COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) U.S. coach Bruce Arena looked at the rosy side of a surprise draw with Venezuela in an exhibition game over the weekend.
“Good exercise for us,” he said Monday.
The Americans are still getting used to Arena’s system, along with playing at a higher altitude. But there’s not much time left, with a World Cup qualifier on Thursday in Commerce City against Trinidad and Tobago.
Neither team has margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings with four points and Trinidad and Tobago last with three points. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.
“They have to understand the things we’re trying to do, and I don’t think we’re already there,” said Arena, whose team settled for a 1-1 draw with Venezuela on Saturday in Sandy, Utah. “The examples of Saturday’s game is good, to show some of the issues we have and correct them and be ready for Thursday.”
The team elected to switch things up Monday, going with an afternoon practice instead of being put through its paces in a morning session. Anything to that?
“We just wanted to have a meeting in the morning,” Arena said. “Meeting, practice, have lunch and off the rest of the day. Wasn’t rocket science.”
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Figuring out what system the Americans may utilize could be, though. At times against Venezuela, the squad employed a 4-4-2 formation. At other times, it was a different alignment.
“It’s better for us if the opposition doesn’t know how we’re going to play, how we’re going to start the game,” midfielder Fabian Johnson said. “It’s positive for us that we have two systems that we can also switch during the game.”
Now, they just need everyone healthy. Central defender John Brooks left Saturday’s game with a bruised quadriceps muscle. Arena doesn’t know if he will be available Thursday, let alone three days later when the team plays in Mexico. But there’s also this: Forward Jozy Altidore is getting up to speed after reporting late to training camp because of his brother’s wedding.
Arena has gradually increased the tempo at practice to get his team acclimatized to the higher elevation. It’s 5,200 feet in Commerce City and a lung-searing 7,820 feet at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The elevation for the exhibition game was around 4,450 feet.
“Of course, it’s hard to breathe, to run,” said Johnson, who recently extended his contract with Borussia Moenchengladbach. “The first couple of days, you can tell in warmups and stuff. You’re breathing hard. But you get used to it.”
Arena certainly liked the play of 18-year-old Christian Pulisic on Saturday as the midfielder scored the tying goal for the Americans in the 61st minute. Asked how he’s come along over the last six months, Arena responded: “Six months older.”
“He’s stronger physically, mentally,” Arena said. “The young ones make more improvement. I don’t think (DaMarcus) Beasley and (Clint) Dempsey are going to get much better in six months.”
Johnson met with Arena several times in Germany to discuss what’s expected of him. Johnson likes his responsibilities in the midfield, a position that’s relatively unsettled. Sebastian Lletget started against Honduras in March, scoring the opening goal, but injured his left foot in the 6-0 home win and will be sidelined four to six months.
“We have to create more chances, use the space a little bit better,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re going to try to do on Thursday.”