2018 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, October 2017, U.S. soccer, USMNT

In Trinidad, US Play 90 Minutes for 4 years: TYAC Preview

The field conditions will be difficult Tuesday night in Trinidad. But what about this cycle hasn’t been hard?

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy 

Four years.

For the United States Men’s National Team, an entire World Cup cycle comes down to what happens on a flooded, soggy, sand-infused pitch in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night. ‘

Win, and the US are in. Draw, and they still likely qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia without a November playoff. Lose, and like Mexico a cycle ago, they’ll need help.

It seems unfair, almost cruel, for the fate of a World Cup cycle to hang on what happens over the course of one 90-minute game on rain-damaged field, but such is life in international soccer. It’s a sport where both spectacular failures and glorious successes come in small sample sizes, where history is made on one counterattack, one hand of God, or thanks to one headbutt. Just this morning, Syria missed a World Cup playoff by inches, when a late free kick by the divine forward Omar Al Somah rattled the woodwork, denying a complicated fairy tale a traditional happy ending. In the sport we love, the line between glory and failure is often the width of a post.

There were so many moments this World Cup cycle and qualifying campaign could have gone differently for the United States Men’s National Team, where all the dizzying energy and effort on a steamy, soggy October night in Trinidad and Tobago could have been rendered superfluous.

Even before the Hex, nothing about this cycle came easy. The US rarely seemed capable of taking the less arduous path.

An early indicator was the shocking fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup. Jurgen Klinsmann’s US  never looked right, and were outplayed by Haiti and Panama in the group stage before bowing out to an average Jamaica side 2-1, despite raucous home support in Atlanta.

As usual, the sunny optimism of Jurgen Klinsmann shrugged the results off as growing pains and pointed to the autumn, where the US could qualify for both the Olympics and the Confederations Cup, two of the manager/technical director’s primary goals for the cycle. Instead, two years ago October 10, no less- the US were bounced from both competitions- losing the Olympic bid in Salt Lake City before falling to Mexico on a sweltering night at the Rose Bowl hours later.

With those federation objectives gone, many, including TYAC, called for a managerial change. Sunil Gulati, the economics professor who runs US Soccer, calculated the opportunity costs of a coaching change and blinked. Alternatively, maybe Gulati, who had tried and failed to bring Klinsmann in for the 2010 cycle, only to finally grab his man for 2014, simply wanted to believe his guy was still the guy.

Either way, no change was made, and the US limped through the first wave of World Cup qualifying, losing in Guatemala and failing to secure passage to the Hex until the last game of the group, which, as fate would have it, was also played against Trinidad and Tobago. That game also marked the first start for Christian Pulisic, the teenage dynamo on whose diminutive shoulders so much pressure has fallen as things have gotten tight.

The US loss to Mexico in Columbus is just one of the bitter memories from a testy Hex.

The Hex too could have been easier.

Mark Mexico’s greatest player in a generation, Rafa Marquez, and you salvage a draw in Columbus. Whatever the disappointment of losing dos a cero, that point would be useful today. Change managers before the loss in Costa Rica and maybe the players respond. Maybe not, though. The Ticos just give the Americans trouble, regardless of manager, as we all learned again in New Jersey over Labor Day.

When Arena did arrive, the team got better, without question. But as good as the US looked against Honduras in his first competitive match in charge, the Yanks were sluggish, cautious and outplayed days later in Panama, fortunate to draw. The June qualifiers showed true progress, especially at Azteca, where even Osorio acknowledged the result could have gone either way, especially in the first half, as the counterattacking Americans kept Mexico on their heels. But the September qualifiers were all but an unmitigated disaster, from the mistakes on the Costa Rica goals to the listless and frustrated performance in Honduras, rescued by Bobby Wood at the death.

Even before Friday’s comprehensive triumph in an electric Orlando, the omission of Fabian Johnson, by some distance one of the Americans’ biggest stars, stirred controversy but more critically, demonstrated just how difficult it has been for the US to get the combinations right.

In each World Cup qualifying cycle this century, the US have managed to win two consecutive games in the Hexagonal stage. Until now.

If they accomplish that task tonight, they’ll book passage to Russia.

TYAC Preview then. Usuals, then particulars.

SERIES: 25th meeting. The United States lead, 18-2-4. Following the 2-0 US win in Denver this past June, the Americans improved to 13-1-3 against Trinidad and Tobago in World Cup qualifying. They are 5-1-3 in Trinidad. The lone defeat? A 2008 “sub-Hex” qualifier under Bob Bradley. The US had already booked passage to the Hex and Bradley’s experimental side, which featured Charlie Davies’s first World Cup qualifying goal- fell short, 2-1 against a Soca Warrior team that needed the win to secure passage to the Hex. The US returned the favor in the Hex, however, winning on this Ricard Clark howitzer:

The US tied their only qualifier in Trinidad this cycle- a somnolent 0-0 in November of 2015 played at Haseley Crawford Stadium in Port-of-Spain.

And of course, the US have qualified for a World Cup on Trini soil before. What’s the frequency, Paul Caligiuri?

Weather: Temperate and cooler for this time of year. High at kick around 84 with a nice breeze. The reported chance of rain is low- but this is the rainy season in Trinidad and Tobago and has been one of the rainiest ones in two decades. So it could rain too. This game is in Couva, which is more central than the Hasely Crawford Stadium, located on the coast. This would typically make it warmer, but because Couva has a bit more elevation, the mountains capture the cooler tradewinds. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: still mean. C’mon guys.

A big test for the US fullbacks awaits.

What to Watch for from the United States:

The job isn’t finished yet.

Yes, the US trounced Panama and appeared to find tactical solutions in the process against a quality defensive team playing for its World Cup life.

Yes, Trinidad and Tobago have lost seven games in a row, a national team record. They are eliminated from the World Cup and have little to play for.

Yes, the US spoke about “enjoying the moment” Friday night but knowing, as Paul Arriola told the media Friday, that “nothing that happened (in Orlando) will matter if they don’t refocus and play in Trinidad.”

But no, the job isn’t done yet. The US need a result to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. A draw would likely get the job done, but it would guarantee nothing. So let’s see the US go win the game?

Recognizing this, can the US seize the initiative early? If they can’t, how well do they handle the adversity on the field? There will be plenty: the pressure, the soggy, difficult pitch, the dimmer floodlights, and of late, the manufactured federation-beef over the flooded field itself, which at least portions of the public here in Trinidad have taken as classic “American arrogance” and an “affront” to our culture. Nonsense or no, there’s nothing like some manufactured-drama to get a crowd involved.

So how will the US lineup?

First, as well as the US played in the modified, wide-at-times diamond Friday night in Orlando, it would be astonishing if the US went with the same lineup Tuesday night.

There are a couple reasons for this.

First, that’s not really what Bruce Arena does.

He’s made significant squad rotations since assuming the job and he’s unlikely to change that formula tonight, just because the stakes are at their highest. In fact, given Arena’s conservative tendencies and propensity not to buck his own methodologies, it’s even more unlikely given the stakes.

Second, the US have some health issues.

Christian Pulisic had a calf-treatment patch yesterday in training and was by his own admission “a bit limited” but “getting better.” Darlington Nagbe and Jozy Altidore had treatment patches on as well. Attacking changes may insulate against injury dangers, even if all three of the above players are likely to feature in some capacity.

Second, the US have been a bit more tentative at home than away, sitting deeper and allowing the line of confrontation to be pushed ahead by their opposition. But don’t expect them to bunker against Trinidad and Tobago unless they have the lead.

Against the Soca Warriors, who under Dennis Lawrence have been even more direct than they were under prior manager Stephen Hart, there is certainly an argument for a back three, just to make sure you have multiple CBs available when Trinidad and Tobago fire balls over the top to the speedy, hard-working forward Shahdon Winchester, who plays in the Mexican second division.

The thing about the back three, however, is that the US played it at Azteca and late against Honduras, but have scrapped it as a starting formation since Mexico City. It’s unlikely Arena does that in this big a spot, although if the Americans lead it wouldn’t be surprising to see them shift to that formation late.

A potential US deployment Tuesday night.

Instead, I’d look for a lineup like at the inset (though the Wood thing is more “single forward” preference than a rejection of Altidore).

This features a very responsible, risk-averse midfield that will show for the ball and work hard.

The US struggled against Khaleem Hyland in the center of the midfield in the 4-1-3-2 for much of the first half in Denver this June, largely because it just left so much work to do for Michael Bradley. And while he did the heavy lifting for an hour against Panama, giving him help from the jump on the road makes sense. Bedoya makes the most sense- he’s played in these moments and is less-risk averse and in better form than Kellyn Acosta, who is the “other” best option. Bedoya is also a master at collecting second balls and challenging for everything, just the type of grinder you need in a CONCACAF road game played on a patch of mud.

What up top?

If it is a solitary striker, it’s probably Altidore until he’s tired and then Wood, even though the inverse is a better soccer idea.

If the US defy my thought process here and go two up top, then it is more complicated.

Dempsey was poor against Trinidad and Tobago in June, so much so that he was removed as a tactical substitution after an hour. The Texan is as prideful a competitor as you’ll meet. He remembers this and given his limited appearance Friday night, he’s a candidate to start.

I wouldn’t do that, however.

I’d go back to what’s working, with Wood the high man to a just-slightly-lower Altidore. This allows Jozy the freedom to dip back and play the ball on the floor, and lets Bobby do what he’s the best in the pool at, squaring defenders up, holding the ball, powering past people and winning 50/50’s.

All that said- a change there is probable given the length of time those two spent on the field on Friday night in Orlando.

Any chance we see Beasley at left back? How big a challenge is this match for the US fullbacks?

Second question first- it’s an immense one, as Trinidad and Tobago have outstanding wide players.

As for Beasley…

I think it’s fairly reasonable that we do, actually. Jorge Villafana and Yedlin are the preferred pairing, and Yedlin will certainly get the tough job of marking AZ’s Levi Garcia (more later), who consistently troubled Miguel Layun throughout Friday night’s qualifier at Mexico. Trinidad and Tobago’s best chances throughout the opening hour came on blistering runs by Garcia down the wing, where help had to peel away from the center, opening space in behind for a late-running Hyland and Winchester.

How DeAndre Yedlin holds up against the sizeable talents of Garcia will go a long way in telling the tale. But what happens if he is inverted, or how the US deal with Joevin Jones on the opposite flank, will matter as well.

What about changes in the CB pairing? Goal?

The trend at goalkeeper has been to play Howard and then Guzan. There’s no reason that should change now.

Yes- I would expect to see Geoff Cameron in this match, especially given the trouble Omar Gonzalez had against pacy counterattacks in Honduras, and given he was easily the weakest link for the US defense Friday night. Matt Besler has been steady and should continue to start.

AZ Alkmaar winger Levi Garcia gives this game a second 19 year old dynamo.

What to watch for from Trinidad and Tobago:

A consistent theme in the press here is “return the favor 28 years later.” People remember Paul Caligiuri. They remember because they were all set to go to the World Cup with a draw, and then that happened. They remember because until Iceland punched a ticket yesterday, this proud island country of just over a million inhabitants was the world’s smallest-nation to qualify for a World Cup. Before there was Aron Gunnarsson, Gylfi Sigurðsson and the Viking clap, there was carnival dancers, Shaka Hislop and Dwight Yorke. This is a proud footballing nation.

The Soca Warriors have hit hard times, mired in another late paycheck to players scandal that has erased the momentum built in the post Jack Warner era. They’ve lost seven consecutive matches- a federation record- and looked to be disinterested a month ago.

But there was reason for hope- or trepidation, from the US perspective- Friday night in Mexico.

Lawrence opted to bring in a very young squad for the final two qualifiers, adding only Joevin Jones and Kevin Molino of the Soca Warriors’ big names and dropping longtime captain Kenwyne Jones. The oldest player on this roster is the goalkeeper, Adrian Foncette, and he turns 29 on October 10- gameday.

For seventy minutes, the Soca Warriors defended compactly and launched brutally efficient counterattacks down each wing. To be sure, the Levi Garcia wing was preferred, and he is easily the most technically gifted player they’ll have Tuesday night with Minnesota United talisman Kevin Molino suspended. But both sides are capable.

It’s route one stuff, and Lawrence has preached effort if nothing else- which can be a hard sell when you aren’t getting paid on time- but appears to work, as evidenced by this 50/50 win too.

My favorite part of this goal is the way the announcers emphasize how Mexico needs to win 50/50 balls. Well- so does the US. Trinidad and Tobago are extremely direct- they’ll place Winchester up top by himself, in all likelihood, and ask the 25-year old to run all night. He will, for an hour or so, and then they’ll make a change- probably Travin Caesar, who plays in the USL with Sacramento.

The thrust of Trinidad and Tobago’s strategy is to sit back, stay compact centrally and usher teams out wide. Once they win the ball- through the ball-winner Khaleem Hyland, usually- they play it quickly to a wing and look to break, or rely on the technical quality of Garcia or Joevin Jones to create chances or win free kicks in dangerous spots. Jones was held out in Mexico until late—expect him to play a long shift and start Tuesday night.

Trinidad and Tobago Player to Watch: Levi Garcia, AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands)

The AZ winger has been touted as the next great Soca Warrior for a while now, despite only being 19 years old. He’s a burner with great handles who likes to blow-by a defender more than incut, and his passing has improved markedly after a spell with the AZ reserves last year where he gained precious minutes. He’s become, according to Lawrence, “a very improved and improving finisher” as well, which means he isn’t always looking to cut a ball out when he engages one on one.

He’s a problem for the Omar Gonzalez types because the US CB’s have been good this cycle at standing up over-the-top forward runs. They’ve been less good- as we were reminded in Honduras- at wider, between-the-lines runners, which is a role Garcia is asked to play at AZ.

Miguel Layun returned to El Tri Friday night and saw the return spoiled by Garcia, who finished the evening the second-highest rated player in the match. That’s instructive of his talents, and if there is a thorn in the #RiverToRussia plot for the Yanks, it’s probably going to come from the other team’s teenage dynamo.

For the first time, Bobby Wood is TYAC Player to Watch. And maybe he’s the player that’s grown most this cycle.

United States Player to Watch: Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)

The storylines coming out of the Panama blowout are mostly focused on Christian Pulisic, and rightfully so. He’s probably the brightest USMNT prospect ever, and he’s probably outgrown that label “prospect” while still in his teens. He’s the kid my non-soccer fan friends were already asking about prior to Friday night.

“Jon! I was watching 60 Minutes, and I was like, this is something I’ve gotta ask Jon Levy about.”

“Chrsitian Pulisic?”

“How’d you know!?”

Duh.

That said, it’s time for even casual US Soccer fans to start getting excited about Bobby Wood.

We’ve never made the flying Hawaiian our player to watch.

Until now, baby!

The Hamburg forward is more than just the beneficiary of Pulisic’s brilliance, and he put on a show (not for the first time) in a must-win match on Friday night in Orlando. Let’s not penalize him for failing to shine quite as brightly as the nineteen year old that’s already this team’s best player.

So what exactly did Bobby Wood do against Panama that should excite American fans?

He finally proved without a doubt that he deserves his starting spot on the national team, even over one of the Yanks’ most accomplished and beloved players. Wood proved that he brings something to the table that even Jozy Altidore can’t. Wood showed he can beat his man off the dribble. He played the type of high-energy forward that drives defenders crazy, and exhausts them in the process. He scored a great goal in a tight spot, and and forced a penalty kick. He drew defenders and created space for his teammates. He also found those teammates in space when given the opportunity. And he did all of this without sacrificing the hold-up target striker aspects of his game.

But can he replicate the type of play we saw against Panama? If his USMNT resume over the course of the past couple of years is an indication, then I’d say the answer is yes. How about staying power? Bobby’s 24. He’s going to be around for another couple World Cup cycles. If he can stay healthy, which hasn’t always been the case, he should be able to provide striker stability for a relatively long time.

Potentially lost in Wood’s great game against Panama is his positional flexibility. This is another area where he bests both Jozy Altidore and old Clint Dempsey, in spite of not being as natural a goal-scorer as either of them. Bobby can play solo striker, complimentary/shadow striker, or wing forward. That’s a recipe for getting on the field often. We can expect to see him starting more often than not for the next few years at least.

As for exactly where he’ll play against Trinidad and Tobago, I can’t say for sure, but if I’m Bruce Arena I find a way to keep the Pulisic/Altidore/Woodpartnership going. Pulisic is positionally versatile as well, so Arena should be able to get all three on the field even if he’s not married to a single defensive midfielder formation.

Prediction: RUSSIA. United States 2, Trinidad and Tobago 1. Soca Warriors claw one out on the break in the opening half but the US respond and put all doubt to bed.

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy co-founded The Yanks Are Coming in 2008. This would be the third World Cup in that span. Follow them on twitter @nwblackmon and @TYAC_Jon. 

Neil W. Blackmon