Nice to meet you: Honduras vs. US hardly a replay

July 22, 2009 6:36:06 PM PDT
There's no Tim Howard, Landon Donovan or Carlos Bocanegra. Steve Cherundolo, Charlie Davies and Benny Feilhaber are back in Europe. So much for Honduras being able to use its scouting reports from the last two games against the United States - even the one that's only two weeks old.

Honduras and the Americans play for the third time in less than two months in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals Thursday night. Now most times, that would mean Honduras would know the U.S. lineup as well as its own. But the Americans have shuffled their personnel so much, it's like the Hondurans get a new opponent each time.

"This is a very good national team," Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda said Wednesday as his team practiced at Soldier Field. "The men that come in, even though they don't have the experience, they're very good players and they've all transformed into solid players.

"It doesn't make it any easier for us," he added. "They're players that want to fight hard to please their head coach." Costa Rica and Mexico play in the second semifinal, with the winners meeting for the title Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Americans have been so busy this summer, just listening to their schedule is tiring. It started June 3 with a qualifier in Costa Rica, and continued three days later with the first game against Honduras - also at Soldier Field. Then came the Confederations Cup in South Africa, where the United States stunned the soccer world by upsetting top-ranked Spain on its way to the finals.

There was barely time to repack the suitcases before it was off to Seattle, where the United States opened defense of its Gold Cup title on July 4. Four games later - including a victory over Honduras in group play - the Americans are here, playing for a chance to get back to the final and win their third straight title in this tournament.

Because the schedule is such a grind, coach Bob Bradley did an almost complete overhaul of his roster for the Gold Cup. He let most of his top players return to their MLS teams or take time off ahead of the European season, and is instead using the tournament as a chance to look at his young players - some of whom just might find their way onto the roster if the United States makes it to the World Cup in South Africa next year.

The Americans will likely be without one of their few veterans, defender Jimmy Conrad, still recovering from a concussion sustained in Saturday's quarterfinal victory over Panama. Michael Parkhurst, who had gone back to his Danish club after the first round, was recalled to help shore up the defense.

"It's been exciting to be able to showcase my talent on this level and to play with this group of guys in front of the coaching staff that will be the coaching staff for the World Cup," said Stuart Holden, who made his U.S. debut with the senior national team in the Gold Cup opener, a 4-0 rout of Grenada.

"If we do win the tournament, then that means people have done well and it shows well on them," Holden added. "If I can be one of those guys that's performed well consistently through the tournament and helped us win the Gold Cup, I think that puts me kind of in the forefront and forces the coaches to have a look at you going forward in the World Cup qualifications."

Holden has more than held his own. He's got two goals in four games, including a goal in his international debut. But he's not the only one who's made an impression. Goalkeeper Troy Perkins has been solid throughout the tournament, allowing only one goal in three games. Kyle Beckerman scored the equalizer in the quarterfinals, and Kenny Cooper sealed the win with a penalty kick. And throughout the tournament, the Americans have played with a confidence that belies their youth.

"They're a young group, but they're a group that has a lot of experience," said Brian Ching, who missed both World Cup qualifiers in June and the Confederations Cup with a strained hamstring and is one of the few regular starters on the Gold Cup roster. "We have a lot of guys that have been in big games before and understand the importance of tomorrow's game."

That includes knowing those victories over Honduras on June 6 and in the first round of the Gold Cup mean nothing.

Honduras finished behind the United States in group play, and beat Canada to advance to the semifinals. Honduras is also third in World Cup qualifying in the North and Central America and the Caribbean region, with the top three teams advancing and No. 4 going to a playoff.

"Anytime you play a team more than once and you beat them the first time, it creates a little bit more hunger and a little bit more desire the next time they come out and face you," Ching said. "We expect the game to be a lot more physical, a lot more high intensity, and it's going to be a good challenge. Honduras has been playing well the last few months.

"We're kind of looking forward to the challenge."

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