By Michael Lewis
SANDY, Utah -- Honduras might be entering its Tuesday World Cup qualifier with one foot tied behind its back with several key players on the sidelines.
The Catrachos will be missing midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia and defender Maynor Figueroa, who are injured. Defender Victor Bernardez and defensive midfielder Luis Garrido are suspended, while striker Jerry Bengtson left the team after a spat with head coach Luis Fernando Suarez.
That's five quality players.
The United States, though, won’t let those absences lull it into a false sense of security. Honduras is still poses a very significant threat.
"It won't impact how we approach it at all," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley told reporters before practice on Monday. "It's still Honduras and it's still 90 minutes to go out and try to win the game. As far as who plays for them, who doesn't, who's injured, who ends up being able to play, it doesn't change anything for us."
A victory would keep the Americans (3-1-1, 10 points) atop the group and perhaps within a win of clinching a berth in Brazil next year. The Hondurans (2-1-2, 7 pts.), who dealt the U.S. its only loss in this round (a 2-1 home win on Feb. 6), are in fourth place and a win could potentially propel them into first place.
"This game against Honduras is a big, big game," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “For me it’s almost a six-pointer. You want to win this game badly.”
The Central Americans are the last team to defeat the United States on American soil in a World Cup qualifier, recording a 3-2 triumph at RFK Stadium on Sept. 1, 2001. Since then, the U.S. has forged a 24-game unbeaten streak at home (22-2-0).
"It's a very dynamic team that plays well," said Honduras midfielder Roger Espinoza, who grew up in the U.S. and played for Sporting Kansas City before moving to Wigan Athletic (England).
"America is doing things right, but we have a great selection," said Honduran left midfielder Mario Martinez, who plays with the Seattle Sounders (Major League Soccer). "We have to make a great game and get the win. We have to ... play very smart.
"We're aware of what's at stake."
Despite topping the hexagonal, Klinsmann said it has been a difficult group for his squad to navigate.
“This hexagonal group proves how difficult it is and how balanced North and Central America is now in soccer terms," said the former German international. "The Central American countries caught up. They challenge Mexico, they challenge us. There is no easy game at all anymore. You first have to somehow break them down, score your first goal and go from there. If you don’t break them down, which happened down in Mexico a few times, you struggle. Because teams are physically very strong, they keep the pace high with you, they keep the rhythm and they are tactically very well organized.
"They all go behind the ball once they lose it. There’s always a wall of nine or 10 guys behind the ball. As we saw, Panama did everything to not open any gaps for us."