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USA vs. Trinidad & Tobago, 2018 World Cup Qualifying: What to watch for

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This should be the easiest game in the Hex, which makes it an absolute must-win for the Stars and Stripes.

Venezuela v United States Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Trinidad & Tobago might not be the actual worst team in the Hex, but they’re also not the best. They have plenty of talent that can punish sloppy play with players like Joevin Jones and Kevin Molino, and they also have team captain, talisman, and lone holdout from T&T’s ‘06 World Cup squad Kenwyne Jones. He’s big, he’s crafty, and he will challenge any back line in CONCACAF. They’re a stubborn side in their own right and on their day. Just ask Mexico, who had to squeak out a 1-0 win in Trinidad in the last round of qualifiers. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are last in the Hex. They are the bottom team on the CONCACAF totem pole at the moment, and if the U.S. can’t get 3 points off of them at home, they do not deserve to be going to Russia. Geopolitically, that might not be such a bad thing, but in the sportsball world it is a bad thing. A real bad thing.

Fortunately, the United States has a nearly-full deck for this one. John Brooks’s status and a still-mending Sebastian Lletget aside, we’ve shaken off the injury bug and look to be almost at full strength. With a strong corps of veteran forwards, the boy wonder in the attacking midfield, and a strong defense corps even without Brooks, the U.S. should have more than enough fire power to get the job done on Thursday.

Recent Form:

USA

D (1-1) - Venezuela - Friendly

D (1-1) - Panama - WCQ

W (6-0) - Honduras - WCQ

W (1-0) - Jamaica - Friendly

D (0-0) - Serbia - Friendly

Trinidad & Tobago

D (2-2) - Grenada - Friendly

L (0-1) - Mexico - WCQ

W (1-0) - Panama - WCQ

W (2-0) - Barbados - Friendly

L (4-3) - Haiti - Caribbean Cup

What to Watch for:

Clean It Up - The U.S. started slow and sluggish against Venezuela, and they paid for it. Things settled down a little bit more in the second half, and such a slow start can probably be overcome against Trinidad & Tobago, but it won’t fly at The Azteca. Cleaning things up and getting a solid 90 minutes against T&T is important for the confidence and consistency of a team that’s still only been together for about a week. Fabian Johnson needs to start on the same page with the rest of the offence. The D can’t come out soft on set pieces. Our forwards have to be able to find the feet of Christian Pulisic and whoever is playing on the wings when their backs are to goal. That didn’t happen nearly enough in the first half hour of the Venezuela game. Bruce Arena no doubt realizes that and knows the buttons he needs to push to fix these things. At least, I hope. I’m pretty sure he does.

Lightning in a Bottle - Pulisic showed another trait of a great player during the Venezuela friendly: even on a night when things weren’t going wonderfully, both for himself and the team, he took his chance when it came and made a difference when it counted. The touch and shot to level were great, and more evidence of Pulisic’s continued growth and maturity. That ability to create even when things aren’t going well is a hugely important trait. Pulisic’s last game against Trinidad & Tobago saw him notch an assist, crush both posts with another shot and generally terrorize the T&T defense. I expect to see more of that on Thursday.

Trouble in Paradise - If Trinidad & Tobago have any hope of qualifying for Russia, they need points now. But the T&T camp seems a bit restless. There have been reports of unpaid bonuses that players were supposed to receive after their victory over Panama, and just yesterday Cordell Cato was dismissed from the national team due to “indiscipline.” Rumor has it it’s down to a disagreement about hotel arrangements for Cato’s family.

I don’t expect T&T to go full France 2010 by any means, but I also think that this shakeup will have some repercussions.

Lineup Prediction:

Rinse; repeat.

If Brooks isn’t ready to go, then another center back will step in to take his place. Maybe that’s Matt Hedges, like we saw against Venezuela. Matt Besler and Tim Ream are also available to be called upon. Regardless, I think the team we saw rolled out against Venezuela will be the one that starts against Trinidad & Tobago, with the exception of Jozy Altidore coming in for Bobby Wood. Jozy arrived to camp late for family reasons, and wasn’t included against Venezuela, but I think he’ll be a fixture both on Thursday and on Sunday in Mexico.