Things are heating up for the U.S. in soccer World Cup qualifying. And we’re not talking about the Americans’ suddenly precarious position in the six-team CONCACAF tournament, although we’ll get to that in a bit.
First let’s talk about the weather. It was 91 degrees with 67% humidity when the U.S. team took the field for a Monday morning training session at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. According to the heat index, it felt like 107 degrees or, as they call it in Honduras, a cold snap.
With scattered thunderstorms forecast for Tuesday, the index is expected to tick up slightly before the mid-afternoon kickoff. So no one on the U.S. side was sidestepping the fact weather will have a big impact on what is a crucial qualifier for both teams. (BeIN Sports, Telemundo, NBC Universo, 2:30 p.m. PDT).
“It’s going to be a grind in every sense of the word,” Michael Bradley said. “We understand that. We have no problem with that. This is our reality.”
And it’s a reality that could make the heat the least of the challenges facing the U.S. The field, a blend of grasses, is soft and spongy, so running on it will it feel like running in sand. Whether the rain starts and stops, sticks around or bypasses the stadium completely will also affect the game.
“If there’s rain coming down, in some ways that can speed things up a little bit,” Bradley said. “But then if it rains and then stops raining, that can add to the humidity. These are all the things that are out of our control and ultimately we’ve just got to have the mentality to deal with whatever.”
The one thing the U.S. can change Tuesday is its place in the qualifying standings, although it will need a win to do that. And that brings us to the other kind of heat coach Bruce Arena’s team is facing: by losing to Costa Rica at home last week, the thin cushion the U.S. had in qualifying has been replaced by a hot seat that would grow significantly warmer with a poor result in Honduras.
“What was a slim margin has now virtually been erased altogether,” Bradley said. “But that’s past us. There’s no more time to spend worrying about what happened on Friday night.
“It’s about the next three games. It’s so clear and it’s all right there for us.”
The Americans (2-3-2) enter the game, the eighth of 10 in the hexagonal round of qualifying, leading Honduras (2-3-2) in the battle for the third and final automatic berth to the next World Cup on a goal differential.
A win would lift them three points clear. It would also greatly enhance their chances to advance since Honduras will play first-place Mexico and second-place Costa Rica in its final two games next month while the U.S. closes the tournament against last-place Trinidad and Tobago.
A draw, meanwhile, would keep the U.S. ahead of Honduras but could drop it behind Panama (1-2-4), which plays Trinidad and Tobago at home Tuesday. The U.S. would still control its destiny, though, since its next game is at home against Panama.
A loss, however, would drop the Americans three points behind Honduras and likely leave them trailing Panama as well, meaning they would need to sweep their last two games and get help from Costa Rica or Mexico to qualify directly for an eighth straight World Cup.
There is one other way to get to Russia 2018, however. The fourth-place finisher in the CONCACAF tournament will play the fifth-place finisher from the Asian confederation in a two-leg playoff in November with one last World Cup berth at stake. But that’s a scenario the U.S. would just as soon avoid.
“It’s a little three-team tournament to see who’s going to go the World Cup directly, who’s going to play in the playoff and who’s going to be out,” Bradley said. “The idea of big games, the idea of everything on the line, that can’t faze us.”
Given the punishing conditions in Honduras and the quick turnaround between games, Arena promised changes from the lineup he used last week, but gave only vague hints about what those changes might entail. Forward Jozy Altidore is definitely out after drawing a yellow card against Costa Rica. Goalkeeper Tim Howard, still recovering from offseason surgery, and England-based defenders Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream could sit as well.
“The European players,” Arena said, “they’re not used to these conditions.”