U.S. out to hand Grenada heavy defeat
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Road to Germany starts on Sunday.
Yet, World Cup qualifying could all be over next weekend if the U.S. National Team plays poorly in one -- or both -- matches against Grenada in their CONCACAF first stage home-and-home series.
That's how important the next two matches are. And the reason why Bruce Arena has assembled his A-squad to not only defeat Grenada, but score enough goals to make the second leg as stress-free as possible since the side with the most aggregate goals will advance to the semifinal round of qualifying that starts on August 18.
That's why the U.S. won't let up should it go ahead by four or five goals on Sunday. Instead, the Americans will try to win as convincingly as possible to give the Spice Boyz not a smidgen of hope going into the match on June 20 in St. George's.
"This format is unique to us, we've never been in it in World Cup qualifying and obviously you have to think of two things," said Arena on Thursday. "One is winning the game and two is scoring goals. Yes, we need to think about goals. We don't want to go into Grenada having only a one-goal margin on our opponent. It's important if the goals are there to be had that we get them."
Despite the fact that Grenada is not ranked as one of the top 130 teams in the world or viewed as one of the best 15 or 16 teams in the region, and has a pool of players drawn from a population of 90,000 that's roughly the size of Nashua, New Hampshire, or Warwick, Rhode Island, Arena and his staff have scouted their opponent as meticulously as usual.
"This is a team that's going to give everything they have," said assistant coach Curt Onalfo, who acts as the U.S. side's chief scout. "It'll be the game of their lives, and we're treating it accordingly. We're not taking it lightly at all."
Grenada is expected to play a system that resembles more of a defensive-heavy 5-3-2 than a 3-5-2. Arena said that they're athletic in the back, and will most likely play with a sweeper, slightly behind a pair of man-markers, who have a bit of size and are physical.
"Obviously," said Arena, "their posture is to defend first."
Realistically, all Grenada is trying to do is keep the game within one or two goals, as a tie or a victory on the road would be a result that could only be characterized as a major upset.
To try and accomplish this, the Caribbean island nation's side will bunker, and then look to counterattack through strikers Jason Roberts, who plays for Wigan Athletic in England's first division, and Ricky Charles, who had 18 goals and 16 assists last fall for the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg.
"Those are the two better players going forward," said Arena.
The other big gun for Grenada is New England Revolution standout Shalrie Joseph, who is a noted ball-winner and can play a multiple number of positions. He'll most likely find himself matched up with Landon Donovan in the middle of the field.
"He'll be in the center of the midfield for them," said Onalfo. "He's more of a link to the offense than a holding midfielder. He's basically the guy the team will look to play through."
On Friday, the U.S. practiced going against a bunker defense by having seven of its attackers go against eight defenders, who were continuously trying to pull them offside.
"It's very tough to go against a system like this because it's not something you see at the club level," said Donovan. "What's important for us is when you get forward, we have to be fast. The faster we move the ball, the more space we can open up."
Reyna, who will be dictating the U.S. attack as always, said it's important to get the ball out wide.
"When you play against a team that keeps a lot of numbers back, it's difficult to go through the middle of the field," said the 30-year-old midfielder. "It's important for us to move the ball to the outside, and serve good balls in. We're very strong aerially with guys like Brian (McBride), Conor (Casey) and Jovan (Kirovski), so we can give their backs a lot of trouble with strong serves into the box."
What this match really comes down to is not what Grenada does tactically or how strong their side is. In reality, it's all about how the U.S. plays. If the U.S. looks anything like it did in recent victories over Mexico and Honduras, the match will not be close. It could get ugly, in fact.
As far as personnel, the forwards and midfielders that started for the U.S. against Honduras are likely to get the nod again against Grenada. That would put captain Claudio Reyna and Chris Armas in holding roles behind DaMarcus Beasley and Donovan in the midfield, with Brian McBride and Conor Casey up front.
In the back, it's a little bit of a different story. Greg Vanney is likely to start at left back, with Carlos Bocanegra and Eddie Pope in the central defense. At right back, it's a toss-up between Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk. Hejduk is usually the top choice when he is available, but Cherundolo is known for his strong serves, which might make him a more attractive option in a match like this one.
Longtime veteran Kasey Keller will be in the net.
Whether Grenada comes out strong and sneaks in an early goal or the U.S. goes up by a few at halftime, Donovan says the strategy has to remain the same.
"This isn't a normal situation," said the 22-year-old from Redlands, Calif. "If it were, we'd be satisfied with a 1-0 result. This is a situation where we won't be satisfied with a 1-0 result. That means we have to play the game as 0-0, whether it's tied up late in the second half or if we're ahead by two or three goals. Keeping that mindset is really important for us."
"We have to wait and see how the game develops," said Reyna. "We don't know how they'll come out. You never know. Maybe they'll come out strong and the game will open up right away."
That's doubtful. But stranger things have happened in the long and winding road that is World Cup qualifying.
"You never know how these games will unfold," said Arena. "Our first priority is winning the game and secondly if we can get some goals, that would be great as well."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.