• Tuesday's field conditions and an opponent with nothing to lose will force Bruce Arena to make some tactical changes in order for the USA to secure its ticket to the World Cup.
By Brian Straus
October 10, 2017

Bruce Arena made a few waves Monday when he invited “one of these hotshot teams from Europe” to experience CONCACAF’s quirky World Cup qualifying competition.

“This is very challenging,” Arena said. “This is like survival of the fittest. They could do one of those TV shows on this.”

Speaking of waves….

The pictures were striking, and they went appropriately viral. Parts of the field and track at Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad–where the USA will meet the Soca Warriors Tuesday evening in the final game of CONCACAF's Hexagonal–had been drenched by heavy rain and looked more suited for the National Aquatic Centre located just next door than the site of a World Cup qualifier. Some players forded the moat on piggy-back. Others waded through barefoot. Even if the pitch drains as expected and the match starts on schedule, the environment still will be far from ideal.

“It definitely changes the way the game’s going to look. It’s going to be a slow game, probably a little sloppy,” Arena said. “It won’t look like a real good game with the conditions and all … it’s going to look a heck of a lot different than the game we just played.”

The game they just played was Friday’s demolition of Panama at Orlando City Stadium. There, the conditions were pretty much perfect. The field was pristine. The crowd was loud and supportive. And an American squad desperate to get its World Cup campaign back on track was in sync, dynamic and ruthless in a 4-0 rout.

The USA (3-3-3) remains third in the Hex and could be forced into next month’s intercontinental playoff or eliminated from the World Cup altogether with a loss to last-place T&T (1-8-0). But its attack is the most prolific in the six-team group. And that’s due almost entirely to the 12 goals scored in home victories over T&T, Panama and Honduras—the only three qualifiers in which Arena has deployed a 4-4-2 with Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley in the middle.

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Home hasn’t provided all the usual comforts in the current cycle, but it’s still where the USA has found most of its offensive footing. It’s been a different story on the road, where the Americans have managed only three goals in four games. That’s the worst output since the 2001 Hex, when Arena’s team finished third–just three points ahead of Honduras.

Defending on the road has been decent during Arena’s second stint, but the scoring has sputtered. And Monday’s pictures from Couva illustrate part of the reason why. CONCACAF conditions often don’t lend themselves to the sort of attacking football the USA wants to play, and it hasn’t fully adjusted in the current cycle. The Americans knew they’d be on the back foot in Mexico City. The heat and high, thick grass slowed them in Honduras, and the bumpy field and some bumpy fouls knocked them off kilter in Panama City. Now, they’ll have to deal with a “heavy and mushy” surface at Ato Boldon—Arena’s words—that could disrupt their rhythm and likely will be conducive to longer, more direct passes. And that isn’t Pulisic’s ideal creative environment.

“We’ve been to these countries, to this part of the world, [enough] to know there’s always something,” Bradley said Monday, according to The Washington Post. “It doesn’t faze us. It’s the reality of qualifying for a World Cup for us. You take it for what it is. You get a look laugh about it and ultimately, make sure in no way it throws off what we’re trying to do and what we are all about.”

So they’ve had their laugh about Lake Couva. Now it’s time to solve the problem. A draw is almost certainly enough on Tuesday, but as Arena said, “It’s never easy going into a game and saying we have to play for a point.” It’s almost impossible, psychologically and tactically, to aim for and then land on that razor’s edge. You play to win, and that means you’ve got to get a goal or two. And figuring out how to score underwater, or anywhere in CONCACAF for that matter, has proven to be no easy task.

“It’s not easy. Nothing’s given to you,” Pulisic said Monday of the qualifying gauntlet. “You go out on the road and play in tough conditions. [Tuesday] isn’t not going to be easy in Trinidad. You never know what to expect, that’s what I’d say. You’ve got to be ready for whatever.”

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The temptation might be to go with what’s worked at home: a 4-4-2 with Pulisic pulling the strings behind a pair of frontrunners. But CONCACAF road games are different beasts. The build-up and combination play are much tougher on a poor pitch, the opponent is more likely to seek out and exploit numerical advantages in midfield and a referee might be more lenient on a less hospitable host. The Americans seem to believe that Trinidad, although eliminated, might try to take the game to their guests. There are some fresher players in coach Dennis Lawrence’s team who may feel they have nothing to lose. In fact, T&T had a second-half lead over Mexico on Friday.

“They’re going to try and play. They’re going to push numbers forward, so we have to gameplan for them the right way,” center back Matt Besler said.

Arena added: “They have no pressure on them. I think they’re going to play with a lot of freedom. They can be very aggressive. No one is going to be suspended of the first game of the World Cup, so they can have an aggressive mentality.”

On Friday against Panama, Arena guessed that Pulisic, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood—with Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola in support—would exert enough pressure and cause enough damage to allow Michael Bradley to handle defensive/holding midfield duties on his own. It worked. Away from home, however, Arena has been more conservative. He partnered Bradley with box-to-box midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kellyn Acosta in Panama and Honduras—which pushed Pulisic to the right flank—and went with five backs at the Azteca. The USA managed a 1-1 tie in all three games. Barring a miracle (the bad kind), that would be enough to get the Americans to Russia.

But it’s hard to plan for a tie.

“We’re going out and trying to win the game,” Arena claimed.

He’s gotten almost everything right during his 10-1-6 stretch at the helm (apart from the Costa Rica game) and on Tuesday, Arena will have to figure out how to put Pulisic in position to do damage without leaving him isolated on the wing—and without compromising team shape against an opponent that’ll likely be assertive and direct. It’s a problem Arena has yet to solve.

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In the manager’s favor: Pulisic’s skill and arguably the most effective trio of forwards (Altidore, Wood and Clint Dempsey) the USA has had in a generation; midfielders like Acosta, Dax McCarty and Alejandro Bedoya who would be comfortable both as a link between Bradley and Pulisic and doing some defensive dirty work; time spent training and playing in a 3-5-2, which would allow Pulisic to remain central while providing a sturdy presence in back that can absorb the long, high balls surely headed the visitors’ way.

Challenges facing Arena: Apart from the final frantic minutes in Honduras, the USA has had difficulty playing through tactical or physical discomfort during the Hex; if Pulisic is battered (he took a knock to his calf against Panama) or unable to find the ball, the attack loses its primary catalyst (see the Bradley-Nagbe pairing against Costa Rica); if Arena prefers four in the back but wants another body in midfield, that means a 4-2-3-1 and the likelihood that two of the aforementioned three forwards sit; and the field.

Did we mention the field?

"[It’ll] impact your footing, your passing, your running, etc., etc.,” Arena said. “We’ve played on not-perfect fields elsewhere. It’s all part of it … The team is ready to play. They come in here with confidence, yet they realize this is going to be very challenging. Trinidad is going to give their best effort.”

The USA must respond in kind. T&T’s record is poor. But CONCACAF road games have a tendency to level the choppy, sopping playing field. The Americans are in position to qualify but have left themselves with almost no margin for error. They’ll have to find a way to click in Couva.

“It wasn’t a good start [to the Hex]. We had to respond in a big way,” Bradley said after the Panama win. “We’ve played 15 games in qualifying and now we’ve got a chance in 90 minutes, in Trinidad to finish the job and make sure what we’re on the plane to Russia. And I think the motivation will be huge to go down there and do whatever it takes.”

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