The United States opens their Hex campaign on Wednesday against Honduras, who are a much different team than the one who had their hearts broken by Conor Casey, just a few days before they fell in love with Jonathan Bornstein.
With a healthy David Suazo and Wilson Palacios, Honduras would likely be able to challenge the United States and Mexico for the top spot in the final round of CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifying. Unfortunately for the small nation, which is dependent on once in a generation talents like any other nation its size, both players had the primes of their careers claimed too soon. Honduras is now a solid, but not great team, who has a very real chance of finishing last in the Hex.
They also have a chance to finish third, and will get off to a great start if they can manage a result against the United States on Wednesday. A draw would probably suit both teams just fine, which could make for an ugly and difficult to watch match. It's unlikely to be enthralling stuff for the neutrals, especially given that CONCACAF officials have a tendency to be extremely lenient in big Hex games.
It's difficult to say who will benefit more from a nasty and sloppy game. The United States aren't likely to play their best technical players in every position and have plenty of players who are used to scrappy encounters. Clint Dempsey hasn't been his best recently for Tottenham Hotspur, while Jozy Altidore isn't a great fit in Klinsmann's preferred slow, possession-based style, so a sloppy game could be good for both of them.
Honduras' best players are, arguably, their defensive midfielders. Their last competitive match was a stunning 8-1 demolition of Canada, and they kept a clean sheet in four consecutive matches before that. They're extremely difficult to break down, especially at home. The good news for the United States is that Los Catrachos' captain and goalkeeper, Noel Valladares, is a bit erratic. He's a much better player than he was during the last World Cup qualifying campaign, but is still good for the occasional howler.
The United States' defensive midfielders are the backbone of their team as well, which is the biggest reason why neutrals are unlikely to enjoy the match. Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and Danny Williams make up a rock-solid center, albeit one that is lacking in creativity. The USMNT's previous weakness, fullback, is now also a major strength with Fabian Johnson and Timothy Chandler manning the flanks. Central defense is a question mark, but there are no bad options for Jürgen Klinsmann. It would be difficult to argue against the inclusion of any two of Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron. Behind them is the best goalkeeper on the continent, Tim Howard.
Of course, the U.S. has a tendency to let in silly goals, but their defense is as good as it's been in recent years, and they also keep the ball better than any previous U.S. team. Preventing goals is not the issue, against Honduras or any other side. The question for the United States is how they're going to score goals. Dempsey is not in terrific form, and has been played as a center forward recently for Tottenham. Landon Donovan has been left out of the team, and the U.S. currently has a shortage of true wingers. Dempsey, Altidore and Herculez Gomez are all capable finishers, but they need players to create for them, and it's hard to tell who's going to do the creating.
Goals will be at a premium on Wednesday, and whoever scores first -- if either team scores -- will have a much bigger advantage than they would if they had scored first in an average match.