SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – United States head coach Bruce Arena believes the controversial rhetoric of President Trump has given his team’s opponents extra incentive during the current World Cup qualifying campaign.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vital qualifier away to Honduras, Arena spoke candidly about how the chance to beat the U.S. may mean more to other nations in the region than before Trump took office.
“I think so,” Arena replied, when asked by USA TODAY Sports whether the fans and players of opponents were impacted by Trump’s policies and public comments.
“Do you need me to tell you that?” he added, when quizzed how the political climate affected soccer. “Our immigration policies are impacting people in Central America, right? There is probably a little bit of anger over that and then you get your national (team) with a chance to play (against) the U.S. I’m sure it becomes very meaningful.”
Does it lift opposition players as well as increase the crowd noise?
“Yeah, probably,” Arena added.
Arena understands that soccer games, either in isolation or collectively as part of a World Cup qualifying campaign, pale in significance compared to the social and societal issues being faced by the country.
Neither did he blame the topic for the perilous position his team finds itself in. With three rounds of qualifying left, the U.S. is in third place in the CONCACAF regional pool on eight points, with Honduras also on eight and Panama on seven. The top three teams in the confederation, made up of squads from North and Central American and the Caribbean, will go to the World Cup. A fourth still has a chance through a playoff against an Asian team.
However, given that the U.S. made a dismal start to the final qualifying phase with two consecutive losses before Arena was brought in to replace Jurgen Klinsmann, facing rivals with even more will to win than previously has enhanced the difficulty factor.
An example of national pride was on display last Friday, when Costa Rica, buoyed by passionate support from expat fans in the New York area, clinched a 2-0 victory over Arena’s Americans at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
“Only in America, right,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said, referring to the curious decision to stage the game in a part of the country where the away team would enjoy heavy backing.
The U.S. does not get the same benefits on its travels, and Tuesday’s visit here is no exception. The game is being held in the middle of the afternoon to maximize the discomfort for the travelers, and San Pedro Sula was selected as a venue because it is deemed to have louder and more engaged supporters than the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
“The field we are playing on, nobody plays on fields like that,” Arena added, while listing some of the challenges that must be overcome if the U.S. is to keep its hopes of reaching Russia next summer on track. “The grass isn’t cut. It is a little spongy. Who knows what they will do with it (ahead of the game)?
“We don’t get any luxuries when we go on the road (where everything) is nice and comfortable and we get a good fan base coming to the game and all that.”
Arena did not blame the Costa Rica setback – a result that turned the qualifying position from highly likely to endangered – on the federation’s selection of New Jersey, where a large proportion of Costa Rican immigrants live. However, he made it clear that he wishes for more judicious choices to be made in the future.
“We have to be shrewd in the venues we select,” Arena said. “I don’t think we should play in a venue that is comfortable for the visiting team. Can you imagine if we were playing this (Honduras) game in Dallas or San Diego, it would be nicer for us, right?”