We’re only days away from the crucial match where the USMNT will face Honduras in San Jose. Two old generals will face each other yet again. Bruce Arena, 65, and Jorge Luis Pinto, 64, have vast experience when it comes to World Cup qualifiers. They both have their own ways of managing teams, but also share similarities in tactical views and manage with a military-like discipline. All this gives the match an extra ingredient to the already kill-or-be-killed intensity around it.
Arena's record with the U.S. Men’s National Team is grandiose. With 71 wins (all-time record holder), 30 losses, and 29 draws, he is regarded as the best U.S. manager of all time. Under his belt he has two CONCACAF Gold CupS won (2002 and 2005). One of his career high points is when he led the USMNT to the quarterfinals in the 2002 Korea World Cup, losing to Germany in tight match. He also saw the U.S. National Team rise to fourth place in the FIFA rankings.
Sacked after a disastrous 2006 World Cup, he is one of the reasons for the rise in U.S. Soccer. He left an incredible legacy behind him. Now, the U.S. is not only a favorite in any CONCACAF tournament before it starts, but also a team which has earned respect from every team in the world in international competitions.
This time, his experience will be tested to the limit as he starts this new cycle under the most precarious of moments. The U.S. is currently last in the Hex, with two losses in as many games. It seems like a win is the only option.
Across the half line stands Pinto, who has managed Honduras for 30 matches now, holding a record of 11 wins, seven draws and 12 losses — a negative percentage in numbers but seen positively in Central America, as he clinched fourth place in the Rio Olympics, and most recently won the Central American championship that qualifies teams to the Gold Cup.
Overall in CONCACAF, after his two stints with the Costa Rican National team and now Honduras, his record stands at 41 wins, 28 draws, and 30 defeats. His most notable accomplishment remains that of leading Costa Rica to the final eight in the 2014 World Cup, which saw his side defeated on penalty kicks vs. the Netherlands. Honduras has three points after two home games. After this stuttering start it is vital to add points.
Arena has stated ahead of the game the Americans will need all the support they can receive from the fans — be it in Avaya Stadium as a presence, or watching from your own couch on TV. He expects the Honduran team to play with five men on defense, with three center backs and two fullbacks, like Pinto's team has been playing recently. Honduras is a conservative team, waiting for any opportunity on the counter attack. It will be a test for the U.S. forwards going against a very organized team.
The Honduran National team arrived at Fort Myers, FL, last Friday and has started preparing for the match vs. the U.S. Pinto was asked about Arena's comments about Honduras facing the match in a conservative manner, saying "I like to build my teams from the back to the front. Always organized defensively but not forgetting about harming the rival. Brazil tried to play the last couple of World Cups in an all out attacking manner and where did they end?"
About Bruce Arena, Pinto stated he is a strong coach who likes to leave no detail to chance. According to Pinto, with Arena the U.S. will concede less defensively and will be tactically stronger, but at the same time will be less volatile on attack. It seems like the Honduran manager has his initial 11 in mind already. As predicted by Arena, it is very likely he will use the 5-4-1 formation.
Last Friday he stated that ex-D.C. United wonderkind Najar will be starting the match, along with Houston Dynamo duo Romell Quioto — who would be playing as left wing — and Elis as striker, trying to surprise with his speed. The three fastest players on the squad will look to do harm to an defense that lacks speed and will be missing key players. Along with the offensive trio, it is very likely we’ll see Kansas City's Roger Espinoza, who should play center mid, Dallas' Maynor Figueroa as center back, and Celtic's Izaguirre as a left fullback as starters. Although something that should worry the Central Americans is the nine players at risk of a yellow card suspension for upcoming matches.
On the other side, Bruce's biggest challenge will be on defense, where fullbacks DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson will miss both matches due to injury. On top of that, Timothy Chandler is out for suspension and in midfield Jermaine Jones will miss the match against Honduras for the same reason. Geoff Cameron comes back from injury and will be vital to fill any gaps in the back. Bruce Arena will have less than a week to work with players from abroad, which makes the task even more difficult as to which formation the team employs next Friday.
In the midfield, Michael Bradley seems to have a secured a spot with Kellyn Acosta, Alejandro Bedoya and Dax McCarty as other options to join him. Another doubt is Christian Pulisic's position on the pitch. Is he going be placed as a "10" in an attacking midfield position or is he going to play in his more natural role as a winger? Is Bruce going to play with two forwards or just leave Altidore as a lone striker, or will Clint Dempsey be his companion on the attack? Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris should also add more fire to the offense. These are many questions that will not be answered until match day.
One piece of great news the national team receives is the return of Dempsey whose experience and technical ability will be key to boost goal-scoring opportunities. Pulisic will have a lot of weight on his shoulders as well, although one of the best talents in the world. We all know World Cup qualifiers require enormous mental strength and maturity. Can he handle the pressure at his age? His speed and talent will be vital for the upcoming games.
The USMNT should be careful on counter attacks because of the speed of the Honduran forwards. On the other hand, although Honduras is a very organized team, their center backs are very slow and have technical disadvantages. The biggest chink in the armor for Pinto's team is set pieces, where the "Catrachos" are disastrous at defending. This being one of the strengths of the U.S., every corner and free kick should be taken to its full advantage. Don't be surprised to see Arena's team scoring a goal from a corner or free kick.
As stated before by Arena, the objective is to acquire all six points, or at least win against Honduras at home and try to salvage a draw in Panama, which will be an aggressive match.
How would you line up the team? With what mentality should it be faced? Regardless, it will be an epic match for those of us who go beyond the Beautiful Game and love tactics.