Pitch will be far from perfect as United States aims to lock up World Cup spot
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF never ceases to amaze. There is drama, crazy incidents and even crazier weather conditions.
It is that last aspect that has taken center stage ahead of Tuesday's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. When the U.S. arrived for its usual prematch practice at the game venue -- in this case, Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva -- it witnessed a partially flooded playing surface, a surrounding running track that was almost completely submerged and a solitary water pump gamely trying to move the water into a nearby drain.
This of course led to a bit of back and forth between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association on social media and elsewhere. Turns out that the TTFA didn't take kindly to a few tweets from the USSF's Twitter account highlighting the state of the field. The TTFA was thoughtful enough to include a picture of the "Snow Classico" with the press release insisting that the track "was the only area affected at the Ato Boldon Stadium," even though that wasn't the case.
U.S. keeper Tim Howard admitted that he has seen worse in England.
"Those games get canceled, though," he quipped.
There have been some differing explanations as to exactly why Ato Boldon Stadium was chosen as a venue. The official line is that problems with the lighting system at Hasely Crawford Stadium, the usual venue for Trinidad and Tobago national team matches, necessitated the change. Another T&T official said back in June that it was done to cut security costs (Crawford Stadium's capacity is 27,000, while Boldon Stadium's is 10,000).
Regardless, as of now, the game is going ahead as planned, though that could all change if there is additional precipitation. The current forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of rain around midday Tuesday, with skies expected to clear late in the afternoon.
"There's always something," said U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley about playing on the road in CONCACAF. "It doesn't faze us. It's the reality of qualifying for a World Cup for us. You take it for what it is, you get a good laugh about it, and ultimately you make sure that in no way it throws off what we're trying to do and what we're all about."
Statement from Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation: pic.twitter.com/2NTSDJKqhD— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) October 9, 2017
And for all of the head-shaking and tut-tutting over the condition of the field, it doesn't change the fact that the U.S. still has a World Cup qualifying berth to secure. A win on Tuesday guarantees a trip to Russia. Only an otherworldly set of circumstances will deny the U.S. should it tie the match. A loss opens the door for one or both of Panama and Honduras to jump over the U.S. and either condemn the Americans to fourth place and a playoff against Australia or Syria or knock them out of qualifying entirely.
The varying scenarios create an awkward situation for the Americans. Friday's 4-0 win over Panama was as close to a must-win as you can get. That, obviously, won't be the case on Tuesday, and that can create a mental trap for the players.
"Obviously, that's a slippery slope," Howard said. "A tie in the end will be great, if that happens, but it's not something that we're planning on doing. We're going to try and be aggressive, get our goals and play well enough to win."
There also is the added wrinkle of playing a T&T side that already has been eliminated, with manager Dennis Lawrence opting to field younger players. Kenwyne Jones wasn't called in, and midfielder Kevin Molino is suspended, due to accumulation of yellow cards. Given that the field will be littered with players trying to prove themselves, T&T could be a dangerous opponent -- and it looked the part in a 3-1 loss to Mexico on Friday.
Those circumstances, along with the playing conditions, require many things from the U.S. They need to be confident in their approach but adaptable, as well.
"It's having an idea before the game of what we think the game is going to be like and how we think it's going to play out," said Bradley, during a roundtable with reporters. "But you also have to have guys who then, that when the game gets going, can read things and understand what's going on, because things change, things change quickly, especially in these games where there is so much on the line."
The biggest concern for the U.S. heading into the match surrounds the health of Christian Pulisic, who sustained a calf injury against Panama. Pulisic indicated the calf has improved but stopped short of saying he would play. Manager Bruce Arena sounded a bit more optimistic that Pulisic would recover but stressed that a final decision would be made Tuesday morning.
If Pulisic does play, Arena will engage in his usual ritual of determining where to play the 19-year-old. Pulisic dazzled in a central role against Panama, but on the road, Arena has tended to play him out wide in a bid to provide a bit more defensive stability alongside Bradley in the center of midfield. That could mean that Dax McCarty or Alejandro Bedoya will get the nod in the center of midfield and Pulisic will move ostensibly wide but with plenty of license to drift into central positions.
If Pulisic can't go, then the supporting cast that performed so well against Panama will need to provide the kind of collective effort that can compensate for the midfielder's absence, conditions be damned.
"I certainly wouldn't expect it to be a night where there's tons of perfect football, that's for sure," Bradley said.
Given the stakes and the odyssey that this team has endured in qualifying, there doesn't need to be perfection. If the U.S. can get the job done, it can leave crazy behind and let the celebrations begin.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.