Group E Preview: Honduras face tough World Cup challenge

Robert Jonas previews Bernardez and Honduras in Group E

A lot of focus has been on Chris Wondolowski and the U.S. men’s national team as the squad trained at nearby Stanford Stadium ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. However, Wondolowski is not the only Earthquakes player going to Brazil: Center back Victor Bernardez is preparing to captain the Honduras national team in its World Cup quest.

Honduras, whose world ranking is third among the four teams from CONCACAF in the tournament and 30th overall, was drawn into Group E along with Switzerland (8), France (16), and Ecuador (28). The Central American nation will play in only its third World Cup finals. Honduras was part of the 2010 tournament in South Africa, but in three group stage games failed to score a single goal. They did, however, earn a point that year, playing Switzerland to a scoreless draw.

With Bernardez on the back line, Honduras navigated the Hex last year to qualify from CONCACAF in third place. Los Catrachos famously beat the U.S. in the first game of the group and added on a historic victory against Mexico at the Azteca to secure their ticket to Brazil. On this summer’s big stage, Honduras will be searching for their first ever World Cup finals win.

Luis Fernando Suarez is at the helm for Honduras, and the former Ecuador coach will hope he can navigate a tough trio of opponents. Key players on the squad include midfielder Wilson Palacios, arguably the strongest member of the team, forward Carlo Costly, and midfielder Roger Espinoza, who had a star spell with Sporting Kansas City a few seasons ago. Other notables with MLS connections are New England’s Jerry Bengtson, Houston’s Oscar Boniek Garcia, and former Earthquakes and current Chivas USA winger Marvin Chavez.

Projections of Group E all place France at the top, with Switzerland and Ecuador fighting for the second qualifying spot, and Honduras a the root of the table. Still, Los Catrachos, buoyed by the experience of playing in the tournament four year ago, are confident that they can earn their first win in the World Cup finals, and, with a little luck, perhaps sneak into the top-two in the group. Even with luck, it will be far from easy.

France heads to Brazil after qualifying through the UEFA playoffs in a stirring encounter with Ukraine. Les Blues have a habit of showing up every other World Cup, so given their abysmal showing in South Africa, will be looking for a better performance in South America. Led by coach Didier Deschamps and captained by Franck Ribery, France has the talent to succeed. Aging defender Patrice Evra will be a key player on the back line, while Karim Benzema of Real Madrid and Oliver Giroud of Arsenal will do the damage up top. Honduras faces France on Sunday, June 15, at the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre.

Ecuador will make the short cross-continental trip for the tournament with high expectations, but little firepower in which to reach them. Coach Reinaldo Rueda led the team through CONMEBOL qualifying by virtue of a nearly spotless home record; however, that only served to mask its poor results on the road. Ecuador likes to run at teams, especially through wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, but that cavalier style often leaves its suspect defense vulnerable. Relative newcomers to the World Cup finals, Ecuador qualified for its first appearance in 2002. Honduras takes on Ecuador on Friday, June 20, at the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba.

Switzerland will be led by coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, the former Bayern Munich manager, in the Alpine country’s third successive World Cup finals appearance. Also grouped with Honduras in 2010, the Swiss failed to advance to the knockout round of the tournament after its disappointing scoreless draw with Los Catrachos. The team brings a disciplined approach to Brazil, with key players Gokhan Inler, the team captain, and Xherdan Shaqiri patrolling the midfield. However, the Swiss backline may be its Achilles heel, and the Honduran forwards will need to take advantage. Honduras plays Switzerland on Wednesday, June 25, at the Arena Amazonia in steamy Manaus.

What are the prospects for Honduras in Brazil? If some of their CONCACAF qualifying successes are used as a blueprint, Los Catrachos will need to be very disciplined on defense and opportunistic on offense. Honduras will be, without a doubt, the underdog in each of its three group games, so any points earned will be a huge achievement. And by extension, advancing to the knockout rounds of the tournament would be the biggest sporting accomplishment ever achieved by the national team.

Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas