SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — As the sun began dipping below the Sierra del Merendon on Tuesday, casting wide shadows across the fertile Sula Valley, a youth soccer game unfolded on a field in the city’s southeast outskirts.
A warm breeze rippled the nets, elevated by rusty posts. One team wore the green of Marathon, a local club, the other Real Madrid’s rich blue. Parents watched from beneath a line of trees. A stray dog frolicked.
The tranquil scene belied the blue storm that will descend the next afternoon on a cement structure a few hundred feet away. Beyond a fence topped by barbed wire and patrolled by a security guard with a shotgun balanced on his shoulder, Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano stands in wait.
Here the U.S. men’s national soccer team will continue its quest for a berth in the 2014 World Cup — a meeting with Honduras in the first of 10 final-round qualifiers.
There are more difficult places to play in CONCACAF, the region encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean. Azteca in Mexico City and Saprissa in Costa Rica have been inhospitable destinations. But for an opener — against a team that qualified for the previous World Cup — this poses an immense challenge.
“Now is what all the work has been for, and it starts tomorrow,” forward Jozy Altidore said before practice Tuesday. “It’s important for us to get off to a good start. In these competitions, you don’t want to start off with zero points. It’s a huge mental edge to begin with a win.”
The United States and Mexico are the favorites in what is known as the hexagonal, or hex, because six finalists play one another home and away over the next 8½ months. Three teams will punch tickets to Brazil, the fourth will head to a playoff against the Oceania region winner (probably New Zealand) in the fall.
Honduras, known as the Catrachos, will have the support of up to 40,000 fans. To augment home-field advantage, the national federation scheduled a 3 p.m. kickoff (4 p.m. Eastern time), when the temperature will settle in the eighties and the humidity above 70 percent. The government declared a holiday, allowing locals to attend.
Although several U.S. players have been competing for their clubs in the English and German winters, the climate shift is taken in stride after previous odysseys into Latin America. The squad gathered Sunday in Miami to begin acclimation before arriving in San Pedro Sula on Monday evening.
There was a light practice session Monday and a tactical workout Tuesday — the most preparation Coach Juergen Klinsmann could squeeze into the small qualifying window.
“You have to play somewhere around the world [last weekend], take your bumps and bruises, get on a 10-hour flight, not get much sleep, try to get the game plan for Honduras, get some training, go back and eat, fly to Honduras,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “My own family doesn’t understand it sometimes. It’s part of the responsibility. We’ve done it enough times.”
Said Klinsmann: “You have three days and hopefully you do the right thing, but most important, is the attitude of the players: that they are ready for it, that they hungry for it, that they understand the importance of it now. It’s World Cup qualifying time. This is big. It’s something you don’t want to let slip through your hands.”
The Americans stumbled through the previous round, narrowly escaping multiple scares to win their weak four-team group.
“When you get to this point of qualifying, when you get ready for games like this, where so much is on the line, we don’t need a whole lot of motivation,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “There’s a real sense of in our team of excitement, where we can see the World Cup on the horizon.”
The last time they visited here, the Americans secured a 2010 World Cup berth with a 3-2 victory. They were also victorious in the 2002 competition, winning on a late free kick.
They arrive this time with a squad featuring Howard and Clint Dempsey from England’s Premier League; Altidore, who is tied for second in the Dutch league’s scoring race; and Bradley, a starter for Roma in Italy’s Serie A.
Conspicuous by his absence is Landon Donovan, 30, the U.S. program’s career scoring leader who is on hiatus while contemplating his future after three World Cups and a pro career that began at age 17.
“When his head is in it, when his heart is in it, he is a big part of things here,” Bradley said. “The reality of the moment is he feels he needs to take some time. You want what is best for him. But at the same time, life goes on here.”
Without Donovan, Klinsmann will look to Altidore to provide scoring punch. At 23, he is among American soccer’s most accomplished players overseas but has not met national team expectations. Klinsmann left him off the roster last fall.
Altidore’s sharp form for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, however, could signal an impending breakout.
“He knows — and we all know — national team and international games are a different story compared to the Dutch league,” Klinsmann said. “We hope he can start scoring for us as well.”