Arena tries to keep U.S. team focused
Coach doesn’t want players to look past tonight’s game versus Trinidad and Tobago.
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Since Bruce Arena called the U.S. national team into training camp last month, he has tried to keep the spotlight on one game: Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago.
“We’ve stressed for 10 days that the focus has to be Trinidad,” Michael Bradley said Wednesday. “They’re a good team. They’re dangerous. We are not, in any way, looking past tomorrow night.”
That may easier said than done, though, because next up on the calendar is Sunday’s qualifier in Mexico City. And although the Americans have dominated the qualifying series with Trinidad and Tobago — going unbeaten in nine home games and last giving up a goal to the Soca Warriors in the U.S. in 1989, when World Cup qualifiers were played at El Camino College — the rivalry with Mexico is a heated and emotional one.
“You learn how to deal with it,” said forward Jozy Altidore, who promised he was ignoring the temptation to look ahead. “You’ve got to take every game at a time. Thursday night, that’s the most important thing.
“When the whistle blows and the game’s over, then you think about Mexico.”
Arena’s players would do well not to get ahead of themselves since they have little room for error, especially at home, if they hope to qualify the U.S. for an eighth consecutive World Cup. Four games into the final 10-game qualifying tournament, the U.S. has four points, the fewest it has had this deep into the hexagonal round.
It is also fourth in the sixteam standings, a point behind Panama and one spot out of an automatic qualifying berth. So it can ill afford a second loss at home after falling to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, in November.
“We understand the significance of the game,” Arena said. “We firmly believe we have to win the game. I could care less about Mexico until the final whistle blows on Thursday night.”
But Arena admitted he has begun strategizing for Sunday’s game just the same, a necessity given a quick turnaround that will leave the U.S. with less than 70 hours to prepare for Mexico. This is the third time since 1990 the U.S. has had less than four days between qualifying games.
In those first two instances — in 2005 and 2009 — the U.S. lost the first game and won the second.
“It does make a difference,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who played in the 2009 games. “Any time you have less days to prepare, particularly physically, it’s tough on the players.”
Adding to the challenge this time is the fact both games will be played at altitude, the first a mile above sea level in suburban Denver and the second more than a quarter of a mile higher, outside Mexico City. That’s why the U.S. has spent the last 10 days training at altitude in Colorado and Utah. Trinidad and Tobago has been in Colorado more than two weeks, working out in Boulder.
However, Arena said at the start of camp that roster depth will be just as important as altitude training for the U.S., especially in the second game, the one he isn’t supposed to be thinking about yet.
“I can guarantee we will not be playing the same team from Game 1 to Game 2,” he said. “There will be a number of changes for the game in Mexico, so we’ve built a strong roster to allow us to do that.”
If that roster holds up. Arena wouldn’t say whether center back John Brooks, who left last Saturday’s friendly with Venezuela because of a bruised quadriceps, would play against Trinidad and Tobago, although he has been training.
“We will not have one player 100% healthy [Thursday] night. That includes John Brooks,” Arena said, adding “whatever the circumstances might be in terms of getting us ready to play the second game, I think we’ve got solutions.”
Trinidad and Tobago has lost three of its four qualifiers but it played well at home in its two March games, beating Panama and throwing a scare into Mexico before falling 1-0. Five players on the Soca Warriors’ roster play club soccer in Europe and four others play in MLS, including Kenwyne Jones, a 6-foot-4 striker who has two goals in 12 games with expansion Atlanta United.