Neil W. Blackmon
The United States defeated Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night 4-0 in front of 19,410 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville. The win sealed a spot in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying final round Hexagonal for the United States, and allowed them to win Group C.
The US open the HEX against Mexico November 11 against Mexico. Sunil Gulati confirmed that there is “no doubt” the game will take place at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus. That match will mark the first competitive meeting between the nations since Mexico’s 3-2 extra time CONCACAF Cup victory on October 10, 2015.
The game Tuesday night was a thrilling affair, at least in the opening half, with both teams playing attractive, up and down soccer and creating quality chances. But the US looked the team more likely to score throughout the opening half, and when, in the 44th minute, Sacha Kljestan cleaned up an across the body clearance gone awry from Trinidad and Tobago’s Andre Boucaud, the Americans were off to the races.
Thoughts on a convincing U.S. victory.
Christian Pulisic was tremendous, and made the case in his first start that his second start should come in the Hex opener against Mexico.
Christian Pulisic became the youngest American in the modern era to start a World Cup qualifier Tuesday night, besting Jozy Altidore’s accomplishment at 18.
That alone would have been enough to be a scene stealer, what with the white noise roar of hype from US soccer circles that surrounds everything the 17 year old Borussia Dortmund youngster does. Pulisic’s play Tuesday night, a fearless mix of technical quality, understanding of space and movement, imagination and speed, lived up to the hype.
That it was just a beginning might be the best part.
It’s been a rare event and a long time since the US fielded an attacking player who makes the crowd breathless and on edge with every touch. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, John O’Brien at his healthy, in-form pinnacle. These are the only players truly in that pantheon. But there was young Christian Pulisic, bringing the Jacksonville crowd to their feet with every touch, playing with a youthful vigor and sweetness befitting of his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania.
He didn’t score- he had two tremendous chances parried away bravely by a very busy Marvin Phillip and another, on a bit of sublime off-ball movement following a Jozy Altidore run down the Trinidad and Tobago right, managed to hit both posts, a sign from the soccer gods that they’d let Pulisic have his moment, but not all the glory. Not on this night. That could come later.
Pulisic did dial up an assist, flying down the left and teeing up Jozy Altidore for the Toronto forward’s second goal. And Paul Arriola’s goal, which came on the Club Tijuana man’s USMNT qualifying debut, came on a rebound of a saved Pulisic attempt.
The debate will move immediately to whether Pulisic can become a full-time starter for the United States immediately. American fans are always demanding with their new toys, even when they don’t deliver. When they do- ever so rarely- live up to the measureless limits of the imagination and hype- it becomes even harder to be level-headed.
Jurgen Klinsmann preached patience earlier this week on Pulisic, telling the media that the young man should be given time by the American public to develop and improve. He can’t save the team right now, Klinsmann argued. Of course, this is the same Klinsmann that decided to reward the youngster with a start and 90 minutes in a pivotal World Cup qualifier days later.
On that decision, Klinsmann said “he felt the time was now.”
“We watched every training session, and the Copa America helped us move him along, and got us comfortable,” Klinsmann said. “He was mature the way he trained every session, very focused, both on the ball and in physical battles as well, and we felt it was a good time now. And obviously the performance was wonderful to watch.”
A wry, puff the chest out smile then came across Klinsmann’s face, as he added. “But we don’t want to give him too many compliments. We have to keep him on the ground a little bit.”
US fans should heed this advice too, as difficult as it will be. There’s a distinction between savior and contributor, a distinction that’s worth remembering.
Christian Pulisic might not start for the United States when they begin play in the Hex against Mexico in November. But he’ll undoubtedly have a role to play, and a not insignificant one. Not every evening will be as magical as this night in Jacksonville. But with Pulisic on the field, the US are a better team. And that will remain the case in the final round of the qualifying tournament.
Sacha Kljestan played another terrific game, and after a nervy opening, the Bradley-Kljestan midfield looked strong.
Call it Klinsmann’s moment of good fortune.
Forced into a roster change, his late injury replacement inclusion of Sacha Kljestan became one of the two most critical stories of this US camp.
Paired with a partner from two World Cup qualifying cycles past, Michael Bradley had a nervy beginning, with a few of the turnovers that plagued US losses in the Copa America and some distribution errors early.
Following the match, Jurgen Klinsmann noted the US struggles in midfield over the game’s first 25 minutes.
“It took a little bit of time to work ourselves into the game,” Klinsmann said. “There were some turnovers and things to clean up but we defended, didn’t get behind and then we started to combine. And once the center came together, the left flank came alive with Christian and Fabian.”
Given the opponent has dynamic midfield components of its own in Kevin Molino, Joevin Jones and AZ Alkmaar’s prized youngster Levi Garcia, it was impressive that the Americans dominated in the center of the park after a disjointed beginning. After several years apart, two players who have spent a great amount of time on soccer fields together began to show a strong understanding.
Most of the praise for that goes to Kljestan. Remember, Jurgen Klinsmann did not call the New York Red Bulls man into the side until an injury forced John Brooks out. Once in camp, Kljestan took command.
Playing a very similar advanced position centrally that he occupies for New York, Klinsmann told the media after the match that from “the first training session on, Kljestan was on fire. It was great to see. Going towards the Hexagonal, we’re talking about Russia 2018 now.”
Asked if he would call the Red Bulls man in again when the Hex started, Klinsmann said he already told Kljestan to expect the call.
Michael Bradley may be the player most thrilled. After many tumultuous years partnering with the unpredictable Jermaine Jones, Bradley enjoyed seeing Kljestan ahead of him again.
“In terms of fine-tuning little details, the more you play together, things come back,” Bradley said of the early struggles.
“Having said that, Sacha and I have a very good understanding. We’ve played on the field together on a lot of big days: the Olympics, World Cup qualifiers, Confederations Cup. When I walk on the field and see him next to me, there’s a real trust and belief.”
With Sacha Kljestan in as good a form as nearly any midfielder in MLS, and Jermaine Jones in career decline, an old partnership revisited may have arrived in the nick of time for the United States.
The US are better collectively than they’ve been in a couple of years.
Yes, you don’t want to overreact to wins over St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a home qualifier win over Trinidad and Tobago. But these victories are part of a 2016 that has, by and large, been a successful one for the United States since anightmarish evening in the spring in Guatemala City.
The Americans have incorporated more pieces into the puzzle- dynamic pieces like Christian Pulisic, Sacha Kljestan and Paul Arriola- than they have in recent memory. What’s more, players on the verge of a breakout: Bobby Wood, John Brooks, have stepped forward into bigger, critical roles. We’ve long written at TYAC that Jurgen Klinsmann is working with the deepest American talent pool in the history of the program.
Fans are now starting to see the benefits.
Stephen Hart, the Trinidad and Tobago manager, agreed.
“I thought the team started to mature after the Paraguay game,” Hart said. “(Jurgen) found one of his best lineups, movement was good. Wood today was dragging us all over the pitch, running deep, making us move away from the midfield and Altidore and Pulisic were finding space. That’s a dangerous combination, especially when Dempsey comes back.”
“The US is much better,” Hart said. “They are much more dynamic. They move better, they attack from deep positions, they’re improvement is excellent.”
Michael Bradley feels the issue is one of performance.
“Our performances are better. We continue to move ourselves forward,” Bradley said.
“Any time you can use the experience of a big tournament like the Copa America, it is a big help. And there’s a group of guys—guys who are just here and guys who have been around for fifteen years—who are committed to improving the national team. But look- there are bigger, crucial days ahead.”