Neil W. Blackmon
The US Men’s National Team play the first – and without question most important – of two World Cup qualifiers in 100 hours tonight when they take on Trinidad and Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver.
I wrote at length earlier this week about where CONCACAF qualifying stands, and what each team has ahead of it over the next six days. Here’s the American version.
The US need three points at home, because history dictates you must hold serve to qualify for the World Cup and it also dictates, in nightmarish fashion, that the US are unlikely to capture three points or even a single point when they visit Estadio Azteca Sunday night. That the US have a negative history at Azteca is compounded by the fact the Americans will play there on short rest, following another qualifier played at altitude, against perhaps the most talented Mexico side ever assembled. So yeah- tonight’s match against the Soca Warriors, currently the only side in the Hex with less points than the United States- is essentially a must-win if the Americans want to play soccer in Russia next summer.
The analytics mostly bear this out: the US odds of qualification decrease dramatically with anything but a “W” in Denver tonight. Therefore, while it is true that should the US go “win-loss” in these two games, as expected, it will be officially the worst point total the US Soccer program has ever had through six games of a Hex, there’s no genuine debate about which game is more vital. As Steve Davis wrote over at 4-4-2, it’s the one tonight, not the rivalry game Sunday.
The TYAC preview then, abridged as we covered most of what to look for from the United States in our Venezuela preview over the weekend.
Series: 24th meeting. United States lead, 17-2-4. The Americans are 12-1-3 in World Cup qualifying against Trinidad and Tobago and 7-0-1 at home. The Soca Warriors haven’t scored a goal in a World Cup qualifier on American soil in 32 years. The two sides have played twice already in this World Cup cycle, with the US holding Trinidad and Tobago 0-0 in Port-of-Spain two Novembers ago and Christian Pulisic making his starting 11 debut and leading the way in a 4-0 US rout in Jacksonville last September. That win helped the US through to the Hex, and was the last competitive win for the US program under Jurgen Klinsmann.
Finally, no Trinidad and Tobago preview is complete without this clip- Paul Caligiuri ushering in the modern era of American soccer (and breaking Trinidad and Tobago’s heart)- from 1989.
Weather: IT WON’T SNOW. SO THERE’S THAT. Lovely, actually. Around 80, sunny and temperate. As good as it gets, especially at altitude. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 2 (He’d probably prefer ten degrees cooler but otherwise should have no complaints).
Five Questions that will tell the tale for the United States:
After spending a great deal of time previewing the US tactically ahead of the Venezuela game, and recapping it with more tactical analysis the following day, I’ll leave you to review those pieces or simply watch the game with these five questions as a lens. I’ll revisit these tomorrow.
1.What formation does Bruce Arena play? This is a question that begins with where you want to deploy Christian Pulisic. Fill in that blank, and the other dominoes begin to fall into place.
2. What should the US do with Darlington Nagbe? On the one hand, the Americans have lacked a player that can carry the ball out of the back in possession and in traffic since Steve Cherundolo stepped off the international stage. On the other hand, there is danger in leaving Michael Bradley isolated, and merit to the idea that Fabian Johnson shouldn’t have to deal with playing inverted just to accommodate Nagbe on the pitch. I believe the US are better-served by playing both. I don’t know if Bruce Arena believes that.
3. Does Arena play the diamond and isolate Bradley again? Bradley is better from deep positions, passing out of the scrum. But the US need to have Johnson and Nagbe receiving the ball in better areas as well, a point elucidated well by MLS tactical writer Matthew Doyle. This means you either play a guy tucked in centrally with him, say Kellyn Acosta or Ale Bedoya, who effectively links things up, or and you deal with Nagbe out of the game– or– you slot one of Nagbe or Johnson deeper on the field– demanding they are further back to receive the ball and offer a release valve. It’s a tricky accommodation to make for your captain, but one the US must make.
4. Can the US defend set pieces better? Improvement in this department must happen or the US won’t win a game in Russia even if they qualify.
5. Wood and Dempsey or Altidore and Wood or Altidore and Dempsey?
I’d do the second one. Managing Dempsey’s minutes is vital if the US want to have a shot in Azteca. Then again, you have to prioritize this game over Mexico. So it is a tough call. What’s clear is that the US need Altidore to clear out space for whoever the other forward is.
What to Watch for from Trinidad and Tobago:
The Soca Warriors are playing better soccer under their third manager this cycle. Dennis Lawrence, a mountain of a CB who played on the club’s 2006 FIFA World Cup squad that saw the island republics become the smallest member of FIFA to ever qualify for the World Cup, took over for the briefly-tenured Tom Santfiet, who managed only briefly and failed to qualify the side for this summer’s Gold Cup before resigning. Stephen Hart led the team in the prior qualifying rounds, seeing them through to the Hex with a second place finish in their group, which of course included the United States.
Lawrence has changed things ever so slightly from Hart by playing a deeper line and withdrawing a forward. Instead of Hart’s 4-4-2 that left the team too exposed and disjointed in a brutal road qualifying loss at Honduras last November, Lawrence has opted to play 4-5-1, with the ball-stopping MLS and NASL veteran Kevan George and an underrated ball-winner in Khaleem Hyland, who has played forever in Belgium, sitting deep just ahead of the back four. The club wait for George and Hyland to gain possession and then break frenetically on the counter. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s effective, even if some argue the side lack the Premier League quality they had in 2006, when those transitions featured Carlos Edwards, Stern John and at times, a young and physically imposing Kenwyne Jones.
While the club lack a Stern John, I think the transition and tempo aspect of this counterattack is arguably better, led by Joevin Jones and Kevin Molino, two of the better players in Major League Soccer. Pushed forward from his MLS fullback spot (where he’s the league’s best fullback), Joevin Jones is option “A” on the Soca Warrior break. Unlike Hart, who played him higher up the field, Lawrence likes to push Jones deeper, almost positionally as a wing back, which means he’s in a better position to receive the ball and launch what most MLS fans have seen terrorize a defense- a deep sprint where he can challenge a flat footed defender 1 v 1. Complicating matters, he’s often joined on the overlap by Mekeil Williams, who will be playing on his home field in Colorado and will provide plenty of cover for Jones to play the role of marauder.
In the middle of the park, “Option B” on the break is Kevin Molino. The Minnesota United attacking midfielder is “Exhibit A” about how a manager’s belief can make all the difference, as he’s put a tough year for country and club in Orlando behind him and found new life in Minnesota under his longtime club manager Adrian Heath. Most MLS insiders thought the Loons gave up too much to get Molino, a wizard on the ball who Heath told me is “among the top five technical players I’ve ever been around,” high praise indeed. Molino is at his best on the ball running at people in the channels, which is a chance he gets when Joevin Jones is “right.”
Mexico got a taste of how difficult it is to deal with both on a goal in March that never should have been called offside. The poor call ruined the game- and perhaps Trinidad and Tobago’s World Cup hopes- but it is a reminder of just how dangerous this team can be when they break. Complicating matters for the United States? Both Jones and Molino are playing marvelously for their clubs in MLS.
Not all is rosy on the form front for the Soca Warriors, however. Levi Garcia, a highly-regarded youth product with AZ Alkmaar is out of the side, lacking fitness, and depriving the club of a genuinely creative outlet on the right flank. Worse still, Kenwyne Jones has found playing time scarce in Atlanta under Tata Martino, and while Martino has insisted that is largely about match-ups, not fitness or form, Will Parchman was correct to suggest that the longtime Trinidad and Tobago captain isn’t as lethal a runner as he used to be, preferring to post-up on a set piece or poach in moments of chaos.
If you want a wild card to look out for tonight, that player is undoubtedly Sheldon Bateau, a physical and athletic CB who has scored multiple goals for country with his head. The US have struggled mightily on set pieces throughout this cycle, as Venezuela reminded us Saturday evening. Lose a runner or a man tonight and the Americans may find their World Cup hopes in jeopardy.
United States Player to Watch: Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach
As I wrote after the Venezuela match, Fabian Johnson is a player the Americans need more from in the next year. Finally deployed in a more natural midfield position Saturday evening, Johnson delivered an erratic performance against the Venezuelans, looking very much the part of a player who was still recovering from a lengthy Bundesliga injury layoff both in terms of his fitness and a lack of general sharpness on the ball. Yes, his quality showed in a lovely turn and layoff to Pulisic on the American goal, but there were other times he looked either a step behind (tracking back or tracking runners from his shuttler position in the diamond) or simply poor (losing a mark on the American goal, forcing passes that led to quick turnovers).
At his best, Johnson is one of the finest technical players the US have ever had at their disposal, with an innate understanding of how to manipulate space and lovely vision that helps him pass at marvelous angles, even in tight spaces. He’s also a savage runner and finisher in the channels, when he’s in form:
The plan is to have this Johnson back to peel defenders away from Pulisic next summer, and perhaps mix in a bit of Darlington Nagbe, a wonderful player in traffic in his own right, to give the US multiple creative options behind Jozy Altidore and poacher Clint Dempsey. If the US get the Johnson who is nominated, at present, for both Goal and Assist of the Year in the Bundesliga, they’ll be a much better team. We just haven’t seen it much in a US shirt.
To Johnson’s credit, he thinks he can do better. He’s been pleased to move to the more natural midfield spot and is open about Arena challenging him to offer his best.
“I think it’s going pretty good. I’m comfortable with the position and the group,” Johnson said. “The whole team has good energy and good spirits. Of course, it’s something different. I have to adjust to a couple of things, but I’m feeling great.”
Feeling great and playing great are different. The US would prefer the latter.
Trinidad and Tobago Player to Watch: Kevin Molino, Minnesota United
When the Minnesota United man is in the mood, there aren’t many ways he can’t beat you. He can engage 1 v 1 and fake a defender out of his boots. He’s quick enough to blow by a defender and strong enough to pass out of traffic with a defender on his shoulder. He’s capable with both feet.
What he isn’t always is consistently engaged and interested, and this is the case even for his country. It isn’t unusual for Trinidad and Tobago players to feud with the federation, but after keying the side’s run to Hex, he was kept out of the opening qualifiers for partying too much during training camp. The exclusion of Molino, and the subsequent debate over whether he should be forgiven in time to rescue the Soca Warriors World Cup hopes probably cost Stephen Hart his job.
In truth, Molino probably deserved some type of suspension, and if the two shifts he’s put in since for country in qualifying are any indication, it worked. Further, with five goals and three assists early in the MLS season, his form since the suspension has been blistering at all levels.
The United States haven’t fared terrific against singular talents this cycle, whether it be the nearly comic-book legend harassment of Carlos Ruiz in the sub-Hex or the torrid form of Guardado in the CONCACAF Cup or Messi at the Copa America or the magic of Bryan Ruiz last November. How they deal with Molino tonight will go great lengths in telling the story of whether they play soccer in Russia next summer.
Prediction: USA 3, Trinidad and Tobago 1. I think Molino snags a goal in the first half to level the game, but the Americans hit early and late in the second frame to secure three vital points. Look for a great performance from Jozy Altidore up top.
Neil W. Blackmon is the Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.