Amidst the sudden frenzy over a visit from tri-national recruiting target Folarin Balogun, the lingering wake of the Gregg Berhalter-Gio Reyna controversy and the continued absence of a permanent head coach, the US men’s national team have an actual soccer match of consequence to play on Friday night (8 pm ET | TNT, Universo, Peacock).
The Yanks are prohibitive favorites to defeat Grenada, the small island nation they routed 5-0 in the reverse fixture in Austin last June. They have only lost four times in 29 matches vs. Caribbean opposition since 2010 and are 4W-0L-0D all-time against the Spice Boyz, who are currently ranked 173rd in the world by FIFA. The USMNT are defending Concacaf Nations League title holders and plan to keep it that way.
But they had to travel nearly 2,000 miles south on Thursday, and must quickly orient themselves to perform in a fairly unfamiliar setting.
“Look, I would say these games are complicated,” said interim boss Anthony Hudson in a matchday-1 media availability after the USMNT arrived at their hotel on Thursday evening. “They're very, very tricky games, because we have, as we all know, just come out of the World Cup. We have a really, really talented squad coming from playing at very, very high levels, all around the world, playing in Europe.
“And then you come – and I mean this respectfully – you come to certain places in the region, and it's just different. Different conditions, different stadiums, different fans, so they become very, very complicated games because they're not games like you're used to. But the bottom line is this: We have to win.”
USMNT watchers need only think back to the stunning events of October 10, 2017 in Couva, on Grenada’s neighboring island of Trinidad, to be reminded of that. That’s where the road to the 2018 World Cup came crashing to a premature end, in a grisly 2-1 upset loss to Trinidad and Tobago, on a waterlogged pitch against a theoretically over-matched opponent with little to play for save pride.
Christian Pulisic, who is captaining the side in the injury-imposed absence of midfielder Tyler Adams, was on the field that night, which he’s described as one of the most searing experiences of his career to date. On Thursday he said he’s learned to “embrace the atmosphere and just take it on with a smile," and "fight for my team” in these David-and-Goliath situations.
“We were able to go and see the stadium. And I must say it's quite a beautiful place,” said the Chelsea attacker of Kirani James Athletic Stadium, a seaside venue nestled at the foot of Grenada’s lush volcanic hills just outside the capital city, St. George’s. “The setting was very nice, the drive to the stadium was beautiful, and hopefully it'll be a nice atmosphere for the match tomorrow.
“It might not be a World Cup game, but we know how challenging these matches can be at times, because of the conditions and everything. But all in all, excited to be here in a nice place and yeah, a good challenge for us.”
That said, Hudson and Pulisic were asked repeatedly about Balogun, the England youth international lighting up Ligue 1 on a season-long loan from Arsenal to Stade Reims who sparked an online frenzy when he turned up in Orlando this week after bowing out of an England Under-21s camp due to injury.
“He's out here having a bit of a break and then some training and we've had some discussions. So yeah, now it’s about him just enjoying the rest of his trip,” said Hudson, confirming that Balogun met with the USMNT at their training base outside Orlando.
“It's been good because it's been an opportunity for us just to share about our program and who we are and what we do. And again, that’s it. I hope we get the chance to speak to him again. So it's been good to meet him and I know a few of the guys have spoken to him as well.”
Added Pulisic about Balogun: “Obviously I’ve seen that he’s in Florida. I haven’t really spoken to him personally, but I know some of the guys that know him from previous teams or whatever have reached out to him and spoken to him. Obviously, from our side, we’d love to have him.”
The USMNT are definitely a star attraction on occasions like Friday’s, arguably Grenada’s biggest sporting event of the past few years. The team met and mingled with local schoolchildren when they walked the stadium pitch Thursday evening and the match is on course for a sellout crowd of 8,000 or thereabouts.
The Spice Boyz will aim to defend their honor with a mix of domestic talent and recruits from their overseas diaspora like Regan Charles-Cook, a steady scorer in both the Scottish and Belgian top flights, and center back Kayden Harrack, a 19-year-old prospect climbing the ranks at Queens Park Rangers.
Attacker Jamal Charles is one of the top scorers across the first two editions of CNL and is now back in the Grenada Premier League with Paradise FC after stints abroad in Trinidad, Honduras and a 2018 stop at Real Monarchs, Real Salt Lake’s second team.
Simple mission: Win
Though it’s not quite the same as a visit to Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca or the Honduran fortress of Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Hudson said this young group’s qualifying journey for Qatar 2022 has prepared both players and staff for a range of Concacaf experiences.
“We've been through it before,” said Hudson, an assistant to Berhalter in the last cycle. “We've had moments where we've learned some big lessons. And coming here now, even just how we've managed today: We trained back in the States in the morning, we had lunch there, then we came in late and we had a walk around the stadium. That’s been different from how we've done in the past. So we’re using our experience to do different things.
“And we feel we have enough experience under our belt that now we have to go and use that and get the job done.”
After this test vs. Grenada, the USMNT return for a Nations League A, Group D closer vs. El Salvador on Monday evening at Exploria Stadium, home of Orlando City SC. They'll advance to June’s Nations League semifinals if they top the group, and the two top teams in each League A group qualify for the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup.