For a country that loves dramatic finishes, the U.S. Men’s National Team has sure left it late.
The USMNT heads into its final game in the Hex at Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday evening with its World Cup hopes still up for grabs, although crucially the U.S. holds its own destiny. A win and they’re in. A draw, and anything but the most unlikely scenario puts them through to the next round.
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But a loss, coupled with wins by Panama and Honduras at home? That could be the dagger for this USMNT.
The pressure of a nation is weighing on the squad as they take the field Tuesday, hopefully not comically surrounded by a moat and waterlogged by heavy rains like it was Monday.
Coincidentally, the U.S. has been here before. The last time the USMNT didn’t have qualifying wrapped up by the last match day was in 1989 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, when Paul Caligiuri saved the day for the U.S. with a 30th minute goal that sent the USA to the World Cup.
This time around, the Soca Warriors and Yanks will reconvene a few miles down the road at the Ato Boldon Stadium.
Unlike the 4-0 win over Panama, the U.S. won’t be playing on a pristine pitch with a fast surface. If anything, expect the ball to bobble more and take unexpected hops while players try to run through the heavy surface, as described by Bruce Arena. This calls for tactics closer to that of the Honduras away match, or perhaps even the Mexico away match where the U.S. came away with a 1-1 draw.
“It definitely changes the way the game is going to look,” Arena said. “It’s going to be a slow game, probably a little bit sloppy. A little bit different than we’ve seen in any of the qualifying games. But we’ll have to adapt to the conditions of the field.”
On the USMNT’s side is history. The last time the USA played a World Cup qualifier in Trinidad and Tobago, they held on for a scoreless draw. The time before that, a 1-0 win in 2009 (Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore started that night).
Overall, the U.S. is 18-2-4 against the Soca Warriors with a 13-1-3 clip in World Cup qualifying. During the side’s last meeting in June in the altitude of Denver, T&T hung in with the U.S. until the second half, when two Christian Pulisic strikes put the game out of reach.
While the conditions will be different, perhaps if the U.S. can control possession or press high up the field, they can tire out Trinidad again and exploit it in the second half.
“Now the pressure is on for us to at least get a point, and we’re not here to get one point, we’re here to get three points,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “I think that’s the mentality and I think going into this game it’s going to be extremely important to remember that.
“The conditions are going to be tough but I think in the end we’ll be able to do what we do best, and that’s take care of business.”
One of the noticeable traits of this current USMNT squad is its experience. 12 players on the roster have made 11 or more World Cup qualifying appearances, led by Clint Dempsey with 42. Centerback pair Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler went through the last round of qualifying and helped lead the U.S. at the World Cup, while Bradley, Altidore and Howard have been mainstays for the past two World Cup cycles.
That experience, especially playing against a young opponent in Trinidad and Tobago with nothing to lose, could give the Americans a leg up on the road in a crunch qualifier.
“It happens throughout one’s career where you play on these type of fields where the ball doesn’t roll, it gets stuck in water,” Gonzalez said. “You just have to play through it. The circumstances are going to be difficult tomorrow but we’re playing to go to a World Cup.
“You have to put it behind us, we have to control what we can control, and that’s our alertness, our competitiveness, how aggressive we are, and the rest we have to roll with it and do what we can to win the game.”