U.S. set up Hexagonal date with Mexico after topping Trinidad and Tobago 4-0
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The U.S. advanced to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, beating Trinidad and Tobago at EverBank Field on Jozy Altidore's two goals and one each from Sacha Kljestan and Paul Arriola. Here are three quick thoughts following the match.
1. The win sets up a home date against Mexico
Since arriving in Jacksonville, the U.S. players insisted they wanted to open the final stage of qualifying at home against El Tri. They proved it by dismantling the Soca Warriors.
The visitors came out flying, which was expected as Stephen Hart's team had already punched its ticket to the Hexagonal with a game to spare. But while the hosts bent a bit in the opening stages as T&T applied pressure, the U.S. didn't break. And then the Americans began to gain control of the match with about 15 minutes to play in the opening half.
Kljestan's 44th-minute opener sent the Americans into the locker room with the advantage, and after the intermission it was total domination. Altidore's four-minute brace effectively killed off the match with a half hour still to play. It was the perfect way for coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team to head into the Hex against its biggest rival.
2. Pulisic lives up to the billing in first start
Almost as soon as last week's U.S. win at St. Vincent and the Grenadines was over, Klinsmann did his best to convince anyone who would listen that despite Christian Pulisic's two goals against the Vincy Heat, Tuesday's tilt against T&T might not be the time to thrust the 17-year-old into the starting lineup. Yet when the team sheets came out an hour before the match, there was Pulisic lined up on the left wing.
Klinsmann made five other changes, too. But clearly, the buzz in the air was because of the precocious young Borussia Dortmund midfielder. And he was up to the challenge right from the start, taking up good positions using his silky skills to repeatedly evade the Soca Warriors' imposing corps of defenders. No, Pulisic didn't score, but he went close three times -- including a 31st-minute shot on which the ball hit both posts but somehow stayed out -- and he assisted on Altidore's second goal that put the match out of reach. Arriola's tally came off a rebound of a Pulisic shot, too.
His passes didn't always come off, but the intelligence and quality the youngster showed throughout was plain for all to see. Even his defensive work was solid. Pulisic became the youngest player to start a qualifier for the U.S., breaking the mark set by then-18-year-old Altidore against Cuba in 2008. No doubt it was Pulisic's first start of many.
3. Kljestan makes case to stick around
If any player boosted his national-team stock more than Pulisic in the past two games, it was the New York Red Bulls veteran. Kljestan wasn't even on the original roster for this double fixture; despite leading MLS in assists this season, he was added to Klinsmann's roster only after it became clear Jermaine Jones (knee) wouldn't be able to go. It was his first call-up in more than two years.
A one goal-and-two-assist performance off the bench last week earned him the start Tuesday, and his strike on the stroke of halftime stood up as the winner. For a player who has always struggled to make an impact in his many, many chances at the international level, Kljestan absolutely made the most of his opportunity this time.
The U.S. stands to benefit from his creativity in the coming months, too, especially if Clint Dempsey remains out indefinitely as doctors monitor his irregular heartbeat. Even if Dempsey and Jones are able to return for next month's friendly matches at Cuba and in Washington, D.C. against New Zealand, Kljestan has done more than enough to stick around.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.