The United States begins the final round of World Cup Qualifying today against a familiar face to Revs fans: Jerry Bengtson. On the road, in a tough environment, in the middle of a hot day, can the Yanks get their final round started off on the right foot?
As if the beginning of The Hex wasn't enough to get you out of bed this morning, Revolution fans have a little extra incentive today: a close-up look at their star striker in a Honduras uniform. We all saw Jerry last summer at the Olympics, but that particular tournament is a modified U-23 format, so this may be the first look many fans are getting at him with the full national team.
Jerry Bengtson's scoring record last season with his national side is well-documented. Through the summer and early fall, CONCACAF simply didn't have a better goalscorer. Bengtson was quite possibly one of the hottest strikers on the planet, which is why his move to the Revs (as well as his struggle to score goals there) came as such a surprise.
Bengtson scored three goals at the 2012 Olympic tournament in London, and then added another five goals in the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign as well. I'll be honest with you, this is probably the very first time I've personally had to deal with a huge USMNT match where the other team's most dangerous player was also a Revolution player. If anyone has another example, please remind me, because I can't seem to recall.
Here at The Bent Musket, we're not going to bore you with a long-winded preview or an introduction to the Hex; it's just the meat and potatoes to get you primed and ready for today's MASSIVE final round opener.
Okay, I'll ask: What is "The Hex"? The Hex is the affectionate name given to the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF region. Six teams, 10 matches (home and away with each nation), where the top three finishers qualify automatically, and the fourth placed team faces off against the top qualifier from Oceania for the final spot. Good? Good.
Los Catrachos will welcome the Yanks to San Pedro Sula today armed with their most talented squad in recent memory. The Hondurans are physically gifted, and boast a few star players of their own, starting with Bengtson.
If you're looking for a "player to watch" other than our own Bengtson, look no further than Houston Dynamo star Oscar Boniek Garcia. MLS fans are more than familiar with the midfielder, and with 73 caps for his national side, Boniek Garcia is undoubtedly ready to finally lead his country into the difficult CONCACAF waters.
What makes this Honduras side so different and special is that they blend the usual Latin American "flair" with rough-and-tumble physical play, too. You will see on several occasions today that Los Catrachos will not be afraid to go toe-to-toe with the United States, and will certainly be able to match their physicality in the center of the pitch.
They key to a Honduras victory today? Lock down the midfield, keep the crowd involved, and get the ball into the box to your talented strikers. Sounds like the recipe for just about every match, but it is especially true today. The United States will be battling jet-lag, the heat, and the tough stadium atmosphere, so keeping the pressure up and forcing the USMNT to expend a lot of energy early is a great way to earn a result today.
While I may have voiced my discomfort and worry on Twitter in the middle of the night not too long ago (something to the rum-induced tune of "man, I'm actually worried about qualifying") let's get one thing clear: the Yanks are qualifying for Brazil 2014. With half of the Hex qualifying automatically, as well as a fourth possibly qualifying through a play-off series, there's absolutely no way FOUR of these teams are better than the United States.
That being said, of the recent qualification campaigns, this one has me the most uneasy. Jurgen Klinsmann doesn't necessarily instill a load of confidence in the fan base, and neither have the recent results, but with a relatively healthy squad to take down to Honduras, there's no reason the USA can't come out of this first match with a positive result.
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline heading into the match today is the back line. Fresh faces will most likely dominate the back four, and it all starts with Attleboro, Massachusetts native and former Rhode Island Ram, Geoff Cameron. Cameron, now of Stoke City in the Premier League, will most likely be the one to set the tone in the center of the defense, and if the United States is to make an easier go of this final round, it's going to start with a solid back line.
While Cameron will most likely start next to Captain America himself, Carlos Bocanegra, it's the outside backs that have me most excited. It looks as though Timothy Chandler will finally end his long-enduring cat-and-mouse saga with Klinsmann and the United States, and that is a huge development for the American squad. Chandler is an extremely talented outside back and will bring versatility to the back four.
The midfield will surely be anchored by stalwarts Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, which will give the United States the teeth they will need in the middle of the park to contain the Honduran quality in the midfield.
Up top, there really aren't a lot of surprises. Clint Dempsey is still one of the best talents the USMNT has ever seen, Jozy Altidore is one of the hottest strikers in Holland, and no one has worked harder to earn his spot than Herculez Gomez. Those three will be vital to the chances of the United States, and it's going to take a solid effort from all three at some point during the final round.
Keys to earning a result today? Forget style and win ugly. The Hex is incredibly difficult. Every match is a heavyweight fight filled with haymakers and body blows, and when you go out on the road to these countries, sometimes you're going to have to win ugly.
The Americans need to lock down Jerry Bengtson in the box and make it difficult for him to find space and movement. While the Honduran midfield is extremely talented, Bradley and Jones possess the quality and skill to overcome them and dominate the flow of the game through the center of the park.
The more physical and bogged down the game, the better for the United States. By slowing the game down and making it a dog fight, the Yanks can use their superior physicality to their advantage, while keeping the hot temperatures somewhat at bay.
PREDICTION: HONDURAS 2 - UNITED STATES 2
As if breaking it down for you wasn't enough, the fine folks of SB Nation Soccer have a fantastic video preview for your viewing enjoyment. A huge thank you to Ryan Rosenblatt for the fantastic coverage! Enjoy!