MIAMI – Nearly every US player who ventures south for a competitive match in Central America, club or international, has an anecdote or two about the experience, a favorite example of the unique obstacles inherent to the experience – some circumstantial, like weather and travel, and some planned.
Brad Evans lists subtle annoyances like malfunctioning air conditioners, suspiciously bland food – “They don’t really get under your skin, but you’re like, ‘Alright, I see what you’re doing here,’” he said – and most memorably of all, the perilous surprise awaiting a Seattle Sounders teammate during a CONCACAF Champions League trip.
“When Mike Fucito was still on the team, we played in, I think it was Costa Rica,” he recalled, “and a massive tarantula was in [his] bathroom, just sitting there. And obviously guys who have a fear of spiders weren’t going to shower that day. Did the spider make it in there by mistake? I don’t think so.
WATCH: Klinsmann previews Honduras match
“There’s always little gamesmanship that you remember, little things like that.”
Of course, nothing prompts these types of tactics like a crucial World Cup qualifier. So the US national team is doing its best to be ready for anything in Honduras, where they play the opening match of the CONCACAF Hexagonal round on Wednesday (4 pm ET, beIN Sport, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
“I keep saying, it’s tough to understand how difficult these games are, because of everything that’s involved,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard after the Yanks’ Monday morning practice, which wrapped up several hours before their chartered plane took off for San Pedro Sula. “I don’t think there’s enough appreciation from the American public on that. You look at it on paper, see America vs. Honduras; America wins, done, finished, get on the plane and come home.
“It’s never that simple. It’s going to be a really tough game for a lot of reasons. In CONCACAF, it’s one of the tougher places to go.”
Some Central American destinations are renowned for leaking visiting teams’ hotel information so home fans can create as much of a ruckus as possible, a tactic most recently used on Canada when they visited Honduras for a pivotal qualifier last year, which Honduras ended up winning 8-1. However, Howard says that the helter-skelter environment of the match itself is the biggest test for the uninitiated.
“The hotel’s the easy part! The field is difficult,” he said with a chuckle. “Nothing I can tell them [teammates] is going to prepare them. They have a skill set and that’s why they’re here, and they need to use it, and do it as simple as possible – keep the game really simple because it’s going to be 100 miles an hour. There’s going to be a lot going on and it’s just about how quickly you can try and slow that down.”
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Howard and midfielder Michael Bradley are two of six players on the current squad who took part in the USA’s last qualifying trip to Honduras, a hard-fought 3-2 win in San Pedro Sula that clinched their spot in the 2010 World Cup.
“There’s so much more than just stepping on the field thinking that you’re going to be able to put a little bit of soccer together and just walk off the field with a pretty three points," Bradley said on Monday. "That was a hard night; you certainly remember the crowd and how much the crowd pushed them forward. So we expect the same thing [Wednesday].”
“Every one of these games presents so many things along the way: from the travel, the atmosphere leading up to the game, to the field, the referee,” he continued. "That’s what makes qualifying what it is, that’s what makes it so difficult."
Los Catrachos' pregame trash-talking, a daytime kickoff and a holiday declared across Honduras have dialed up the stakes further. But in the optimistic worldview of US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, it should all be the proverbial “meat and drink” for the ambitious professionals under his guidance.
“It is very special, and it shows you the importance of World Cup qualifiers,” he said with one of his famous grins on Monday. “Because they are football crazy, and this is great. That’s the atmosphere that you want to play in, that’s where you want to measure yourself and that’s what you want to remember.”