifth round.
It was the first time El Tri had defeated the USMNT on American soil in a WCQ match since 1972.
Then the United States traveled to Costa Rica for their second match of the Hex. The USMNT have never picked up three points when facing the Ticos at their home. That tradition continued as the Central American powerhouse destroyed the Yanks 4-0 at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica on November 15th, 2016.
Due to the 0-2 start, Klinsmann was relieved and Arena was brought back for his third stint with the national team. Arena and the rest of the national team know they have very little room for error if they want to be participating in the World Cup next summer.
The US will be missing some stars
It is no secret that the player pool of the US is at one of its highest points in the national team’s history. However, due to some key injuries Arena has been forced to reach deeper into the well then he would of like for such an important World Cup qualifier.
All USMNT fans were hoping to see fullback DeAndre Yedlin, striker Bobby Wood and midfielder Fabian Johnson in this game. However, due to Yedlin’s thigh injury, Wood’s back injury and Jonson pulled hamstring they will be missing from the starting 11.
Arena called up some replacements for the injured playmakers. Full back Graham Zusi was brought in for Johnson on the 16th of the March. Creative midfielder Sacha Kljestian was called into camp to replace Wood on the 19th.
As for Yedlin, his injury came before the national team roster was announced earlier this month. There is a good chance that the only reason why DaMarcus Beasley and possibly Michael Orozco were brought to the squad was because of Yedlin’s injury.
Arena also sent home goalkeeper Brad Guzan, since his second child is expected to be born soon. San Jose Earthquakes keeper David Bingham was called to replace the US veteran. The coach also decided to bring World Cup veteran’s defender Matt Besler and striker Chris Wondolwski for the upcoming qualifier.
Regardless, of the injuries Arena still has plenty of talent to pick up the much needed three points on Friday.
The keys to victory for the US
The motivation to secure three points for the US players is definitely not the concern with this crucial qualifier match being played at home. However, if the United States wants to leave Avaya Stadium with on the right path then they will need to use their creative wingers Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Lletget to expose the Central American defense in the match. Honduras will not be attacking the US in this match. Instead, they will be playing for the counter and attempt to suffocate the Yanks offense by forcing them to go down the middle. If the Stars and Stripes fall for that trap then the game will become a midfield slugfest, and Honduras’ Roger Espinoza thrives in that sort of environment.
Not to mention that Los Catrachos have the offensive weapons like Andy Najar, Boniek Garcia, Mario Martinez, Romell Quioto, Alberth Elis and Anthony Lozano to punish the US. So the best way to avoid this tricky match is to force the backline to open up.
If the wingers keep the full backs and midfielders of Honduras occupied then it will give strikers like Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey or Jordan Morris more space and time to pounce on a cross or on a loose ball. If Pulisic, Nagbe or Lletget are not active then the US strikers might find themselves doubled team and frustrated in the penalty box.
Honduras will be hoping for a slow and safe start from the USMNT
If the United States fails to come out of the gates aggressively and put Los Catrachos on their heels and force them to chase the ball, then the Central Americans will have time to regroup. Honduras will begin to grow confident, find a rhythm and start creating chances.
The Central Americans only have three points so far, so their position in the Hex is nowhere secured. A defeat on Friday will force Honduras to win their next match against an undefeated Costa Rica at home on Tuesday. If they fail to do so then they can potentially drop from fourth to as low as sixth depending on other results.
Both nations will be gearing up for a brawl on Friday since both sides are in need of points to help their World Cup dreams become realities.