The teeming Honduran city of San Pedro Sula is the most violent in the world, according to the U.S. Department of State. Which makes it an unwelcoming place for the U.S. soccer team to begin the final round of its World Cup qualifying this afternoon.
Yet, the crime rate is among the least of the worries facing a U.S. team that has been under heavy guard since arriving in Honduras on Monday night. Of more concern is the sauna-like weather, with temperatures in the mid-80s and humidity that is almost as high.
Then there’s the crowd at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, the country’s largest sports venue and one the Honduran government assured would be packed by declaring Wednesday a national holiday.
And finally there’s the Honduran team, which is riding a wave of confidence after reaching the 2010 World Cup, beating Spain en route to the quarterfinals of the London Olympics last year and winning its group in the semifinal round of qualifying for Brazil 2014 by blasting Canada, 8-1, in San Pedro Sula.
“Every continent has it tricky parts and difficult environments and San Pedro Sula definitely has its own difficult environment,” U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said in a conference call. “But those are challenges the players need. Because that’s what it’s all about: going to these places that are not your home, cozy environment and proving a point.”
The point Klinsmann and his players hope to prove in 10 qualifying games over the next nine months is that they belong in Brazil for the World Cup next summer. To achieve that, they’ll have to finish in the top three in the final round of regional qualifying, playing in a group that also includes Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama and Mexico.
Mexico, the Olympic champion and a heavy favorite to reach Brazil after winning its six games in the semifinal round of qualifying, also plays today, meeting Jamaica in Mexico City (ESPN2, 6:30 p.m.).
And with a showdown against powerful Mexico looming next month in Mexico City, the U.S., which has struggled to score under Klinsmann, can ill afford to stumble in San Pedro Sula, where it has never lost.
“One of our key messages to the players is to have that sense of urgency to go into Honduras and give them a fight and go for three points,” said Klinsmann, whose team was shut out by Canada in a friendly last week, the 17th time it has been held to a goal or less in 22 games.
“We aren’t calculating anything. We want to go in there and start getting points with urgency because that builds more confidence for the next games. This is really important that the players understand that it’s not going to be easy. It’s World Cup qualifiers and if you want to go to Brazil, be ready for it right away.”
Klinsmann again will be without Landon Donovan, the leading scorer in U.S. history, who continues to contemplate his future, with the national team and with the Galaxy of Major League Soccer. But the Americans will have a number of reinforcements from European leagues, including forward Clint Dempsey, midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones and goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Honduras also will have a roster chock-full of names familiar to MLS fans, among them forward Jerry Bengtson of the New England Revolution; midfielders Oscar Boniek Garcia of the Houston Dynamo and Mario Martinez of the Seattle Sounders; defender Victor Bernardez of the San Jose Earthquakes and former Dynamo striker Carlo Costly, who leads the current Honduran team with 24 goals in international play.