The United States is about to enter its most difficult stretch of qualifying as it tries for its sixth straight World Cup appearance.
First, the Americans play Wednesday night at San Jose, Costa Rica, where they're 0-6 in qualifying, have been outscored 13-4 and must deal with playing on artificial turf.
Then they come home to play Honduras on June 6 in Chicago. While the Americans have won 11 straight home qualifiers and are 15-0-1 over the past eight years, their last home defeat was against Honduras in September 2001 before a spirited anti-American crowd at Washington's RFK Stadium.
And Honduras will be rested, unlike the U.S. team, whose qualifier at Costa Rica was moved up from June 10 because the United States must hustle to the Confederations Cup in South Africa.
"We understand the challenges in these games and we feel very strongly that we have a great opportunity now to really finish the first half of this round and put ourselves in good position as we go into the last five matches," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Friday.
The United States (2-0-1) leads the final round of qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean with seven points following home wins against Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago, and a tie at El Salvador. Costa Rica (2-1) has six points, two ahead of Honduras (1-1-1), three in front of Mexico (1-2) and four ahead of El Salvador and T&T (both 0-1-2).
The top three nations qualify for next year's 32-nation field in South Africa, and the fourth-place team will face the No. 5 team from South America in a playoff for another berth.
Right back Steve Cherundolo will miss the game following hip surgery last month. Frankie Hejduk, who replaced him in the first three qualifiers this year, missed Columbus' Major League Soccer match Wednesday because of a groin injury and could be sidelined for one or two qualifiers.
"The initial thought was that the groin was going to take seven to 10 days, so we're somewhere in that period," Bradley said on Friday's conference call.
While Heath Pearce started at left back against Mexico and El Salvador, and DaMarcus Beasley was dropped back there from midfielder against Trinidad, Bradley has more options now that Jonathan Spector has recovered from hip surgery last June. Jonathan Bornstein and Marvell Wynne Jr. _ the son of the former major league baseball player _ are also outside back options.
But Saprissa Stadium, where hostile fans are close to the field, is a tough place for young players.
"Costa Rica has had great success at Saprissa Stadium. It's loud," Bradley said. "They are very comfortable there. They have great confidence there. And certainly we are aware that we have never won there. So when we look at different challenges, talk about things that we still want to achieve, this is a good example."
And it's not certain whether the crowd at Soldier Field will provide a homefield advantage against Honduras. While the advance sale is about 45,000, the percentage of tickets bought by U.S. fans isn't known.
"Solider Field has been a great venue for the U.S. national team," Bradley said. "Speaking for the players, I know how much they enjoy playing in stadiums where there's atmosphere, where there's a lot of passion for the game. And even, you know, in the game in Columbus as a good example, we don't really know at the end of the day exactly how the crowd was split in terms of the support for our team and the support for the Mexican team. But what we did know is that there were a lot of people there for us, and we hear them."
Just 12 of the players on Bradley's 24-man roster have been practicing this week in Miami, with the rest due to report following games with MLS teams this weekend and European club finales. Because of the artificial turf, the team will get two days of practice at Saprissa instead of one.
Surface definitely will change the style of play.
"Is it old? Is it new? How hard is it?" Bradley said. "Is the turf dry? Has it been wet down? Is it raining? You know, these are all things that affect the speed of the game, affect the bounces, affect how much give there is in terms of players when they're cutting or going to the ground."
Bradley also must wonder about player rust. Jozy Altidore, a 19-year forward who scored all three goals against Trinidad, didn't play a game after being loaned from Villarreal to Xerez in late January, and is coming back from toe surgery last month.
Beasley got into just three matches this year with Glasgow Rangers, a club he appears certain to leave.
"It's always important in a career," Bradley said, "and we saw this with Jozy in this last camp, that when things aren't going well with your club and you're given the opportunity to come in with the national team, that you appreciate being there, that you appreciate that you are still someone that people value."