Seldom in the past two decades has the second game of a World Cup qualifying semifinal round caused most consternation among U.S. fans, but anxiety levels are somewhat high heading into the match Tuesday against Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain (6:30 pm. ET, BeIN Sports, NBC Universo).
Both teams opened the round Friday by winning; the Americans cruised past St. Vincent & The Grenadines, 6-1, and T&T came home from Guatemala City with a 2-1 victory that puts the Soca Warriors in a great spot to advance even if they don’t win Tuesday.
Just what a convincing U.S. defeat of a very weak opponent means really can’t be known until after the match Tuesday. T&T has only qualified for one World Cup, in 2006, but it has twice beaten the U.S. at home in World Cup qualifiers.
This band of T&T players isn’t nearly as famous as past squads that included Dwight Yorke and Stern John and Russell Latapy, and none of its players are employed by big clubs, yet it plays a robust game sprinkled with guile and the unexpected. Its goalkeeping and defense are suspect, but as its last two games against Mexico showed -- a 4-4 tie in the Gold Cup and a 3-3 deadlock in a September friendly -- it can get after teams and punish mistakes.
1. Points rather than style points are on the line.
The Americans are in the weakest of the three semifinal round groups and after facing T&T play home-and-away matches with Guatemala in March. Only a complete collapse in those games can endanger its advancement to the Hexagonal. A tie in Port of Spain would ordinarily be roundly celebrated, but so harsh has been criticism about head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the team’s play the past five months critics will be ready to pounce on any perceived flaw.
Still, the players won’t feel any great compulsion to do anything they wouldn’t do in any other away qualifier: stay organized and tight at the back, keep as much possession as possible, avoid needless yellow cards, and look for opportunities during the run of play and on set pieces. What they cannot do -- and have been prone to do -- is cough up balls in the middle third that the Soca Warriors can scoop up and take to goal. T&T is likely to press and harass Michael Bradley and his central partner – perhaps Kyle Beckerman? – whenever they can, and it’s imperative that players about to be put under pressure have viable options other than whacking the ball long.
T&T’s attack is potent and both goals against Guatemala were gems: Khaleem Hyland curled a shot from outside the penalty area that nicked the inside of the post on its way into the net, and veteran striker Kenwyne Jones struck a superb volley of a diagonal cross into the top far corner.
Every Concacaf nation is pumped up when it plays the U.S., and T&T will be no exception. T&T has three away points in the bag and strong momentum of that well-earned victory. It will be full of energy and confidence.
Klinsmann may be feeling external pressure to upgrade the team's play and correct its deficiencies, but in this game there's more pressure to not lose.
2. MLS players sparked T&T victory.
The score in Guatemala was 0-0 early in the second half when head coach Stephen Hart brought in two MLS-based subs: Kevan George of Columbus and Cordell Cato of San Jose. Within five minutes of their entry, T&T took the lead when Hyland veered into the middle and skipped home a low shot, and in the 80th minute another MLS player -- Joevin Jones of the Fire -- lofted the cross from the left wing that Jones, who plays in England for Cardiff City, belted into the net. Jones’ Chicago teammate Daniel Cyrus started and played the full game for T&T.
“You have to give Trinidad & Tobago a lot of respect,” said Klinsmann. “They’re known for their physical game and known for being strong. A lot of their players play in the English Championship and obviously playing at home they have a lot of confidence, and they want to prove to the world that they’re a good team. Over the years, they’ve improved themselves on the technical side and on the mental side as well.”
A sizable MLS contingent on the T&T roster gives players on both teams plenty of data as to strengths and weaknesses, temperament, idiosyncrasies, etc. Also on the T&T roster is Trevin Caeser of USL club Austin Aztex.
3. Hart knows the USA.
The T&T coach is a native of that country and represented it as a player seven times. Prior to taking over his homeland, he worked for many years in the Canadian program, starting out with the U-17s in 2004 and serving in various roles, including technical director, U-20 head coach and interim head coach of the senior team, before accepting the job full-time in 2009. He left in 2012 and took over T&T the following year.
As coach of Canada, he’s faced the USA twice. The USA beat Canada, 2-0, in Detroit during the 2011 Gold Cup, and in 2012 the teams played a 0-0 tie in Toronto. Of the players in the current U.S. squad in those games, he coached against Tim Howard, Tim Ream, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones. Altidore scored against Canada in the Gold Cup match. Under the goalkeeping rotation system recently announced by Klinsmann, Howard will play just his second game of the year for the U.S.
Hart says thwarting the U.S. prowess on set plays is among T&T’s main priorities. On Friday, the Americans scored three of their six goals on set pieces: Altidore and Geoff Cameron headed in corner kicks and Fabian Johnson scored on a free kick that deflected off the defensive wall.
“That’s a big part of their game now,” Hart said to concacaf.com. “They are a big team. We have to be aware of that and match them in that department.” Hart believes T&T must cut down on providing such chances to the U.S. T&T committed 16 infractions and conceded 10 corners in Guatemala City.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/ENG), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Tim Howard (Everton/ENG).
DEFENDERS (8): Ventura Alvarado (Club America/MEX), Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/ENG), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moenchengladbach/GER), Matt Miazga (NY Red Bulls), Michael Orozco (Tijuana/MEX), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG), Brek Shea (Orlando City).
MIDFIELDERS (7): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City), Miguel Ibarra (Leon/MEX), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland/ENG).
FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Alan Gordon (LA Galaxy), Jordan Morris (Stanford Univ.), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin/GER), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy).
Trinidad & Tobago Roster:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Marvin Phillip (Point Fortin Civic), Jan-Michael Williams (Central FC).
DEFENDERS (8): Radanfah Abu Bakr (Koge/DEN), Sheldon Bateau (Krylia Sovetov Samara/RUS), Daneil Cyrus (Chicago Fire), Aubrey David (Shakhter Karagandy/KAZ), Justin Hoyte (Dagenham & Redbridge/ENG), Yohance Marshall (Murcielagos/MEX), Carlyle Mitchell (Seoul E-Land/KOR), Mekeil Williams (Antigua/GUA).
MIDFIELDERS (9): Andre Boucaud (Dagenham & Redbridge/ENG), Trevin Caesar (unattached), Cordell Cato (San Jose Earthquakes), Kreon Cummings (North East Stars), Kevan George (Columbus Crew SC), Neveal Hackshaw (North East Stars), Khaleem Hyland (Westerlo/BEL), Joevin Jones (Chicago Fire/USA), Lester Peltier (Slovan Bratislava/SLK).
FORWARDS (3): Jonathan Glenn (Breiðablik UBK/ICE), Kenwyne Jones (Cardiff City/WAL), Willis Plaza (Central FC).