In reality, this figures to be a fiercer test, regardless of the stakes, than what the team faced in Guatemala City and Havana. T&T plays a physical, rugged style that can destroy an opponent's attacking rhythm and batter away at its defense, and most important of all, the Soca Warriors are desperate for points. The T&T roster also features 11 players from the 2006 World Cup team. As the Brits say, they ain't mugs, and they didn't like being embarrassed, 3-0, in Bridgeview, Ill. last month, either.
It's unlikely that Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, et al, will be frolicking and gamboling about the Hasley Crawford Stadium once the game begins (8 p.m. ET, ESPN, Galavision). Instead, they'll be jumping over high tackles, ducking flying forearms and running their lungs out, for a while at least.
T&T and Guatemala are tied for second place. The Soca Warriors trail on goal difference but have the edge in the schedule -- they host the USA and Cuba, while the Chapines are away to Cuba and the USA.
For U.S. coach Bob Bradley, Wednesday's game will be a valuable observation of players' composure and poise as well as stamina and skill. Several members of his defensive corps are young and/or relatively inexperienced -- eight players were under-23 players on the Olympic team -- his options in midfield are limited, game-breakers Landon Donovanand Clint Dempsey have gone back to their clubs, and he named just three forwards to his 18-man squad.
Criticism of the "defensive" U.S. mindset in previous qualifiers melted away after the 6-1 rout of Cuba on Saturday, yet all the U.S. did differently was field a fired-up DaMarcus Beasley, a focused Landon Donovan, a sharp Brian Ching and a crafty Sacha Kljestan against a very weak team.
Beasley and Kljestan could be expected to spark the attack again, yet the Americans had best be ready to be charged, pushed and manhandled by a rough, robust team who will soar on the roars of the crowd if they can get the first goal.
Maurice Edu played in central defense at the Olympic Games and might get tested there again, but Bradley has seen little of Danny Califf despite inviting him to several camps, and Michael Orozco, who played out of position at left back at the Olympic Games, normally plays in the middle. Bradley may want and need Edu's strength and range in midfield against a very athletic array of T&T attackers. Or he can play with three true central defenders, use two wing backs, and use his midfielders and forwards in more or less their normal positions.
Altidore can certainly use his power to match that of the T&T defenders yet the pace of Davies (counter, baby, counter!) will be handy, too. Bradley may not start both of them, but both are likely to play, barring unforeseen developments such as injuries or ejections.
T&T will be missing Cyd Gray and Anthony Wolfe because of suspension. Forwards Cornell Glen and Stern John (both former MLS strikers) are battling hamstring injuries. Defensive breakdowns often plague T&T, yet against Guatemala it stubbornly held the game goalless despite losing Gray to his second caution in the 39th minute.
Legendary T&T midfielder Russell Latapy, still turning out at age 40, came off the field when Coach Francisco Maturana made a double switch in the aftermath of Gray's dismissal. In that game, defender Dennis Lawrence suffered a strained muscle but has been cleared to play, and the Americans will need to be wary of midfielder Chris Birchall, whose energetic work helped defuse Guatemala's pressure. Birchall didn't play when the U.S. beat T&T last month.
American fans may regard this qualifier more lightly than the ones that preceded it, but for the players sent onto the field wearing their nation's shirt, the demands will be much the same.
Goalkeepers --Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/ENG), Troy Perkins (Valerenga/NOR).
Defenders -- Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA), Danny Califf (FC Midtjylland/DEN), Frankie Hejduk (Columbus Crew), Michael Orozco (San Luis/MEX), Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock/GER), Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC).
Midfielders -- Freddy Adu (AS Monaco/FRA), DaMarcus Beasley (Glasgow Rangers/SCO), Brian Carroll (Columbus Crew), Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers/SCO), Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA), Danny Szetela (Brescia/ITA) Jose Francisco Torres (Pachuca/MEX).
Forwards -- Jozy Altidore (Villarreal/SPA), Charlie Davies (Hammarby/SWE), Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire).