COMMERCE CITY, Colorado — Athletes, in case you haven’t heard, prefer to take it one game at a time. It’s the industry standard. Don’t look too far ahead, or you may trip over whatever’s right beneath your feet. It can be tiring to hear about it over and over, but it's tough to deny that it’s an aphorism (and a cliche) that makes a lot of sense.
For the U.S. national team, Thursday evening’s World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago represents the here and now, and it’s a must-win. November’s brutal start to the CONCACAF Hexagonal, which began with a narrow loss to visiting Mexico and then a four-goal thumping in Costa Rica, left the Americans, now 1-2-1, with no margin for error in their remaining home games. Maximum points on U.S. soil are essential.
But no one can be expected to forget that just 70 hours or so after the end of Thursday’s match here at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, the U.S. will kick off at the most forbidding place on its quadrennial schedule—the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. That’s an unusually quick turnaround. Typically there’s at least three full days of rest between international games. But El Tri’s participation in the upcoming Confederations Cup necessitated the crunch. The USA has played two qualifiers in four days only twice in the modern era (since the 1990 World Cup cycle), and this is the first time both games will be at altitude.
“It does make a difference,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said here on Wednesday. “Any time you have less days to prepare, particularly physically it’s tough on the players.”
El Tri’s talent represents just one obstacle at a venue where the USA has never beaten the hosts in official competition. Mexico City’s air quality (or lack thereof), the massive and hostile crowd, and the altitude—Azteca is well over 7,000 feet above sea level—all are aligned against the visitors. Those obstacles have a significant influence on how the Americans prepare for that game. It’s no accident that coach Bruce Arena’s team has spent most of the past week-and-a-half here in the Mile High City, and it’s no coincidence that Thursday’s game will take place at DSGP.
Arena and his staff have been looking toward the Mexico game for months. It’s shaped their planning. But the players can’t afford to ignore custom and peer too far ahead and past a Trinidad team they must defeat. It’s a challenging and intriguing twist in what already has been a different sort of Hexagonal.
“There’s a balance and think the way it works is we came into camp pretty early on,” said Howard, who was in goal the last time the USA did the two-in-four gauntlet back in 2009. “Bruce made sure that we were just focused on ourselves. [Last Saturday’s friendly against Venezuela] was a test for us but it wasn’t as if we delved too deep into them. Then obviously, as soon as we got into camp the onus was on Trinidad and Mexico and we were trying to balance it. As we’ve gotten four days out from Trinidad then the focus has only been on them. It’s a tough balance for the coaching staff, but i think they’ve gotten it right.”
Arena said Wednesday that coaches have “made it clear” to the U.S. players that Trinidad (1-3-0) is the concern.
“I couldn’t care less about Mexico until the final whistle blows on Thursday night,” Arena said. “We will prepare for Mexico immediately after that.”
He admitted, however, that “I pretty well know what we’re going to do against Mexico.”
Working in the Americans’ favor is a roster that’s as talented and deep as any that’s been assembled. Midfielder Jermaine Jones is the only regular lost to injury, and Arena has options at every position. Howard said an intra-squad game between a first-choice 11 and the reserves would be a toss-up, and captain Michael Bradley lauded Arena’s “ability to find the right ways to put together teams.”
Both Howard and Bradley said that consistency and experience would play dividends as well. The former, at least, often was sacrificed under former coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“There’s less experimentation [under Arena],” Howard said. “You look at these guys walking around, every single guy contributes. They have a purpose here. Any of them can step on the field and we feel like we’re not really going to lose too much. In fact, in a lot of positions we gain with the fresh legs. This is a very, very balanced squad top to bottom.”
Said Bradley, “Obviously no two situations are ever exactly the same, but again we have enough guys who’ve been through this before, who understand the difficulties of playing these types of games. … All our focus is on [Trinidad] right now. As soon as the whistle blows tomorrow night after 90 minutes, then we’ll shift focus quickly to a big game on Saturday night.”
There almost certainly are U.S. players who will go 180 minutes over the next four days. It’s Arena’s job to worry about that. The men on the field have no choice but to focus on Trinidad.
“The Mexico game isn’t in our head at all,” said Christian Pulisic, who’s accustomed to quick turnarounds at Borussia Dortmund but hasn’t had to do it at altitude. “We’ll do anything we can to win [the Trinidad] game without thinking about Mexico. And then Mexico is a whole other story.”
Trinidad has been training in Colorado as well as it tries to get used to the conditions. The Soca Warriors have several key players coming from MLS clubs, which could help. Rapids defender Mekeil Williams, Seattle Sounders fullback Joevin Jones, Minnesota United midfielder Kevin Molino and Atlanta United striker Kenwyne Jones are among them. The USA is pretty evenly split between MLSers (15) and players from European or Mexican clubs (11). It’s been an adjustment for most, especially some of the latter.
“Of course it’s hard to breathe, to run. That’s why we came pretty early," said Fabian Johnson, who plays for Germany’s Borussia Mönchengladbach. "It just helped us to close the gap between where we are now and where we have to be on Thursday. I think we’re in a pretty good way.”
The Americans are 17-2-4 against the Soca Warriors all-time, and the only qualifying defeat came in a meaningless match back in ’08. Last fall, the USA routed T&T, 4-0, in Jacksonville, Florida. The hosts should win Thursday. Whether they will depends on their ability to play the game and the team in front of them. It’s hard enough going to Mexico. The USA doesn’t want to have to make the trip in desperate need of three points.
“It gets complicated with the altitude and the distance you travel as well,” Arena said of the upcoming qualifiers. “I think its similar to a club in Major League Soccer where you travel at times great distance in a short period of time and play two games. However, a typical club team doesn’t have the depth that a national team program should have. So I think whatever the circumstances may be in terms of guys getting ready top lay the second game, I think we have solutions.”