- 04:00 PM ET 10.10
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- For a few minutes on Friday night, Honduran interim president Roberto Micheletti sounded happy to be talking with a reporter about something other than the political crisis which has engulfed his country.
Micheletti is a soccer fan, and tonight in San Pedro Sula, the Honduran national team plays its most important game in 27 years, a World Cup qualifier against the United States. If Honduras wins, it will almost certainly clinch a World Cup berth for the first time since 1982. And Micheletti, for his part, thinks his Catrachos will do more than just win.
"Honduras 4, United States 0!" Micheletti told me in Spanish. "The heart of the Hondurans is bigger than ever!"
Micheletti has a lot on his plate these days. With mediation from the Organization of American States, his aides met this week with representatives of Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed as president on June 28. Zelaya snuck back into Honduras on Sept. 21 and has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy here ever since. No other countries, including the U.S., have recognized Micheletti's regime.
Even though no resolution to the standoff has been reached, Honduras will put aside politics for 90 minutes tonight to support their national team. "Soccer unites all Hondurans," Micheletti explained during our 10-minute conversation, "without distinction among classes, political parties, religion or race. Soccer brings everyone together."
"We still remember our national team from 1982, and we Hondurans all live with the dream of returning to the World Cup. Let's hope that God gives us the opportunity to achieve this goal, which we'd do by beating the Gringos and the Salvadorans [on Wednesday]."
A fan of two Honduran clubs (Real España and Motagua) who says he still plays soccer once or twice a year, Micheletti won't be at the stadium tonight, but he did say that he would be watching the game in his living room at home. "I have to watch at home because I scream a lot at the TV," he said.
The de facto president is no dummy: He knows that a Honduras win tonight will be good from him politically. But he also seemed to be a genuine fan, naming off several of his favorite Honduran players, including Carlos Pavón, Carlos Costly, David Suazo and Ramón Núñez, and he seemed more than a little bullish about tonight's game.
"We have players from international clubs on our team, and therefore we have a lot of confidence, hope and faith that we will achieve this victory," he told me. "But I want to wish both teams luck, that they play a clean game and that for a moment we can forget any sadness [in the country] and enjoy a great soccer game."
And if Honduras qualifies for the World Cup? "I'll call a national holiday," said Micheletti. "We are going to celebrate!"
Friday was an odd day for me. One moment I was speaking with the man who runs Honduras, and another moment I was being robbed at gunpoint in Tegucigalpa.
My idea had been to drive from San Pedro Sula about 150 miles southeast to the capital, stopping to interview people along the way about the significance of the Honduran soccer team's success during a time of deep divisions within the country.
And that's exactly what I did. I spoke to businessmen in San Pedro Sula, gas-station workers in Comayagua and even a clown that I encountered on the side of the road in a dusty town outside Tegucigalpa. (The man, whose nom de clown is Chiquitón, said he'd be watching the game. He also said that he clowns at birthday parties, Christmas celebrations and even funerals.)
Along the way I discovered that Honduras is a beautiful country, with forest-green mountains, gorgeous lakes and friendly people.
Except, perhaps, for one. On Friday afternoon, I ventured to the embassy district of Tegucigalpa, where hundreds of gun-toting police have surrounded the Brazilian embassy (and its occupant Zelaya). The police chief gave me the clearance to interview some soccer-loving police officers, whose scowls melted into smiles as they talked of getting a few hours off from work to watch USA-Honduras.
After we finished, I started walking back to my car, which I had parked a few blocks away in what appeared to be a safe part of town a stone's throw from the U.S. embassy. And then, in broad daylight, with hundreds of police officers only a couple hundred yards away, a 20-something male ran up behind me, pulled out a gun, and threatened to kill me if I didn't give him my things.
I've had experience working in some hairy situations -- from a week in Nigeria to a drive across Mexico, from a story near the Israeli-Lebanese border to a road-trip with hardcore soccer fans in Argentina -- but I had never been threatened with a gun before.
I gave him my wallet and iPhone, and thankfully he disappeared down the aptly named Avenida de Paz (Peace).
But I did survive, chastened and a bit embarrassed. Interim president Micheletti apologized for the robbery and said that it no doubt was a Zelaya supporter.
Check back before and during tonight's game to Grant Wahl's live commentary from San Pedro Sula on Twitter.
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- Three thoughts after the U.S.' 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in Wednesday's World Cup qualifier:
• Underwhelming? Yes. But it's still six points. It's hard to imagine the U.S. performing much worse and still finding a way to get a huge six points from this week's two qualifiers against El Salvador and T&T, the two bottom-feeders of the Hex. The U.S. played a brutal first half, losing possession easily (often without much pressure at all) and letting T&T have the three best chances of the first 45. Not much improved in the second half, either, but Landon Donovan's penetrating run down the left side created space for him to lay off to Ricardo Clark, who has shown in the past that he can shoot from distance. (Copa América 2007, anyone?) Bottom line: With 16 points, the U.S. is in good shape to qualify for South Africa 2010 and doesn't have a must-win situation at Honduras on Matchday 9 next month. Good thing, though, because if they continue playing this way, the Yanks will have no chance in San Pedro Sula.
• Donovan is the U.S.' only consistent offensive threat these days. There's no way the Yanks would have gotten six points this week if it hadn't been for Donovan, who after years of going hot and cold has turned into a regular performer when the games matter most. Remember the '06 World Cup, when Donovan was often afraid to take on defenders with the ball at his feet? You just don't see that anymore. Clint Dempsey needs to turn into that type of player for the Americans. Dempsey seems out of synch with most of his teammates in the attack, and his reliance on tricks when they're not necessary often results in killer giveaways. What happened to the Dempsey that we saw during the second half of the Confederations Cup?
• It's still 2009, not 2010. If there's any solace for most U.S. fans, it's that how you perform in 2010 may have nothing to do with how you qualify for the World Cup. Would anyone have predicted that the U.S. (which finished third in qualifying for '02) would be a World Cup quarterfinalist a year later? That Brazil (which barely qualified for '02) would raise the trophy a year later? England fans will no doubt be sky-high after their team's 5-1 blowout of Croatia on Wednesday, but what does that say about England's chances in 2010? Perhaps very little. In the end, qualifying is about qualifying -- and then wiping the slate clean.
Thoughts on the game? Post them below and check back later for my post-press conference piece on SI.com.
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- It's tough to feel a sense of urgency when you're sitting in a luxury hotel overlooking the Caribbean Sea on a glorious late-summer afternoon. But it's still possible, especially if you're Tim Howard, the goalkeeper whose U.S. national team needs a victory in tonight's World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, TeleFutura) to feel good about its chances of reaching South Africa 2010.
"I've said it all along, you win your home games and you hope to pick up something on the road," Howard says. "But I think now the mindset has to change a little bit. For the four teams right now who are at the top of the group, I think we all would probably say we've got to go for it."
A U.S. tie here just won't cut it. Not when Mexico's surprising 3-0 win at Costa Rica on Saturday made a close four-team race for three automatic World Cup spots even tighter. Not when this is the easiest road venue in the Hexagonal. And not when a tie or loss would be a step back for a U.S. team that won its last qualifier here that mattered in 2005.
"We need to win this game," said Landon Donovan on Wednesday night. "Our last two are very difficult games [in October at Honduras and at home against Costa Rica]. This is a [T&T] team that is not mathematically out but likely out of it, and a team that we need to beat, clearly."
The U.S. figures to make a few changes from the lineup that beat El Salvador 2-1 on Saturday. Coach Bob Bradley said Oguchi Onyewu will return to the central defense after serving a one-game yellow-card suspension. Onyewu has been training with the team all week, and Bradley said he's not concerned that the AC Milan player hasn't played a competitive game since the U.S.-Mexico qualifier almost a month ago.
Bradley has a couple of options for the rest of the back line. He could use Chad Marshall in the center next to Onyewu and put Carlos Bocanegra on the left, but I suspect Bocanegra will play in the center, leaving Bradley with a decision: Does he continue on the left with Jonathan Bornstein, who struggled on Saturday? Or does he move Jonathan Spector from the right side to the left (where he plays for West Ham) and put Steve Cherundolo on the right?
That's what I suspect will happen, and we'll see (from left to right): Spector - Bocanegra - Onyewu - Cherundolo. If Spector does move to the left, it will be important for Cherundolo to show that his crosses can be just as dangerous as Spector's have been in recent months.
Otherwise, I think the only change we'll see is in the central midfield, where Ricardo Clark could return to the lineup replacing Benny Feilhaber. That would mean a midfield of: Donovan - Clark - Michael Bradley - Clint Dempsey.
Up top, I figure we'll again see Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies, provided that Davies is O.K. after leaving the game on Saturday in the second half with a thigh contusion. "We needed to see how a few guys felt, Charlie being one of them," Bob Bradley said on Tuesday night after practice at Hasely Crawford Stadium. "Based upon the little that we did, guys seemed O.K. We'll see how they are later tonight and tomorrow and make final decisions. But the hope is we'll have everybody open for selection."
Altidore, you may recall, had a hat trick in Nashville the last time these two teams played. The rise of Davies since then has to be an encouraging development for the U.S.'s attacking future. After all, how many Top 15 national teams start a 19-year-old and a 23-year-old up top?
As for T&T, the cuddly upstart that made a splash at World Cup 2006 (tying Sweden and giving England all it could handle) is essentially out of contention for South Africa. But it does have one of the better front lines in CONCACAF. Kenwyne Jones (Sunderland) and Cornell Glen (San Jose Earthquakes) started in the team's 4-1 loss at Honduras on Saturday, but we could see the debut of recently naturalized Bobby Zamora (Fulham).
"These are all guys who are pretty decorated, particularly in CONCACAF," says Tim Howard. "They're a handful because, first off, you look at their physical stature, they're really big. But then they also possess good speed, they're good in the air. A lot of what they bring, ironically, kind of plays into our hands. Because from a defensive standpoint we're very good at those things as well. We're good in the air, we're fast, we're strong. So oftentimes our matchups have been pretty good against those guys for that reason."
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Saturday (other than Mexico's win at Costa Rica) was that the U.S., which had so readily picked up cards in 2009, didn't receive a single yellow against El Salvador. On the one hand, that left no players suspended for tonight's game, but it also means that seven U.S. players are one yellow card away from being suspended for October's qualifier at Honduras: Altidore, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Clark, Dempsey, Donovan and Feilhaber.
"At this point we can't worry about cards," says Donovan, who was the Man of the Match against El Salvador. "The last game we were a little cautious of it and we did a good job. Right now we need to play to win the game, and if we take a yellow and miss a game that's part of it. We've got enough guys who can fill out the team."
THROUGH-BALLS: President Obama has been supportive of U.S. Soccer recently, writing a personal letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter in support of the U.S. bid for the 2018/2022 World Cups and hosting Blatter in a private Oval Office meeting. We're also told that White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina is such a U.S. Soccer fan that he wore a Landon Donovan jersey on the day of the U.S.-Brazil Confederations Cup final. But Obama's scheduling of a big nationally televised speech tonight during an important U.S. World Cup qualifier? Lame ... If the U.S. builds a sizable lead, I wouldn't be surprised to see forward Robbie Findley get on the field. Findley's parents, Vanessa and Rawle, are from Port of Spain, and Findley has many relatives here. He even had a try-out with the T&T Under-21 team in 2005 ... It's amazing how often you see soccer references in non-soccer areas here. Trinidadian Jack Warner, the all-powerful FIFA vice-president, also appears in the papers here as chairman of the UNC-A political party, and there was also a front-page picture in the Daily Express of a beauty pageant that took place in the João Havelange Centre of Excellence, named for the Brazilian former FIFA president. Nice to see that Warner is acting as the Robert Byrd of soccer politics, bring lots of $$$ to his home state.
How do you see the U.S.-T&T game playing out? Who do you think will start for the Americans? Post your thoughts below and check back later for updates from the stadium.
SANDY, Utah -- Three quick thoughts after the U.S.'s 2-1 win over El Salvador in World Cup qualifying:
* There's rarely such a thing as an easy three points for Team USA. In the end, the Yanks got what they needed: three important points on the road to South Africa. Still, nobody expected that lowly El Salvador would take a 1-0 lead, as it did after a horrific clearance by Jonathan Bornstein into his own box in the 32nd minute. The gaffe brought back memories of Carlos Bocanegra's ill-fated clearance in the '06 World Cup against Ghana. But unlike in that game, this U.S. team came roaring back to score two goals in the final five minutes of the first half. You never want to go down at home, as the U.S. also did in its last home qually against Honduras, but to come from behind and win shows a mettle that's certainly worth something.
* Man of the Match: Landon Donovan. The U.S.'s all-time leading scorer didn't find the net against El Salvador, but he did just about everything else on the field, attacking the Salvadoran defense relentlessly and serving two exquisite balls to Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore for the U.S. goals. More and more, Donovan seems to have a free role to roam the field and attack, much like Cuauhtémoc Blanco for Mexico or Kaká for Brazil. It strikes me as the best way to use Donovan's abilities to run at defenders and find openings, instead of asking him to play up top and let the game come to him.
* Tim Howard came up huge late. The U.S. shouldn't have been in a position to give up a late equalizer, but Howard (who wasn't active for much of the night) had to make a point-blank save on William Reyes in the 87th minute to preserve the victory. Give Los Cuscatlecos credit for playing a good game and attacking more than expected, but make sure to give Howard credit for dealing with a makeshift U.S. back line that has had better nights. At halftime, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati revealed that Mexican-American left back Edgar Castillo received clearance from FIFA yesterday to play for the United States. As of now, Castillo appears to be the U.S.'s best option at left back.
What did you think of the U.S. performance? Post your thoughts below and check back after postgame interviews for Jonah Freedman's piece on SI.com. I'm off to write a mag article...
- 12:13 PM ET 09.02
Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images
What if they held a World Cup and the planet's two best players didn't come?
That's the scary (and still possible) scenario facing Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina's Lionel Messi as their underperforming teams each face two critical World Cup qualifiers in the next week.
We're in the home stretch of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, and with only four games left in continental tournaments it looks as though Portugal and Argentina could be headed to the last-chance saloon of two-game playoffs in November. In fact, Portugal and Ronaldo, the reigning World Player of the Year, may be lucky even to get that far.
Six teams have already secured berths in the 32-team field for South Africa: the Netherlands, Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and host South Africa. Which heavyweights are in trouble? Let's break it down:
• Argentina. The global game of the week is South America's greatest rivalry, Argentina-Brazil, which finds the host Argentines in dire need of a win on Saturday in Rosario (8:30 p.m. ET, PPV). Despite having one of the world's most talented rosters, coach Diego Maradona has endured a rocky tenure running the Albicelestes, highlighted by a historic 6-1 loss to lowly Bolivia at altitude earlier this year. Will the Argentine soccer icon get the sack if his team loses at home to rampaging Brazil, the World Cup favorite? It's certainly possible. An Argentine loss could drop Messi & Co. from fourth to fifth place in South American qualifying, which would be a precarious spot. The fifth-place team will have to meet the fourth-place team from CONCACAF in a two-game playoff in November. Even if the Argentines make it to South Africa -- and I suspect they will -- it's hard to fathom they can win the World Cup as long as the ill-equipped Maradona is the coach.
• Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo is in an even tighter spot: Portugal could be eliminated from the World Cup as soon as next week if it doesn't get results on the road at UEFA Group 1 leader Denmark (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, Setanta) and at second-place Hungary (Sept. 9, 2:45 p.m., Setanta). With 16 points and a favorable schedule, Denmark is in the driver's seat to win the group and its automatic World Cup berth. Third-place Portugal (nine points) has to hope it can catch upstart Hungary (13 points) to grab second place and the November playoff that comes with it. The good news for Portugal: It gets Hungary twice in the next three games. The bad news: Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are lurking as well -- tied with Portugal on nine points -- and have an easier schedule the rest of the way. I don't think Portugal is going to reach South Africa, which would be a shame for neutral fans (who'd be bummed not to see Ronaldo at the World Cup) and an embarrassment for beleaguered coach Carlos Queiroz.
• Mexico. Despite El Tri's big win over the U.S. last month, coach Javier Aguirre's team still finds itself in fourth place in CONCACAF qualifying with nine points, trailing Costa Rica (12), Honduras (10) and the Americans (10). Even worse, Mexico (which has lost all three of its Hexagonal road games) has to travel to the lion's den of Estadio Saprissa in Costa Rica on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, Telemundo). This region is a four-team race, but nobody wants to finish fourth and face a two-game playoff in November against Argentina, Ecuador or whichever team finishes fifth in South America.
Several other notable teams are on the ropes for World Cup 2010. Cameroon sits in last place in CAF Group A and needs to rally in home-and-home qualifiers on Saturday and on Sept. 9 against group leader Gabon. The Czech Republic is snorkeling in fifth place in UEFA Group 3 with eight points, trailing far behind surprise group leaders Slovakia (15) and Northern Ireland (13). Turkey is in third place in UEFA Group 5 and has a huge game on Sept. 9 at second-place Bosnia-Herzegovina. And African champion Egypt could miss the World Cup yet again if it doesn't get a result this week at Rwanda.
Which of the big-name teams on the ropes do you think will qualify for 2010? Which won't? And how do you see this week's World Cup qualifiers playing out? Post your thoughts below, and check back here in the coming days for coverage of the U.S.' important qualifier against El Salvador (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic) from the Salt Lake City area ...