The long journey to Russia 2018 technically started last week for the United States, but World Cup qualifying truly gets under way tonight against Trinidad & Tobago. The USMNT trounced St. Vincent & the Grenadines in St. Louis, while the Soca Warriors delivered a huge win for their own hopes by going to Guatemala and taking all three points. For the US, while this may not be the hottest atmosphere they'll ever face, it is definitely the best team they're going to see in this round of CONCACAF's qualifying cycle.
Key player: Michael Bradley
The Soca Warriors are in all likelihood going to play some kind of 451 in an attempt to jam up the works for the USMNT, force turnovers, and then counter with speed down the flanks. Between the defensive numbers the US will face, the need to smartly control the tempo of play, and the high cost of easy giveaways in a game that sets up like this one does, the US needs Il Generale to boss this game for 90 minutes in central midfield.
My personal hope, particularly since Jermaine Jones is carrying a muscular injury that makes starting him a big risk, is that we see a three-man central midfield consisting of Bradley, Kyle Beckerman, and Darlington Nagbe. I doubt that will happen, though, and instead sense that Bradley will be at the point of a diamond midfield where at least one (and possibly both) of the "wide" midfield shuttlers will be straight-up wingers. If that's true, he needs to make sure to adjust his positioning accordingly; otherwise, there will be acres of space for Trinidad & Tobago to shift the ball to the flanks and force isolated defenders to go 1v1 with explosive speedsters. Which, I probably don't have to tell you, is bad.
Going forward, Bradley will need to dictate the pace of the game. However, it would also be prudent to mix in some long-range shots. If T&T head coach Stephen Hart sticks with Jan-Michael Williams in goal, there's a real vulnerability that needs to be put to good use. While Williams has good organizational abilities and tends to make good decisions, his reflexes are slow and his judgment of well-struck long distance shots is very spotty. Throw in a tendency to block rather than catch, and Bradley's shooting may be a major factor in this game if he can put himself in good spots.
Key question: Is the USMNT ready for a real test?
With all due respect to St. Vincent & the Grenadines, their best player may be a winger for Seattle's USL team. They were very much in the class of Cuba from this summer's Gold Cup: A totally overmatched side fielding several amateur players. The US won 6-1 and really didn't have to break a sweat over the last 50 or so minutes to do so.
Trinidad & Tobago is more in line with teams like Jamaica, Honduras, Panama, and Haiti. You know, the four teams that outplayed the US for at least portions (and in Jamaica's case, the large majority) of their meetings in CONCACAF's premier competition. While these games were going on, the Soca Warriors went toe-to-toe with Mexico in a 4-4 classic during the group stage. They actually won Group C over El Tri and technically did not lose a game in the competition (Panama knocked them out via penalty kicks in the quarterfinals).
Hart has brought his team a long way, and their 2-1 win in Guatemala - a side notorious for testing the mental strength and discipline of their opponents - underlines that this is not the typical happy-go-lucky T&T. There's a strong belief about this edition, and they have several MLS players in their ranks as well as experienced striker Kenwyne Jones to provide the talent.
Throw in the long history of the US playing close games in Port of Spain, and this is going to be a significant test for the Americans. Are they prepared to force a respectable CONCACAF side to have to play up to a supposed giant's level, or will they continue to hand over shot after shot and chance after chance like they did in the Gold Cup? We may learn quite a bit about how straightforward qualifying for the Hexagonal is going to be in these 90 minutes.
Match previews: Stars and Stripes FC talked goalkeepers, DeAndre Yedlin, and the 433 in their preview. Here's USsoccer.com's collection of pre-game reading material, while Matt Doyle and ex-MLSer Calen Carr broke today's game down in this (unfortunately autoplaying, why MLS why?!) video at MLSsoccer.com.
Match date/time: Tuesday 11/17, 6:30pm Eastern. Steve Goff of the Washington Post says the actual kickoff will be at 6:36pm:
Specific kickoff time for #USMNT at T&T Tuesday: 6:36 ET. (beIN Sports, NBC Universo)— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) November 16, 2015
Venue: Hasely Crawford Stadium (Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago)
TV: beIN Sport USA (English), NBC Universo (Spanish)
Online: beIN Sport Connect USA (English), NBC Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Treat this as today's gamethread as well.
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