ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: Thursday is a must-win for the US national team, and ETR has an exhaustive preview to get you ready. Trinidad & Tobago journalist Lasana Liburd explains why players keep getting sent home by Soca Warriors head coaches, and the guys try to predict Bruce Arena's XI and gameplan. Plus, more on Alphonso Davies' decision to rep Canada! Subscribe now so you never miss a show! Download the show!
The first two games of the Hexagonal were a nightmare. The next two were adequate. Another round of adequacy, beginning Thursday night against Trinidad & Tobago (8 pm ET; FS1 | UniMas | UDN) and concluding Sunday at Mexico should leave the US with – let's face it – three points, not four or six. And those three points should be enough to dial the armageddon clock if not entirely back to "zero," it'll be at least in the vicinity thereof.
Three points at home vs. the Soca Warriors and none vs. Mexico would put the US on seven points through six Hexagonal games. It would be the worst six-game start the program has ever had in the Hex, and would be disappointing.
But US fans have lived with "disappointing" for most of this decade, and ever since Rafa Marquez headed home that late winner last autumn, this cycle has morphed into an exercise in making certain "disappointing" doesn't become "fatal." Three points from these two games would almost certainly do that. Three points would leave the US in fourth place heading into the final four games of the Hexagonal, one point back of the automatic qualification that comes with a third place finish and with the friendliest four-game schedule of any remaining team.
So the goal is to get three points vs. Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday night. The US are heavily favored to do so, and if they come up with anything less than a win it would be the worst result in the modern history of the program.
No pressure. Let's have some bullet points:
• The Soca Warriors will play a deep-lying, back-foot 4-2-3-1
This is what they did in their previous two Hexagonal games, a 1-0 home win over Panama and a hard-done 1-0 home loss to Mexico. They were deep and organized, and confident they could absorb the pressure that each team threw at them then pick their moments to burst forward on the counter.
It's CONCACAF soccer, basically. There will not be much beauty to it, but there's supreme danger, especially in the form of Minnesota United attacker Kevin Molino:
If you listen with the sound up, you'll hear the announcer spell out the strategy: Panama produced a long spell of possession, got nothing out of it, switched off, and allowed the most dangerous player on the field to drive right up the gut and score. It wasn't a pure counterattack, but it was emblematic of how these games can end up playing out.
Beyond that very thing, there are a few other worries the US must confront. My colleague Will Parchman did a nice job of identifying those worries, and I suggest you give his column a read.
• Win the set piece battle
The US have not been particularly good defending set pieces since about 2011, and they've been very bad at defending set pieces since last October. John Brooks can not switch off like he did against Venezuela (watch the video embedded at the top of the page), and neither can anyone else, really.
This is basic stuff, and I'm sure Bruce Arena has had more than a few conversations with his team about it in the last couple of days.
• Play off a target forward to open space for Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic
Someone tweeted at me the other day "why are US fans so obsessed with hold-up play?" And the answer is that often, in CONCACAF, the US face teams that pack all 10 field players into their own defensive third, with about seven in the box at all times. Combination play is great, and 1v1 play is great, but even the best teams in the world often need a target forward to hold the ball up with a defender on his back in order to break down a bunker.
How does that break down a bunker? The answer is "gravity." Central defenders will gravitate toward a target forward who's on the ball – especially one who's come into the pocket of space between the lines of midfield and defense – and that very thing opens space for clever attackers to find seams that don't exist otherwise.
Pulisic and Dempsey are both genius-level IQ attacking players at finding those gaps, and Jozy Altidore remains the best hold-up forward in the US pool. Bobby Wood is rugged and dedicated, but his hold-up play and passing is more "functional" rather than "game-breaking" and – to be completely honest – he struggled to get even to "functional" against Venezuela on the weekend.
The US's best chance of breaking down a T&T bunker isn't to cross a ton, and it isn't to play long-balls, and it isn't to try to play tiki-taka. It's to use Altidore as a target and then hope that Pulisic and Dempsey can find the space he creates.
• Don't isolate Michael Bradley in central midfield
Bradley will need some help in deep-lying midfield, especially with Molino lurking. He'll get a bit of help from his center backs, likely to be the highly mobile duo of Brooks and Geoff Cameron, both of whom are comfortable stepping off their line and into midfield to make a defensive play. That trio is, when deployed properly, the strength of the team.
I'm also in favor of one of the two wide midfielders being something close to a pure attacker, and it should come down to one of two guys: Fabian Johnson or Darlington Nagbe on the left flank. That means the other flank should be occupied by a guy who plays tucked in, almost as a No. 8, in the way Gennaro Gattuso used to do in AC Milan's 4-3-1-2, or as Will Johnson used to do for Real Salt Lake.
Think of it as a wide midfielder whose primary responsibilities are east-west coverage, while the fullback behind him is given full license to play north-south. It means the US would be asymmetrical, but not unbalanced.
This choice, to me, comes down to either veteran Alejandro Bedoya or relative youngster Kellyn Acosta. Bedoya's been in better form lately, has played in bigger games, and was excellent in this very role when he had to come on early and replace the injured Sebastian Lletget back in the Honduras qualifier. By my reckoning, that makes him an easy call for the job.
• US LINEUP PREDICTION
Three points. Then we can all start thinking about Mexico.