Mathis reminisces with Honduras flashback
It's been more than eight years, but the goal is still special to Clint Mathis. In late March 2001, the national team forward ran up and struck a beautiful set piece to give the United States a 2-1 victory on the road in Honduras. It was almost as if Mathis had a premonition about the goal.
The day before, the team held a practice in San Pedro Sula to get acclimated to the stadium. Toward the end of the session, Mathis began taking free kicks, over and over again from 25-30 yards out. At one point, teammates asked that he slow down his strike rate because they worried he would get a dead leg that would effect him in the game.
Mathis ignored them and continued to hit balls throughout the rest of practice. The next day, with the match winding down and the United States clinging to a tenuous 1-1 tie, the United States drew a foul about 25 yards away from Honduras' goal.
"I was given the ball," Mathis said. "It was almost the same exact spot as I was striking them from in practice the day before."
Mathis hit the free kick, dipping the ball over the wall and past the outstretched body of goalkeeper Noel Valladares.
"Really don't remember that much after that," Mathis confessed. "I think Jeff Agoos was the first one there. I just remember being so excited, it all became a blur."
At that point, Mathis didn't care about his own safety or about straying too close to opposing fans. He was caught up in the moment. Some on the current team promise to be a bit more aware of their surroundings.
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U.S. at Honduras
Estadio Olimpico; San Pedro Sula, Honduras 10 p.m. ET
"If I score, I may choose to celebrate more towards midfield rather than behind the goal, near their fans," said forward Brian Ching with a laugh. "But our mentality won't change from the last few games. We want to attack and score. These are the types of games we must now start winning."
Mathis isn't the only one who remembers that goal.
"I remember watching that game, and our team was extremely organized and competed very well. That has to be a starting point for us on Saturday," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "What made the difference in 2001 was that Earnie Stewart and Clint Mathis made two huge plays to give us the win. We will be organized and compete, and then we need to make a few special plays in order to win this game."
The man affectionately called "Cleetus" by fans doesn't disagree with Donovan's assessment.
Mathis says the United States needs to hold possession as much as possible on Saturday night for the simple reason that "if you have the ball, they won't score." According to Mathis, the current national team is capable of winning a game in a hostile environment like the one they will face on Saturday -- even though this team is much younger and less experienced than the group he was a part of. The difference might well be the caliber of the opponent they will face on Saturday night.
"This is probably the best national team that Honduras has produced in two decades," Mathis said. "They have good veteran players and some nice young players. They're confident right now and at home. It won't be easy."
A different type of defense
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Somehow, for Jimmy Conrad, having batteries and bags of urine hurled at your heard has lost its "specialness." Such is life for the United States national team defender, now in his second tour of qualifying, who has seen and experienced just about everything that could be hurled at you in Central America during World Cup qualifying.
"It's become routine now," said Conrad, who noted that these experiences are something he will someday tell kids and grandkids. "We're used to it and what it is like when we go down there. There is nothing we will see in this game that we haven't had directed at us already."
In 2003, Conrad was a part of the national team that participated in the Copa America in Venezuela. In a country with hostile relations to the United States, extra security precautions were taken to keep the team safe. Guards, armed with rifles, were posted on the hotel's rooftop to keep a constant watch. More armed security was placed on the team's floor to guard entrances and exits.
Several players on that Copa America squad expect this Saturday's stay in Honduras to be similar to their visit to Venezuela , where the national team was restricted to the hotel during its stay in the country. Even though the team won't be traveling off-site like it would have to in a tournament, it will be similar. For instance, each day to the practice field in Venezuela, the team took a different route as a precaution. So far, the national team has been briefed on the situation in Honduras, where political upheaval and the return of the ousted president has led to riots and street demonstrations.
"We have been assured that the situation down there is fine," said national team forward Brian Ching. "So far, we are told that FIFA and the confederation think everything is safe, and the federation does too. We're content with that."
Week at a glance It has been a busy week as Team USA prepares for its last two World Cup qualifiers. Having begun to gather in Miami for training on Monday, several members of the team still hadn't arrived when the national team had its first practice. The early sessions focused on regeneration and recovery, utilizing stretching and some light fitness. The team worked on finishing on Monday afternoon as the final stragglers came to camp.
Later in the week, the sessions became more intense and the focus shifted toward game preparation.
"We know from the last game that they can come out and really play and really take it to a team," said forward Brian Ching. "It took something special in the second half from us to get that win in Chicago , but we pulled out. We can't expect that to happen this time."
Several on the team have noted that the warm weather of south Florida is advantageous in preparing the national team for the heat and humidity in Honduras. Having departed on Thursday for Honduras, the team will practice in San Pedro Sula on Friday.
A quick interview with Landon Donovan:
ESPNsoccernet: Following the disappointment on the road in Mexico City, how can the U.S. guard against a similar performance in another hostile stadium, on the road?
LD: I thought we played pretty well in Mexico City and we felt like we were in control. We will go into Honduras with a similar mentality and hope that we can finish off the game a little better than we did in Mexico City.
ESPNsoccernet: What does the United States need to do to get the result? Honduras will likely have the run of play in this game and certainly will get all the calls.
LD: We have learned a lot from our earlier matches on the road, and getting the win in Trinidad has certainly given us some confidence that we can win on the road. Honduras will be a very difficult opponent but we still feel we have enough quality to get a result there.
ESPNsoccernet: Is there a concern on the part of the team about the safety surrounding this game and security, especially given the political situation?
LD: We trust and rely on our security team and U.S. Soccer to make sure that we are going into an environment that won't be dangerous. They have always been fantastic in that regard and we will continue to count on them to do what they do best.
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ESPNsoccernet: What is the goal of the team? Obviously, it is a cliché to say that the United States will go for three points in this game, but is the national team shooting for a result or specifically a win?
LD: A point helps us, but winning this game ensures qualification. We don't want to leave anything to chance on the final day of qualifying, so we are going there to try to win.
ESPNsoccernet: Having come off some uneasy performances the last couple of games, what does this team need to do to improve? What are the areas and parts of the field where the team needs to become settled?
LD: We have given up some early goals in games lately and that will certainly be a point of emphasis. The longer we keep Honduras from scoring, the better it is for us, and that will put us in position to win the game.
Quote of the week
"This place is locked down heavy!!! Every time i peak my head out the door security is right there lol This is def a first for me."
-- Jozy Altidore's Twitter update on Thursday night. Follow Jozy at http://twitter.com/JozyAltidore17
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• The United States hasn't played in Honduras since March 28, 2001, the game when Mathis scored the free kick to give the United States the win.
• Only one player who was on the United States' roster eight years ago is still with the team (Steve Cherundolo).
• All time, the U.S. is 3-1-1 against Honduras in World Cup qualifying.
• A face familiar to MLS fans, Honduran midfielder Amado Guevara, is suspended for the game.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com.