Scott Bales/YCJ/Icon SMI
It's pretty simple: If the U.S. beats Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Saturday, it clinches a spot at the 2010 World Cup. But that's a tall order. Honduras is undefeated at home through its last eight games, boasts a stacked squad and has stifling heat on its side. Not to mention the added bonus of this game being fútbol-mad Honduras' biggest distraction from the presidential coup going on 142 miles away in Tegucigalpa.
The stakes are monstrous for both teams, and that's why we're in for, as SI.com's Grant Wahl writes, "a barn-burner of a game, the kind of back-and-forth, high-scoring shootout that we'd be talking about for years." Here are three things the U.S. needs to watch for against Honduras:
1. The Honduran central midfield. The U.S. is facing what is probably the best Honduras team in its history. Their roster is loaded with strong, experienced players who suit up for English and Italian clubs, as well as a handful of players with experience in Major League Soccer who know the American game quite well.
But the most trouble will come from the center of the park. Tottenham Hotspur stud Wilson Palacios is, in particular, of worry for the U.S. It'll be his job to disrupt the American attack, which he did beautifully when los Catrachos lost a tight one to the U.S. in Chicago back in June. He'll be paired with Hendry Thomas, who does similar cleanup work for England's Wigan Athletic. Both players are wide, fast and strong, and playing in the one of the world's top leagues has made them battle-tested. If they're on their game, they can abuse their U.S. counterparts, Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark.
2. More shuffling of the deck. You never want to deal with injury problems this late in qualifying, but that's inevitable. For the first time in the U.S.' campaign, the Americans will be without the mercurial Clint Dempsey, who is suffering from a shoulder sprain. Depending on your feelings on the Texan, that may or may not be a good thing. When Dempsey is on, he can be unstoppable and deliver goals few on the team can. When he's off, he looks unmotivated, lost and lazy, and makes fans throw things at their TVs.
This could open the door on the right wing for Stuart Holden, who has been very impressive in his appearances as a sub for the U.S. as well as in his starting role at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. But the Houston Dynamo star has yet to feel the pressure of starting for the senior team in a game of this magnitude. And as any player will tell you, that's a whole other ball game.
Meanwhile, the American back line is still unset. Captain Carlos Bocanegra has been moving back and forth between center back and left back depending on the needs of the team, but Bob Bradley has yet to decide on a permanent solution. Saturday will be no different. With Jay DeMerit out injured, Boca will stay in his usual left center-back spot, and Jonathan Bornstein and Steve Cherundolo likely will occupy the wings, which is another invitation to pick apart their effectiveness (or lack thereof). Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda surely is paying close attention.
3. Destino Hondureño (that's "Honduran destiny," gringos). The best Honduran team ever. A country inches from its first World Cup in 28 years. A nation glued to the game to lift its spirits during a time of political discord.
"The entire country is going to be behind them,'' Bocanegra told reporters. "Not to get on the political side of things, but obviously it will be something that brings everyone together."
Put it this way, the U.S. could be in the way of a locomotive of karma. This is the biggest sporting event to happen in Honduras in more than 20 years, and you can bet the Catrachos are going to feel like they've got an entire nation on their backs. They'll play this game like it's their last one.
Said Kansas City Wizards midfielder Roger Espinoza and Honduran national-teamer to The New York Times: "The soccer team is the soul of the country. When it wins, the whole country is happy, no matter what is going on with the president. If we don't win, you don't want to be there as a player. Soccer is life there."
What do you think? Does the U.S. have a good shot of logging a road win on Saturday and punching a ticket to South Africa? Still worried about the Americans' fortunes? And how angry are you about the TV situation? Are you even bending over backwards to watch the game? Give us your thoughts (and don't forget to check back on Saturday for postgame takes from Wahl, and check his Twitter feed for in-game commentary).