Trindad & Tobago has proven to be a tricky opponent throughout World Cup qualifying, which sets up Tuesday’s clash with the U.S. Men’s National Team to be one of the more intriguing heading into the Hexagonal phase.
The USMNT’s spot in the Hex is not yet secure but, barring a miraculous comeback from Guatemala, the U.S. will go through to the next round. There, they will join T&T, who are looking to claim the top spot in the group with a win or draw on Tuesday in Jacksonville.
For the U.S., a win would seal first place, and what many see as a more favorable start to the Hexagonal round. With that said, Jurgen Klinsmann has insisted he will be selecting a strong lineup, one built to win, not just avoid collapse. It will be necessary, as a T&T team led by several familiar faces should pose a threat to a USMNT backline in need of at least two changes.
Here’s a closer look at several storylines to watch out for when the U.S. takes on T&T on Tuesday night:
Few strikers in CONCACAF inspire as much fear as Kenwyne Jones, and for good reason.
The veteran forward has long been a focal point of the T&T attack and enters Tuesday’s match as the sixth-most prolific goalscorer in the country’s history. With nine Premier League seasons on his resume, the 31-year-old striker has done it at the highest level and is certainly a formidable assignment for any defender in the world.
Yet, for all of his talents, the gameplan for Jones is fairly simple. Jones’ size is one of his biggest advantages, as he looks to batter and bruise his way through inferior defenders. The key is matching strength with strength, forcing Jones to rely on his teammates via his hold up play. Players like Omar Gonzalez and Steve Birnbaum have the size to match Jones, and one of them , if not both, will almost certainly be named to the lineup with Jones in mind.
Even so, limiting Jones is not the end all, be all when it comes to limiting T&T. As Guatemala learned on Thursday, T&T can still be dangerous as long as those around Jones step up, especially when it comes to the Soca Warriors’ speed down the flanks.
Keeping Jones quiet may not be the only factor that will determine Tuesday’s match, but it’s a heck of a start. The U.S. will need to be prepared for a match that will be as rough as it is quick as the team locks horns with a player that should pose one or two threats even on his worst day.
RECONSTRUCTING THE DEFENSE
Heading into Tuesday’s match, we know that the U.S. backline will look very different then the one deployed in Friday’s win. Matt Besler and DeAndre Yedlin have gone home, leaving gaps to be plugged by whoever steps in.
Yedlin’s absence is the most concerning, especially given the USMNT’s lack of fullback depth. Facing a T&T side that insists on opening up matches, the U.S. would certainly have benefited from Yedlin’s pace and ability to track back and disrupt even the swiftest counter attacks. With players like Joevin Jones and Kevin Molino darting down the wings, the USMNT fullbacks need to be prepared for a busy night. Fabian Johnson is likely to man one of those spots, and the Bundesliga veteran should be counted on to do fairly well on his side. The other, is up for debate, as Michael Orozco, Kellyn Acosta, Geoff Cameron or even Steve Birnbaum could find themselves having to run quite a bit while handling a very quick T&T attack.
Replacing Besler is a bit easier, as the U.S. has several like-for-like replacements. Omar Gonzalez is a veteran option that is used to playing in games much bigger than Tuesday’s, while Birnbaum has shown himself fairly steady throughout his young USMNT career. Alongside them is Cameron, who sealed his spot as a starter during Copa America.
Regardless of who gets the nod, the USMNT defense is in for a challenge on Tuesday. T&T are among the most dangerous teams in CONCACAF play, and it will take a solid performance from all four manning the backline to keep the game from opening up early.
GOALKEEPING COMPETITION CONTINUES
Tim Howard took a back seat to Brad Guzan during the Copa America, but it appears that the competition for the USMNT’s No. 1 remains open, at least for the time being.
Guzan was given the nod in Friday’s win over St. Vincent & The Grenadines and put together a somewhat solid performance. Tested a few times on the day, Guzan was fairly steady although he, like the rest of the U.S. defense, was bailed out several times by offside calls. Now, heading into Tuesday’s match, Guzan slides back to the bench in favor of Howard, who makes just his third start of 2016.
Since joining the Colorado Rapids, Howard has certainly looked like his old self. A penalty kick stop of Javier Morales last week served as a highlight, as Howard has assimilate seamlessly since moving back to MLS.
In some ways, handing Howard the start on Tuesday tips Klinsmann’s hand a bit. The match against T&T had the potential to be a real do-or-die clash for the U.S., while St. Vincent was almost always going to be a walk in the park. Selecting Howard for what was almost certainly going to be the bigger game shows just how much faith the USMNT boss has in Howard, even if Guzan remains the team’s No. 1.
Now, Guatemala’s draw with T&T takes some of the stakes away, but the message has been sent: Howard remains in contention and, with the Hex looming, a big game on Tuesday could see the former Everton star make up some ground in the chase for the starting gig.
WOOD, ALTIDORE WORK OUT THE KINKS
Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore showed signs of a functioning partnership in Thursday’s win, but the pairing faces its first true test on Tuesday afternoon.
The two have now played together six times atop the U.S. attack, and both have done fairly well despite the initial discomforts of a growing partnership. Their most recent appearance on Friday saw each grab a goal, with Wood paving the way for his partner’s by drawing a penalty kick. For Wood’s opener, Altidore was crucial in the build-up, as the two held the ball wall throughout Friday’s match while creating several chances in the opening half.
T&T will be a bit different. The Soca Warriors backline will certainly be physical with the two USMNT forward, who remain the team’s best options when it comes to holding off a defender. While Wood’s finishing has been one of the stories of the USMNT’s past year, Altidore’s ability to fight through challenges and facilitate play should, in theory, prove invaluable as part of a two-striker set.
Both Wood and Altidore still need time to adjust when it comes to reading each other’s movements, but Friday was a good indication that it is coming. Look for the two throughout Tuesday’s match, one that should pose a bit more of a challenge to a partnership looking to take the next step.