Tuesday's World Cup qualifier in Honduras doesn't present a 'must-win' situation for the U.S. national team, but it is essentially a 'must not lose' one.
That's the reality the team faces as it prepares to take the field in steamy San Pedro Sula on Tuesday for a crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifier. Honduras is currently tied on points for the final automatic World Cup berth in the Hex, and with fifth-place Panama preparing to face last-place Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday, there is a very good chance that whichever team loses the USA-Honduras qualifier will fall behind Panama in the standings with just two matches left in the Hex.
A draw would keep the U.S. hopes of getting to Russia in decent shape, but a win would go a long way toward repairing the damage caused by Friday's loss to Costa Rica.
The Americans will be facing a tough task, with temperatures in the high 80s and forecasts of a rain storm potentially blanketing San Pedro Sula. The U.S. will be without Jozy Altidore for the match, and Bruce Arena has stated he could lean on an MLS-heavy squad due to European-based players still being early in their seasons and not quite having the fitness levels needed to best manage two qualifiers in four days.
On the bright side for the U.S., Honduras also enters the match short-handed, with star attacker Andy Najar sidelined by injury and standout defender Emilio Izaguirre suspended. Honduras still has plenty of weapons to make things difficult for the U.S. though, with Houston Dynamo stars Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, and Barcelona B forward Anthony Lozano the main threats.
Avoiding a loss in Honduras won't exactly be easy against the Catrachos, who know full well what a loss would mean for their qualifying chances. Honduras closes out the Hex with matches at Costa Rica and home to Mexico. Though there's a very good chance both those opponents will have already qualified by the time they face Honduras, the Catrachos certainly don't want to head into October having to win both those matches, which is essentially what they would need to do if they don't beat the Americans on Tuesday.
A draw isn't ideal for the U.S., but it would keep the Americans in control of their own fate. Sure, Panama could leapfrog the Americans by beating Trinidad & Tobago, but the Canaleros still have to travel to Orlando in October. Winning at home might not seem like as much of a given as it used to be for the U.S. team after home losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, but the U.S. would certainly like its chances of beating Panama at home.
The U.S. has the easiest remaining schedule in the Hex among teams still fighting for the final automatic berth — assuming Costa Rica joins Mexico as automatic qualifiers as expected — but the fact that Costa Rica and Mexico could already have their World Cup spots clinched heading into October's qualifiers could make things easier for Honduras and Panama if the qualified teams decided to play experimental squads, which would certainly be a possibility.
The Americans need seven points from their final three qualifying matches to ensure an automatic place at the 2018 World Cup, regardless of what Panama and Honduras do in their remaining matches. They will be favored to beat Panama when the teams meet in October, and would be favored to win the road trip to Trinidad & Tobago — though the U.S. settled for a draw in its last trip to Trinidad, on November 17, 2015.
In short, the Americans still have a very manageable path to Russia, but it must start with a win, or at least a draw, in San Pedro Sula. A Honduras victory would suddenly take the U.S. team's qualifying fate out of its own hands, and would then require the Americans to win both their remaining qualifiers while having either Costa Rica or Mexico knock off the Catrachos in October.
In that scenario, we could have a U.S. team fighting for a win in Trinidad to get to the World Cup much like the Americans did in 1989 when Paul Caligiuri scored one of the most historic goals in U.S. national team history. We could also have a scenario where the U.S. is left rooting for Mexico to beat Honduras, praying El Tri might return the favor the U.S. did for Mexico in 2013, when the Americans beat Panama on the final match day to help Mexico reach the 2014 World Cup.
That isn't a scenario anyone in the U.S. should want to see, and avoiding that sort of desperate finish to the Hex will require the U.S. to at least draw, but preferably win, in Honduras.