The U.S. men's national team has a recent track record of performing at its best with its back against the wall and the odds not in its favor.
Needing a big win (and help) in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, the U.S. men bounced back from the brink of humiliation, topped Egypt 3-0 to get out of its group, and shocked Spain in the semifinal before succumbing to Brazil in an agonizing final.
In the following summer's World Cup, the U.S. battled back from a 2-0 deficit against Slovenia to earn a draw and found a way to hit a stoppage-time winner against Algeria to emerge from the depths of despair and win its group.
Even in this World Cup qualifying cycle, under a new regime, the U.S. has shown the ability to overcome obstacles and sub-par results en route to meeting the end goal, even if the road there hasn't been as smooth as most would assume.
So to say that opening the 2013 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal with comfortable wins over Honduras on Wednesday and Costa Rica in late March is a must would be to ignore history. Even so, no U.S. supporter wants the battle for a top-three finish in the Hex to be an uphill one, yet the early road, one that will be travelled sans Landon Donovan at least to start, suggests it might be.
With three of the first four Hexagonal games being played away from home, the challenge is presented from the outset for the Americans. The last place the U.S. wants to be entering the March 26 clash at Estadio Azteca is in a position where it absolutely needs a victory to ease the pressure going forward.
“There is no easy way, not for Mexico, not for the United States, not for anybody," U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said on a conference call on Monday. "You have to get your points, you have to win your games and you have to get the job done.
"You have to go into every game with the expectation that it’s going to be difficult, that it will challenge you to the limits. That’s our approach, take it seriously every time you go out onto the field, very seriously, and be very awake and then we’ll see how it runs out through those 10 games. I told the players it’s all about alertness, commitment and determination. The way they train, the way they presented themselves already this morning, it looks like they are ready.”
San Pedro Sula is not an easy place to play - Honduras was 2-1-0 at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in the semifinal round, including an 8-1 pasting of Canada - but failing to secure at least a point there would ramp up the pressure considerably on the March 22 match against Costa Rica in Colorado, and then for the rivalry bout with El Tri. Winning on the road in CONCACAF has never been an easy proposition, and dealing with that multiple times off the bat presents a considerable challenge.
“Every continent has its tricky parts and difficult environments, and San Pedro Sula definitely has its own difficult environment, but those are challenges that players need," Klinsmann said. "They need to go through those games, they need to prove themselves and they need to find ways, on the field, to get the job done.
"I will always welcome these opportunities, these matches, because that’s what it’s all about, going to these places that are not your home, cozy environment and proving a point. The players are ready for that. Some have been down there already, and others have played enough World Cup qualifiers already. We have an experienced team. We have players that are ready to step it up but obviously you know to expect a difficult situation.”
The first step in that difficult road comes against Los Catrachos, who caught Klinsmann's eye in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and showed that the future is bright with their strong showing at this past summer's Olympics. Having Andy Najar and Emilio Izaguirre ruled out with injuries gives the rather healthy Americans a bit of a break, but Honduras, despite its lack of traditional success, is far from a pushover in hostile territory.
“We have a lot of respect for this team," Klinsmann said. "I think they’ve done very well over the last couple of years, obviously qualifying for South Africa, challenging us and Mexico in this region and having played overseas with more presence than ever before. I personally saw them in South Africa in games and the only thing they were lacking was the confidence to beat one of the bigger nations, to really believe in it at the end of the day.
"You have strikers up front in [New England forward Jerry] Bengtson who can always harm an opponent, you have [former Sporting Kansas City stalwart and recent Wigan Athletic signing Roger] Espinoza in midfield who has a lot of creativity and a wonderful touch. They have a very strong defense physically so that’s why we respect them, that’s why we’ve done our homework."
The hope for Klinsmann is that homework pays off, so that the U.S. is not tasked with overcoming another series of high hurdles en route to meeting its end goal this time around - a ticket to Brazil 2014.
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