SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS – The US men's national team stepped off its chartered plane Monday night and ventured into the hot air, heavy with humidity and gasoline. Young soldiers holding assault rifles and blank expressions lined the tarmac. The Americans filed onto their bus and set off for the team hotel, surrounded by a squadron of police cars and scooters.
Zigzagging through the motorcade were four pickup trucks with cameramen standing upright in the bed, perilously balancing themselves as they provided live feeds of the Americans' arrival for their television stations. The trucks jostled for position for the best shot of the back of the nondescript bus, dodging the police scooters and veering into the opposite lane, forcing oncoming traffic off the road. And so the US wound its way to their heavily securitized hotel, passing desperately poor slums and the stadium where it will all go down on Wednesday.
When they got to their hotel, the Americans were urged by a local embassy worker not to ever leave it other than for practice and the game. It's just too dangerous.
Welcome to San Pedro Sula, the current kidnapping and murder capital of the world with 159 killings per 100,000 inhabitants according to a 2012 report by the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, a Mexican-based think tank. That is more than 30 times the US average in 2011, a majority of it attributed to the gang and cartel warfare over drugs.
Welcome, too, to the final phase of World Cup qualifying, where the sense of threat is omnipresent and the opponents are crafty.
On Wednesday, the US will kick off the hexagonal round, the double-round robin home-and-away series between the six remaining teams from the CONCACAF region composed of North and Central America and the Caribbean -- namely, the United States, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Jamaica. The goal: securing one of three guaranteed spots at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The fourth-placed team will play a two-game play-off with the winner of the Oceania region, most likely New Zealand.
The Americans will undertake this task without the long-time face of American soccer, Landon Donovan, who is on a sabbatical of undefined length away from the sport. Missing because of injury is veteran right back Steve Cherundolo. But absent those two, the US is at full strength, with pillars like midfielder Michael Bradley, forward Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard all in good form for their respective club teams.
This is scarcely a guarantee for a positive result Wednesday, however, even if the US is much the better team on paper. The American's Honduran opponents -- nicknamed the Catrachos -- are internationally seasoned, though only modestly talented. The team featuring Wigan Athletic defender Maynor Figueroa and five players who currently play or once played in Major League Soccer -- defender Victor Bernardez, midfielders Roger Espinoza and Oscar Boniek Garcia, and forwards Carlo Costly and Jerry Bengtson -- will likely take a defensive approach in hopes of catching the Americans out of position on a breakaway.
But the challenge of assembling points on the road in the CONCACAF region is far greater than merely overcoming the talent and tactics facing you on the field. A multitude of adverse factors will complicate the task considerably. "The main thing is you never know exactly what to expect," Bradley said. "From the time that you get here until the time that you leave there will be 50 things that go on that don't go exactly to plan. It can be the hotel, it can be the field, it can be the referee, it can be the crowd -- there are so many points along the way where things can work against you."
The intangibles inherently favor the home team in a way that they never could on US soil, where the fields are decent and the referees less intimidated, and where the fans are passionate but not inclined to throw beer bottles or bags of urine at opposing players. Inducing fear is foundational to the game plan in places like this. On Wednesday, a frighteningly hostile crowd will scream for blood.
"That's what World Cup qualifying is all about," US coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "You've got to live through that, going to a stadium that's hot-tempered and not knowing what to expect. It's different, and so will be it in Panama or Costa Rica or wherever we go. It's about adjusting to difficult situations and to different opponents and different environments and getting the job done."
There's little choice but to suffer through it and peer ahead to the great reward victory can bring. "When you get to this point of qualifying, where you get ready for games like this, where so much is on the line, we don't need a whole lot of motivation," Bradley said. "There's a sense in our team of excitement; we can see the World Cup on the horizon."
But the road to that horizon is a rocky one, and the roughest of terrains will have to be negotiated by the US on Wednesday.