By Ridge Mahoney
Doing the math for the Hexagonal can be intriguing, since 30 games played by six teams offer up a vast
variety of permutations, but so dire is the U.S. situation there’s little reason to look past its third game.
There will still be 21 points on offer when the final whistle blows
Friday night at Avaya Stadium, which is so close to San Jose International Airport that planes descend towards the runway just a few hundred away. By then the Americans will know if their World Cup
quest is on course.
“The spirit and mentality in training and around the group, both in January and now this week, has been excellent," said team captain Michael Bradley
after a training session Tuesday.
"We’re excited about the chance to step on the field in a big-time qualifier.”
From the January camp that included a 0-0 tie with
Serbia and 1-0 defeat of Jamaica, head coach Bruce Arena
named 13 of those players to his initial roster for the upcoming Honduras and Panama qualifiers, but personal situations and injuries
have forced several revisions.
Likely starting right back DeAndre Yedlin
was excluded from the original roster, and one of his possible replacements, Fabian Johnson
scratched last weekend after being injured in his club match for Borussia Moenchengladbach.
After a training session at Avaya Tuesday, players and assistant coach Dave Sarachan
“It’s not as cavalier as ‘next man up,’” says Sarachan, “but we’re so confident in the depth of this pool that you can go to
the next guy and just feel like maybe it’s not exactly as it might have been, but it’s still at a point where we can get the job done. We have a lot more options and this is group that
understands where we are and where we’re going, and we’re not getting too far ahead of anything.”
Also on Friday, Trinidad & Tobago hosts Panama and Mexico plays
Costa Rica. The Americans play in Panama City Tuesday and clearly that game is magnified if they don’t beat Honduras, but so focused is the group players brush off any mention of it or the fact
they have yet to play T&T, which like the USA is pointless.
Since the first day of January camp, Arena has challenged the players to concentrate on their play and the job at hand, and
when the players reconvened during the weekend they felt a decided shift in mood.
“Things are more serious now,” says midfielder Sacha Kljestan
, who left the January
camp after the Serbia game to join his wife for the birth of their second child. “We know these games have a lot at stake for us and we are not in a great position. But we know [next week] we
could be in a much better position if we do everything as a team, we stick together, we do everything we need to do in order to be successful.”
Kljestan was not on the original
roster but added when Bobby Wood
suffered an injury playing for Hamburg. Local hero Chris Wondolowski
got the call as a possible replacement for Jordan Morris
, hobbled by an ankle
problem incurred as the Sounders beat Kljestan’s Red Bulls, 3-1, last weekend.
Morris has been listed “day-to-day” and thus speculation is ramped up as to how the USA
will line up and whether Arena will deploy a forward partner for Jozy Altidore
or use him in a solo role. The pressure on a goalscorer, especially in a huge game like this one, is always
intense. Bradley believes his Toronto FC teammate will respond well.
“When big moments come, he’s a guy who leaves everything he has on the field for the group,” says
Bradley of Altidore, the fourth all-time leading U.S. scorer (37 goals). “He’s a guy who can make a difference in so many different ways. With quality, he can get us a goal. If it’s
a different kind of game he’s a guy who’s physicality and competitiveness makes such a difference. We’re going to count on him in a big way on Friday night.”
has played only three competitive matches for Seattle since being sidelined by a heart condition six months ago, and Arena’s reference to a “different role” for
him has been interpreted to be as a substitute, but the coach has also been emphasizing the need for boldness regardless of formation or personnel.
“We are where we are,” says
Bradley, “and now it’s about, on Friday night, beginning this process of moving ourselves back up the table and stepping on the field from the first minute and playing in a really
aggressive way that ultimately leaves no doubt as to who’s stepping off the field a winner. We’ve worked on a few different things about how we’d like to go about things so
that we can put them on their heels a little bit and be dangerous and tilt the bar in our favor.”
Arena has also been preaching patience, which against a massed foe is required for
as long as possible. It is possible to walk the fine line of assertiveness and restraint even in a pressure-packed scenario if the team leaders can steer the group through swings in momentum and
“Certainly patience is important,” says Bradley. “You understand when you play against a team that has a lot of guys behind the ball and lines are tight, the
understanding that things aren’t going to come easy, there’s not going to be tons of space, there’s not going to be -- I wouldn’t think -- a wide-open game.”
Kljestan notes one advantage of a large MLS contingent is players knowing more about each other based on their confrontations in league contests. Whether he’s in a hotel for a road game or at
home preparing for a match at Red Bull Arena, he’s tuned in to observe opponents who will also be teammates.
“I watch as many MLS games as I can,” he says. “One,
because I’ve always been a fan of the league, and two, I always want to know what my opponents are all about. I want to do some scouting. I feel like I know the league pretty well. For example,
watching a guy like [Darlington] Nagbe
every week and knowing what his tendencies are and how I can make him better when I play with him and things like that. Knowing their tendencies is only
going to help us a team. It’s pretty amazing to see the parallels and the way we come together and the way we stick together. The way we’re going to play as a team is very exciting.”