U.S. faces the most talented Honduras team in history
While World Cup qualifying has become a rite of passage for the U.S. national team, given its five straight trips to the World Cup, the same success has eluded Honduras, which has not qualified for the World Cup since its lone appearance in 1982.
A loaded generation of talent stands poised to change that.
When the United States and Honduras meet in Saturday's World Cup qualifier in San Pedro Sula, the Americans will be entering a stadium made extremely difficult to play in not only because of the hostile crowd, but also because of the ever-improving collection of Honduran stars who have begun finding success in Europe at an unprecedented pace.
How many regulars does Honduras boast in Europe's top flight? Try four European league starters in Wilson Palacios (Tottenham), Edgar Alvarez (Bari), Hendry Thomas and Maynor Figueroa (both Wigan Athletic). That quartet, coupled with a handful of others also playing in Europe, have formed the nucleus of a Honduran team that is arguably the strongest in the country's history, a history that includes the 1982 World Cup team that tied Spain.
"Clearly, this is a good group of players and they've been together, they trust each other, and believe in each other," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "The fact that some of them have gone to Europe and had some success has opened the door for some others. "Whenever you have guys who are playing, and playing in good leagues, gaining experience and confidence, that's a plus for the national team."
Bradley is more familiar with Honduran talent than most, having signed Honduran national team captain Amado Guevara when he was coach of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars back in 2003. Bradley admits that Honduras has a strong generation of talent coming through the ranks, but he also believes Honduras' ability to develop talented players isn't something that began only recently.
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U.S. vs. Honduras
Estadio Olimpico; San Pedro Sula, Honduras
10 p.m. ET
"If you go back to the day that Honduras beat the U.S. in RFK [in a 2001 World Cup qualifier], I think that was an indication that they had talented players," Bradley said. "They've had guys go to Europe before. [Samuel] Caballero had a good start in Italy before he had some injuries. They've had some players who have done well, and that continues to be the case."
Honduras has long boasted the presence of striker David Suazo in Italy, while midfielders Rambo Leon and Edgar Alvarez have also spent years establishing careers in Italy. The recent run of exports has passed mainly through England, with Palacios and Figueroa joining forces at Wigan in the summer of 2008 (after Palacios initially started his European career at Birmingham City). Palacios made a major impact with Wigan and eventually moved on to Tottenham, while Figueroa took some time to establish himself and is now a regular starter at Wigan. Thomas joined Figueroa at Wigan this season and has already established himself as a central midfield force.
It is that group of players, along with veterans like Guevara and Carlos Pavon, who have helped Honduras enjoy one of the most successful qualifying campaigns in its history. Honduras topped a loaded second-round qualifying group that included Mexico and can secure a World Cup berth with a win Saturday in San Pedro Sula, where "Los Catrachos" are undefeated in qualifying.
So what has led to this success? The evolution of the Honduran team from a technically gifted but physically limited group to a team of strong and fast players who still boast the technical ability synonymous with Latin American teams.
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"Their players are more athletic now," said former U.S. national team forward and current Kansas City Wizards coach Peter Vermes. "Tactically, they're pretty strong, they have some creative players that help them capitalize on mistakes teams make, and when you add their physicality, it makes them a totally different team.
"It was easy to overpower Honduras physically back when I played," Vermes said. "They were made up more of a team built on the Latin American style, with short passing all over the field, so when they played teams like the United States, Canada or Jamaica, they couldn't compete in a more physical and athletic game, especially when they left home. Now, they're a more organized team and physically stronger and more capable of matching up with anybody."
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On Saturday, the Hondurans will match up against the United States, and the team's success at San Pedro Sula combined with the individual success of its players in Europe will give the home side some major confidence against a U.S. team which has struggled on the road in qualifying. The Hondurans will be riding the wave of success at home and also will come in knowing they pushed the Americans to the brink when the U.S. team posted a hard-fought 2-1 qualifying win against Honduras in Chicago in June.
"They're going to bring a great deal of emotion, and it's going to require us to draw upon our experiences as a team," Bradley said. "Experiences on the road in qualifiers up until now, experiences where you have to stick together as a team.
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"We feel good about the fact that we've had enough opportunities along the way to experience some of these things, and that's what we'll have to draw on when we take the field on Saturday."
When Honduras and the United States meet Saturday, the U.S. team won't be the only one with experiences to draw on. Honduras isn't the team looking to make its sixth straight World Cup, but it does boast the talent and growing experience to make this World Cup cycle the start of just that kind of run.
Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.