U.S. needs to clear Trinidad & Tobago hurdle before thinking about Mexico
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- In most double-fixture periods during World Cup qualifying, a game against archrival Mexico would be deemed to be the more crucial of the two matches for the U.S. It's not only a chance to reestablish bragging rights, but a victory helps generate precious momentum.
But the current schedule -- which sees the U.S. host Trinidad and Tobago outside Denver on Thursday, followed by a visit to Mexico on Sunday -- is nothing close to a normal pair of games for the team.
While the Americans' four-point haul during the most recent set of qualifiers counted as job done, the current Hexagonal standings show the U.S. is in fourth place, level on points with Honduras. Granted, it's significantly better than propping up the table, which is where the U.S. found itself before the March qualifiers. But fourth place is still a far from a comfortable position considering it would only be good enough to make a playoff against a team from the Asian Football Confederation.
The Americans' rather feeble World Cup qualifying history in Mexico -- they have managed only two draws and no victories in 14 attempts -- makes the match against T&T beyond crucial in terms of the U.S. team's qualification effort.
On the surface, the impulse to look ahead would appear to be strong given the intensity of the rivalry with El Tri. But to a man, the U.S. team insists its focus is on the Soca Warriors.
"The Mexico game isn't in our head at all yet," midfielder Christian Pulisic said. "It doesn't even start until we beat Trinidad."
The seductive call of complacency has other sources, however. The U.S. has lost to the Soca Warriors only once in World Cup qualifying history, a 2-1 defeat during the 2010 cycle when the Americans had already clinched qualification to the Hex. And it was just last September that the U.S. hammered T&T 4-0, though in that case it was the Soca Warriors who had already clinched passage.
The U.S. does appear to have plenty going for it. The team is as healthy as it has been in ages, and has been practicing at altitude for 10 days, the better to prepare not only for Thursday's match but also for the Mexico encounter that will be played at 7,200 feet above sea level. There is still a minor doubt about John Brooks, who suffered a bruised right quad in last weekend's 1-1 friendly draw with Venezuela. At his pregame news conference, manager Bruce Arena would only say that Brooks has been training with the team. But everyone else should be available, including Jozy Altidore, who in the past has absolutely torn apart T&T. Five of his 16 World Cup qualifying goals have come against the Soca Warriors.
Not all is completely well in the U.S. camp in terms of the team's form, however. The Americans looked particularly vulnerable on set pieces against Venezuela, continuing a trend that has plagued the U.S. throughout World Cup qualifying. The U.S. attack looked disjointed in the first 45 minutes of that friendly as well, and while the hosts improved in the second half, how much of their struggles can be attributed to altitude acclimatization is an open question.
Arena said there would be some tweaks to his team's attacking approach, though he declined to elaborate.
"Just improve the things we want to do tactically on the field," he said. "I think the game against Venezuela was a real exhibition game, and we were a little bit sloppy, certainly in the attack and not being able to create the kind of chances that we were capable of creating. There's a few changes that we've made that will certainly make it look better [Thursday] night. I'm hoping those slight adjustments we're making are going to produce some increased opportunities at goal."
Altidore coming in for Bobby Wood seems one likely change, but the overall goal for the U.S. remains getting into the attacking third more quickly, the better to let Pulisic weave his magic. Otherwise, it will be left trying to break down a T&T defense with 10 men behind the ball.
T&T is one of the few CONCACAF teams that matches up well with the U.S. in terms of athleticism. Granted, discipline and mentality have been issues in past game against the U.S., but on their day the Soca Warriors have the personnel to trouble the Americans, especially through a trio of MLS players in Atlanta United forward Kenwyne Jones, Minnesota United midfielder Kevin Molino and Seattle Sounders defender/midfielder Joevin Jones (no relation to Kenwyne).
"You would imagine that [T&T] will be pretty determined to keep things tight and make things hard on us," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "And then when they win balls be looking to play things up to [Kenwyne Jones]. He's strong, he holds things well, he does a really good job of making contact first so it's not easy to win balls cleanly. Then obviously they have two guys in Molino and Joevin Jones who a lot of us know very well, who on the dribble with their speed and technical ability can put you on the back foot. We'll have to know where these guys are, understand quickly how exactly they are playing and make sure we take care of things in a good way."
Doing that will likely see the U.S. climb further up the Hexagonal standings, and see it heading to the Azteca full of confidence.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.