Three key storylines for the USMNT ahead of Honduras clash

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U.S. Men’s National Team supporters are still trying to get over the mess that they witnessed on Friday night at Red Bull Arena, but there isn’t much more time to sulk.

[ MORE: Qualifying scenarios remaining for the USMNT ]

Three matches remain in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and the USMNT is in a heated battle for a place in Russia next summer with both Honduras and Panama.

With Mexico already qualified and Costa Rica on the brink of reaching World Cup 2018, that leaves one automatic qualifying position up for grabs, while a potential playoff with a nation representing Asia could also be an option for Bruce Arena and Co.

[ MORE: Breaking down the USMNT’s back-and-forth Hexagonal run ]

Let’s take a glance at the most intriguing storylines heading into the USMNT’s WCQ against Honduras.

Defensive shape, center back pairing?

There were a handful of tactical mistakes made by Arena during Friday’s 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, but the glaring lineup error that stuck with everybody was to pair Tim Ream with Geoff Cameron at the central defense.

This isn’t to say that Ream or Cameron aren’t quality players, however, it was quite noticeable that the communication and tactical awareness necessary to pull off the defensive partnership wasn’t present in New Jersey.

Cameron is a lock to start for the U.S. in any important match moving forward given his Premier League experience and overall solid play on big stages for the Stars and Stripes, but the question of which player starts alongside him on the back line is one that must be pondered.

Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Matt Hedges are the three other options Arena has at his disposal for Tuesday’s match at the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, which will be the USMNT boss’ biggest match to date since beginning his second term with the Yanks.

Besler is the logical option given his World Cup experience and the fact that he is a left-sided player due to the fact that he is left-footed. The Sporting KC man boasts 44 caps with the U.S. and his club teammate Graham Zusi will also be starting along the back line, which could certainly help with any potential communication errors.

Who starts at striker?

Jozy Altidore and his 108 appearances for the USMNT will be severely missed in Honduras, but the Toronto FC striker will miss out on the match due to yellow-card accumulation.

That leaves Arena with another massive lineup decision on his plate heading into the crucial match in Central America. While the former LA Galaxy manager’s other options on the bench do have decent experience, his pick of the litter doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.

Let me explain.

Clint Dempsey is by far the most-viable option for Arena, but this also isn’t three/four years ago. The Seattle Sounders forward is 34 years old and his ability to be playing a full match in Honduras is strongly in question.

It’s more likely that you’ll see him in an extended role during the second half on Tuesday, especially if things aren’t going the Americans’ way.

Bobby Wood should be guaranteed another start up front barring something unforeseen, so that leaves Jordan Morris and Chris Wondolowski, unless Arena opts for Wood as the lone striker.

Isolating Wood like that in the attack could really help or hurt the U.S. attack, though. By starting Wood as the team’s forward it could potentially give Arena the freedom to bring on a player like Paul Arriola from the start and move Christian Pulisic in from the wing to a more central position alongside Darlington Nagbe.

However, Arena will probably stick with two up front — and if that’s the case, it should be Jordan Morris.

Morris may be the young gun on the pecking order for U.S. forwards, but he offers the most in this situation. His speed and on-the-ball skills give the USMNT attack the opportunity to stretch the field and play off of Wood — who is equally as quick in open-field situations.

Even with so much on the line, Morris has shown in big games before that he is capable of stepping up. Tuesday could be his next chance to do so.

How does the U.S. handle adversity?

Arena has lost just once since taking over his USMNT post for a second time, and Tuesday’s match will surely be the 65-year-old’s biggest test in Round 2 as manager.

Last week, I wrote about the U.S.’ chances of reaching Russia — which for the record, I believe they still will.

That doesn’t change the fact though that a loss or even draw against Honduras changes things drastically for the Yanks.

Here’s a look at how the table could look by the end of Tuesday if everything goes wrong for the U.S.

  1. Mexico — 18 points
  2. Costa Rica — 15 points
  3. Honduras — 11 points
  4. Panama — 10 points
  5. USMNT — 8 points
  6. Trinidad & Tobago — 3 points

In this scenario, the U.S. could theoretically fall to fifth place with a loss to Honduras, while Panama could also leap the Stars and Stripes with a home win over Trinidad. It’s impossible to say all of these situations will occur, but it’s not that far-fetched.

Trinidad has been the door mat of the Hexagonal, so Panama could surely take care of business at home. Meanwhile, Honduras is a very difficult place to play, and San Pedro Sula could surely stump the Americans for a draw or possibly worse.