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|Conor Casey is one of the few U.S. players who has little to prove against Honduras on Saturday.|
CARSON, Calif. -- Like an old friend, Honduras is back to test the U.S. national soccer team. And as always, the Yanks can expect the Catrachos to bedevil them -- though maybe not beat them.
The U.S. plays host to Honduras in the first friendly of the year on Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. After winning four hard-fought matches over their fellow World Cup qualifiers last year, the Americans know what's coming.
"A team that comes out flying for 90 minutes," said U.S. goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who played in both Gold Cup wins over Honduras last summer. "They press and press and press. They're relentless. They play with a lot of passion, a lot of heart, and so you know you're going to get a good, solid game from them."
That's exactly what U.S. coach Bob Bradley wants as the team starts preparing in earnest for South Africa. The Americans won't be anywhere near full strength, with most of their regular starters playing in Europe. Only three players in the U.S. training camp -- Benny Feilhaber, Jonathan Bornstein and Conor Casey -- played the last time the teams met, a 3-2 U.S. victory in San Pedro Sula that clinched the Americans' World Cup berth in October.
Meanwhile, the Hondurans, with seven players who saw the field in that last meeting -- including captain Carlos Pavon and keeper Noel Valladares -- offer a rugged test for a collection of mostly young, mostly MLS players called into the U.S. January camp.
"Honduras has an interesting mix of skill and athleticism," said U.S. assistant coach Pierre Barrieu. "They can adjust their game and show a few different faces. They're a little more versatile than some other countries."
That versatility should help Bradley get a read on players vying for time and roster spots. One of them will be Casey, whose two goals in a surprise start against Honduras in October made him the man of the match, and the only U.S. player ever to score twice in one game in Central America.
"Offensively, they keep the ball very well, and when they lose it they get a lot of people behind the ball," Casey said. "So they're very difficult to break down."
How well Casey and fellow forwards Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley pressure the Catrachos could help determine which of them earns a World Cup spot. Their performances, and those of attacking midfielders Robbie Rogers and Feilhaber, will be watched even more closely in the wake of Clint Dempsey's knee injury.
Honduras' athletic front line and speedy counterattack also have the potential to enlighten the American coaches. Bornstein will try to prove he's worthy of the starting left back slot, and center back Chad Marshall will be under scrutiny as Oguchi Onyewu recovers from a torn patellar tendon.
"Regardless of who's healthy and who's not, everybody wants to step up and show they belong on this team," Casey said. "It's on us to make the decisions difficult for the coaches."
One game alone won't necessarily sway those decisions. There's another friendly on U.S. soil, on Feb. 24 against El Salvador in Tampa, and training leading up to that match. But time grows short.
"These three weeks are huge for me," said Perkins, vying for the third keeper slot behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. "You're not going to have any more opportunities. For a lot of guys, it's the last chance. I want to show that I've progressed, that I can be a reliable player on the field -- and not only that, but that I can help off the field and be a good guy to have around and help the team in any way I can."
Although Saturday's match is a chance for individual players to make a statement, Barrieu added: "This game is only one day out of 24. It all goes into the evaluation of the whole camp -- their training habits, their attitude -- all the things we evaluate on a daily basis."
The change from that daily grind is welcome, as will be the sight of an opposing uniform, no matter how familiar it is. "We have a lot of new players, so this will look different than games we've played in the past," Barrieu said. "Right now, we can't wait for it to get here."
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.