When the U.S. national team kicks off the second game of its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign Tuesday night, away to Trinidad and Tobago, a stranglehold on the top spot in Group C of CONCACAF’s fourth round will be on the line.
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With both sides taking all three points from their respective WCQ opener Friday night, Tuesday is a chance for either side to create a bit of breathing room — as many as five points between themselves in first, down to third — in their quest to qualify for the Hex next year.
To beat a tough T&T side in Port of Spain, the USMNT will have to be better Tuesday night than they were against St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday…
1. Finding a bit of balance in midfield
The shape and balance in midfield, as has been the case for much of Klinsmann’s four-plus years in charge, was all wrong against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It played a huge part in the CONCACAF minnows taking an early 1-0 lead against the USMNT, and continuously reared its head inside the final third as the Yanks attempted to break down an extremely bunkered defense.
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, while arguably two of the best central midfielders the USMNT has had in a long time, can’t play together, especially as a midfield-two. Neither player is at his best sitting in front of the backline — not that they actually stay put, anyway — nor do they offer much of anything as a dedicated attacking midfielder. In layman’s terms, they’re the same player — box-to-box aggressors with unbelievable engines — much like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were for England. We all remember how that worked out, right?
Operating under the (fairly safe) assumption that Jurgen Klinsmann will opt to bring an extra midfielder into the team on Tuesday, Bradley will once again be shoehorned into the no. 10 role, a la the 2014 World Cup; Jones will charge up and down the field leaving avenues for counter attacks exposed all game long; and (most likely) Kyle Beckerman will either put in a gargantuan performance cleaning up said mess, or run himself into the ground trying to do so. Wash, rinse, repeat.
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2. Establishing possession with (probably) a lone striker
Operating under that assumption of a three-man midfield means dropping a forward to the bench and playing with a lone striker — most likely Jozy Altidore. (Again, wash, rinse, repeat.) So often when the USMNT opts to play with a lone striker — whether against hugely superior competition, or away to a lesser foe — the result is lots of sideways and backwards passing in the midfield, and an alarmingly low passing percentage into the final third.
That means lots of turnovers are committed in the middle third, near the halfway line, which lends itself extremely well to opponents breaking quickly on the counter. (See, for reference: World Cup, 2014; Gold Cup, 2015) Points no. 1 and 2 are closely related, as the presence of a more natural attacking midfielder, one who fills the gap between the two lines and rescues Altidore from his proverbial island, seems the easiest solution.
Then again, none of the players who thrive in such a role — Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan and/or Lee Nguyen — have been called into camp more than a handful of times, combined, during Klinsmann’s tenure. Darlington Nagbe is the player best suited to play at the top of the midfield three, but away in CONCACAF isn’t exactly the easiest place for a player to make his full international debut.
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3. Weathering the inevitable storm while playing away in CONCACAF
For the above stated reasons, and the simple fact that winning away in CONCACAF is an extremely tall task, there will be rough patches Tuesday night. They might even last 10, 15 or 20 minutes at a time, or longer. Trinidad and Tobago are no slouches, their Gold Cup showing this summer our best supporting evidence.
While the likes of Bradley, Jones, Altidore and Matt Besler have navigated the treacheries of CONCACAF before, the likes of Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin, and other youngsters — Nagbe, Matt Miazga, Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris — haven’t done so.
Tuesday’s qualifier in Port of Spain is easily the biggest test of the USMNT’s 2018 World Cup qualifying adventure thus far. It’s a winnable game, for sure, but also one that will require much improvement on anything we’ve seen the USMNT do the last six months.