The road to the World Cup begins in earnest for the United States on Wednesday in an environment that, at least on paper, could scarcely be more hostile.
According to the U.S. State Department and reports from humanitarian groups, San Pedro Sula, the second biggest city in Honduras, is the most violent place on earth. The conclusion is derived from data that shows a homicide rate of 159 deaths per 100,000 citizens, with widespread thievery, drug-related violence and social unrest rife just four years removed from a bloody military coup.
Such a setting is a simple reality for the USA, for whom the good fortune of being in a relatively weak section of soccer’s global map brings an enhanced chance of reaching the World Cup in Brazil next year, yet also a series of tourist trials along the way.
Teams in the CONCACAF region that encompasses North and Central America and the Caribbean are no strangers to various forms of perfectly authorized skullduggery, plus annoyances such as erratic refereeing and less than pristine playing conditions. For example, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s players will know that their road games will be patronized by crowds fully prepared to hurl verbal hostility, often in venues and at kickoff times designed to provide maximum discomfort for the visitors.
Wednesday’s clash has been switched to mid-afternoon local time to ensure the temperature is at its highest, an advantage for the Honduran locals, with most of the Americans plying their trade in the chillier climes of Europe.
A presidentially decreed national day will ensure a packed crowd clad in Honduras’ light-blue colors, interspersed with a tiny pocket of hardy and loyal USA supporters.
The road has to start somewhere, though, and despite San Pedro Sula's nefarious reputation, things won’t get any easier as the U.S.'s campaign progresses throughout this year.
Visits to the lions’ den of Mexico City, to notoriously difficult Costa Rica and its awful playing surfaces, and to Panama, follow. A trip to Jamaica won't be all palm trees and cocktails either, with the Americans having been defeated there in the preliminary qualifying round that had little meaning and served only to cull a bunch of weaker teams from contention.
"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 told reporters. "They need to go through those games, they need to prove themselves and they need to find ways 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."
As is generally the way, the wider American sports public has paid little attention to the side since its round of 16 defeat, under former head coach Bob Bradley, in the 2010 World Cup.
Expectations for next year then, will largely be dictated by how much difficulty Klinsmann's charges have in negotiating this round. Some signs, such as exhibition victories at Italy and Mexico, have been positive. Others, such as the Jamaica debacle, less so.
Personnel-wise, only Mexico has a stronger roster in CONCACAF than the USA. With Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley having developed into genuine stars, accompanied by an overall solid corps of players, the Americans are formidable.
However, Landon Donovan's future involvement still remains a mystery, with the USA's most recognized player stuck in a kind of mental limbo as to what he wants from the rest of his career. Donovan has not made the trip to Honduras, but may be back soon.
Even so, with three of the six remaining CONCACAF teams guaranteed to reach the World Cup and a fourth bound for a playoff, USA fans will expect a relatively stress-free campaign, though Klinsmann is taking nothing for granted.
"There is no easy way, not for Mexico, not for the United States, not for anybody," he said. "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."
Predictions (finishing order):
1. Mexico: The class team in the region and reigning Olympic champion. Having seemingly conquered its previous habit of nagging inconsistency, Mexico is not just looking to cruise through this phase but make deep inroads at the World Cup itself.
2. United States: Should have little trouble qualifying, but mixed results under Klinsmann has split opinion on this team's true potential. Home form should be enough to comfortably clinch a spot in Brazil, but some early results on the road would ease any jitters.
3. Honduras: Could give the Americans a tough time and will like their chances of reaching a second straight World Cup. Not packed with skill but not afraid to grind out a result either and will be a force to be reckoned with at home.
4. Jamaica: Fourth place does not guarantee a trip to Brazil, merely a do-or-die playoff (likely against New Zealand). Such an outcome is a valid goal for the Reggae Boyz, who finally have a team capable of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1998.
5. Panama: Patches of talent but probably not strong enough to put together a serious bid for a top-three finish, though capable of an upset on their day.
6. Costa Rica: A sorry shadow of its former position as one of the best teams in the region. Qualification cannot be discounted, but a poor start and a meek capitulation looks more likely on recent evidence.
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