In the past month, Honduras have played 180 minutes against Mexico and Brazil. In that span they've conceded just one goal.
That stat is there for anyone expecting a pretty, open, high-scoring affair in Tuesday's Gold Cup opener for the USMNT (9:30 pm ET; FoxSports 1 | UniMas | UDN). It will look nothing like USMNT's friendly victories over the Netherlands and Germany, nor like its final half-hour against Guatemala in last week's 4-0 win.
There will be no 30-pass build-ups against the Catrachos. I'm going to drop this here so you can enjoy it, because it will be a distant, blurry memory by the time the US are though the group stage (or by the time the group stage is through with the US, which is a remote but still real possibility):
Here are two principles for what the US can expect against Honduras, and how to take them down:
What they'll do: Hang back and counter
Central American teams live to ball-hawk in the supply lines between the midfield and forwards, then spring forward at pace. That was how Costa Rica got to the World Cup quarterfinals, and while Honduras weren't quite as successful last summer, they're still very much built in the same mold. Expect a pair of Honduras' defensive midfielders (one of which could be Houston Dynamo's Luis Garrido) to sit deep and try to make USMNT captain Michael Bradley's life a living hell, then turn any errant touches into counters heading the other way.
How to solve it: Interchangeable parts
If you get enough attackers in the same zone, that's called an "overload." The key to making these overloads effective is to recognize when a defender has taken a step or two too far in one direction or another, and turn horizontal possession into vertical penetration. This is easier said than done.
It's also best accomplished when forwards and wingers swap spots, which is what happened on the fourth goal against Guatemala:
Forward Clint Dempsey pulls off the front line to chip winger Gyasi Zardes through, with forward Chris Wondolowski there to finish the play off. Notice how compact everything is at the moment Dempsey receives the ball, then how spread out it gets immediately after.
That's how you beat a bunker. Force the defenders to make tough choices on the fly, and always be ready to swap your intent from horizontal to vertical, based upon the movement of your problem-solvers. (Dempsey is obviously one of those, and Zardes might also be one).
What they'll do: Attack up the flanks
The best Honduran right now is probably former D.C. United and current Anderlecht man Andy Najar. He's played right midfield, right wingback and right back over the years.
Against Mexico, he was on the right wing in a 3-6-1 which might have been more of a 5-4-1, depending on how prescriptive you are. Regardless, the point is that when Honduras get into transition they try desperately to get the ball on Najar's foot at pace, and have him either burst up the right wing to whip in a cross or cut inside to try to take it himself.
It's not pretty, but it's low-risk.
How to solve it: No giveaways in central midfield!
The US were sloppy on the ball against Guatemala, but still did a good job of not turning it over in bad spots. The vast, vast majority of their giveaways came along the flanks, from whence it's harder to open up the field and counter.
There was also this:
I can't guarantee that would be a goal if it happened against Honduras, but I'm 90 percent sure it's a chance. The US can't afford much of that on Tuesday.
What's it mean for the US?
Expect another ugly game against a familiar foe, which shouldn't surprise anybody. Jurgen Klinsmann's men will have to be better defending in the wide areas, especially when Najar and forward Anthony Lozano are able to tilt the field to the right side. This puts a lot of pressure on presumed left back Fabian Johnson, who is an A+ attacking threat, but a defensive vulnerability.
On the attack, the US will need those quick overloads and change-of-pace attacks--but they'll also need more strength on the ball from Jozy Altidore. He can be a game-changing passer when he checks back into the half-spaces, and if he does that well this game, Honduras will struggle to keep their defensive shape.