SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — This industrial and financial hub in the Sula Valley is an unforgiving place, scarred by an ultraviolent past and a roasting heat index. On the southern edge of town, in the shadows of the Sierra del Merendon, stands Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, splashed in the blue and white of the national flag and buffered by crops, a beat-up youth field and unpaved parking lots.
It is here that the U.S. national soccer team has come for penance.
Time is running short on a World Cup quest that veered off course Friday with a 2-0 home defeat against Costa Rica. With little time to regroup, the Americans arrived in the country’s second-biggest city in need of a victory — or, at the very least, a draw — against equally anxious Honduras on Tuesday afternoon.
A defeat would wrest control of a tight race out of their hands and imperil hopes of competing in the sport’s quadrennial spectacle for the eighth consecutive time.
Honduras and Panama are also in the hunt for CONCACAF’s final automatic berth, as well as a playoff slot, from a six-nation group. (Mexico clinched and Costa Rica is about to do so.) After Tuesday, each team will play two matches in early October.
“It’s so clear and it’s all right there for us,” captain Michael Bradley said. “It’s three games, a little three-team tournament to see who goes to the World Cup directly, who is going to play in the playoff [against an Asian foe in November] and who is going to be out.
“In every World Cup cycle, you play games where everything is on the line and you’ve got to get a result. That’s what the next three games are.”
A victory would put the Americans (2-3-2, eight points) in prime position to qualify. A draw would keep them ahead of Honduras (eight points) on goal differential, the first tiebreaker. Defeat would leave them needing not only victories against Panama (1-2-4, seven) and Trinidad and Tobago (1-6-0, three), but help in other group matches.
“When I started, we had eight games left, and I thought at that time everything goes down to the last game,” said Coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after two defeats to start the final round last fall. “Nothing has changed. We’re basically in the same situation as we were in March.”
Except fewer points remain available. With a shrinking allowance for error, the Americans must first put aside Friday’s inadequate performance at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. From the players to the coaching staff, they have said in subsequent days that they’ll respond in the right away.
But they are also well aware of the challenges playing in San Pedro Sula. With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. local time (5:30 ET), the weather forecast calls for 89 degrees, 80 percent humidity and a feels-like temperature of 106. Oh, there might be a thunderstorm, as well.
On Monday morning, the Americans trained inside the stadium. Before they even began workouts, with a rising dew point and punishing sun, sweat poured from the heads of some players.
“This is not like it’s going to be anything new to our players,” Arena said, citing his 13-strong, MLS-based contingent that performs, at times, in similar summer conditions at home. “It will certainly be challenging, but we have enough experienced players to understand the circumstances.”
Goalkeeper Tim Howard added, “It shouldn’t be too bad. We’re so used to playing in the heat in the summer time. It should be fine.”
Easy for a largely stationary goalie to say.
“It’s going to be a grind in every sense of the word,” said Bradley, a central midfielder. “These are the days that are hard to explain to people who aren’t here.”
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) September 4, 2017
Four years ago, playing on a broiling afternoon here, the Americans went ahead on Clint Dempsey’s early goal before wilting down the stretch and falling, 2-1. The German-based pros were particularly affected by the conditions.
Honduras’s 2-1 away victory against Trinidad and Tobago, combined with the arrival of a vulnerable regional power, seems to have energized a soccer-loving city and country. The Catrachos are seeking their third consecutive World Cup berth, but to achieve it, they’ll need to earn several points in the final three games against the top teams in the standings.
A victory Tuesday would help continue raising the spirits of San Pedro Sula, which recently began shedding the infamous title of Murder Capital of the World.
For all of the challenges that the city presents, the United States has fared better here than in some other Central American cauldrons. In 2001, Clint Mathis scored on an 87th-minute free kick for a 2-1 victory. In 2009, on the strength of Conor Casey’s two goals during a 3-2 triumph, the Americans clinched a World Cup berth with one game to spare.
They can’t clinch anything on this visit; they can only see their chances rise or fall after 90 steamy minutes.
“It’s almost like every game is a must win,” Arena said of the past six months. “I don’t think there’s a heightened sense [of urgency], but we’re certainly well aware of the situation.”
United States at Honduras
Where: Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula.
When: Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. ET.
TV: beIN Sports, Universo.
Live streams: Telemundo Deportes en Vivo app, Universo Now app, telemundodeportes.com, beIN Sports Connect, fuboTV.
Mexico 5-0-2, 17 points
Costa Rica 4-1-2, 14 points
United States 2-3-2, 8 points
Honduras 2-3-2, 8 points
Panama 1-2-4, 7 points
Trinidad and Tobago 1-6-0, 3 points
Three teams will qualify for World Cup, one will advance to playoff vs. Asia’s fifth-place side.
Other matches: Mexico at Costa Rica, 10 p.m. (beIN Sports, Telemundo), Trinidad and Tobago at Panama, 10 p.m.