COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – The United States men’s national team resumes World Cup qualifying here on Thursday against Trinidad and Tobago in what is, without a doubt, another must-win home game for the U.S.
Never mind that the Soca Warriors sit in last place in CONCACAF’s six-team final round of qualification for Russia 2018. The Americans reside in fourth place, a spot that would earn them a playoff against Asia’s fifth-place finisher, but they’re still stuck playing catch-up due to their historically poor start to “the Hexagonal.”
Ah yes, the mess that Jurgen Klinsmann left behind. It continues to haunt the USMNT because of the deep hole created by consecutive opening losses last November – first at home against arch-rival Mexico and then in embarrassing fashion at Costa Rica. The disaster led to Klinsmann’s ouster and made sure his successor would be digging his way out all the way to the final qualifiers in October.
Which is why a victory and three more precious points – taking the U.S. to seven points after Game No. 5 of 10 – is absolutely mandatory against T&T. With the quick turnaround to Sunday’s Mexico rematch, which was moved up to help El Tri’s preparation for the upcoming Confederations Cup in Russia, Thursday’s match has become the higher priority and most winnable game of the two considering the U.S. has beaten the Mexicans just once at Estadio Azteca.
Head coach Bruce Arena wouldn’t divulge his plans on how he’ll approach the Mexico game on just two days of rest – “We’re going to show up and play,” he joked in Wednesday’s news conference – but it’s expected he will field his first-choice lineup against Trinidad and Tobago, then see who has recovered enough to play 90 more exhausting minutes at an even higher altitude in Mexico City (elevation: 7,200 feet).
So Arena really has no choice but to go all in for the victory against T&T and rely mostly on reserves against El Tri.
“We certainly understand the significance of this game,” Arena said of Thursday’s match at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “We firmly believe we have to win the game.”
Because there is no margin for error for the U.S. Every home game at this point comes with the highest sense of urgency.
Because home victories against Trinidad, Costa Rica in September and Panama in October are absolutely necessary to achieve the magic number of points for World Cup qualification. Winning those three matches would lift the Americans to 13 points, the average for the last three fourth-place finishers in the Hexagonal. But to finish third and gain the last automatic berth, the U.S. will need, at the very least, road draws against Mexico, Honduras and Trinidad to get to 16 points – the average total of the last three third-place finishers in the Hex.
Arena remains a little annoyed by the predicament he inherited from Klinsmann. He criticized the lack of rationale for how Klinsmann built the USMNT talent pool with “players called in for whatever reason from everywhere,” according to Goal.com.
But eventually, you can’t blame your predecessor anymore. At some point, the problems become your problems. And now that Arena has been on the job for over six months and has waited through injuries to finally field a full-strength squad, the responsibility of leading the U.S. to an eighth straight World Cup will soon become his and his alone.
For now, it’s a shared burden, still marred by the aftermath of disappointment but buoyed by the hope that lies ahead.
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.