By Ridge Mahoney
In the aftermath of a laborious 0-0 tie with Canada Tuesday night, comfort can be found in the fact that a European-heavy team will probably open the Hexagonal Wednesday against Honduras in San Pedro Sula.
That’s a nice thought, but matters won’t be quite that simple, as the German Bundesliga contingent is far from ready.
Injuries could sideline outside backs Steve Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson, and out-of-action regulars Jermaine Jones (suspended from Bundesliga play) and Danny Williams (benched) may not be fit enough to go.
Those in England -- Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard -- have been playing in cold rain and snow flurries, and won’t easily adapt to temperatures expected to be in the low 80s. They can be as game-sharp as all get-out, but the much warmer weather will severely test their stamina. The Honduran federation also scheduled the game for late afternoon, not at night, when a harsh sun could possibly exacerbate the discomfort.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann can, of course, supplement the squad for Honduras with his pick of the players who faced Canada, but whether from lack of game action or other reasons, few looked ready to tangle in a knock-down, drag-out battle typical of Concacaf qualifiers.
Yes, it’s only the first 10 matches, but this is shaping up – aside from Mexico, which opens at home against Jamaica that same night – as a fiercely competitive Hexagonal.
The top three of six advance automatically to the 2014 World Cup, and the fourth-place team gets a cushy playoff series with the Oceania winner, so the odds of the Americans reaching Brazil are quite good.
Yet scraping through as the fourth-place finisher isn’t what U.S. Soccer had in mind when it hired Klinsmann, and while qualification is always the bottom line, federation officials – as well as fans and media – will expect progress in the Klinsmann tenets of skillful, creative play.
One of his proclamations upon being hired was to broaden the national team’s representation of players based in Mexico, and since those players started their seasons in early January in conditions somewhat similar to those in Honduras, it would seem obvious for him to dip into Liga MX.
While there’s only a handful of players with national team experience south of the border, most of them are playing regularly for successful teams.
Forward Herculez Gomez (Santos) played the last U.S. seven games of 2012; he scored in Santos’ Clausura opener with a header against San Luis and has appeared in all four league games. Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona are regular starters for defending league champion Club Tijuana, and midfielder Jose Torres – cut loose by Pachuca in December after playing more than 150 games for the club since his debut in 2006 – has started both games for Tigres since returning from injury.
Defender Michael Orozco Fiscal, scorer in the historic 1-0 defeat of Mexico at Azteca Stadium last August, has gone on loan from San Luis to Puebla and has appeared in three league matches. A Puebla teammate, DaMarcus Beasley, has been mostly ignored by Klinsmann – he played just 45 minutes in 2012 – and he's getting regular time (three starts, one sub appearance) for his club.
Situations like this are those in which Klinsmann must earn his keep: His MLS players are out of season, his Euro options are limited by climate change, and of the Mexican-based players only Gomez (three U.S. goals last year in 11 appearances) has proven to be consistently reliable at the international level.
The uncertainty at outside back would suggest Castillo, though his defensive work is suspect. An experienced, skillful midfielder like Torres is an asset, but he’s not quite found a comfort level – or the right position – for the USA.
If the Americans get a point out of Honduras, or perhaps steal a victory –as they did in the penultimate game of the last Hexagonal to clinch a spot at the 2010 World Cup – the Canada game will be regarded as a throwaway.
Still, there were questions about why Klinsmann didn’t start a creative central midfielder -- Benny Feilhaber, Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya had all been in camp -- against an opponent expected to bunker in after being embarrassed 4-0 by Denmark.
Wednesday's Honduras game is just the first of many important games, but the USA’s direction will be just as intriguing as the result.