Bruce Arena sees a solidifying USMNT squad that could break Azteca curse

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- In many respects, US national team head coach Bruce Arena got what he wanted out of Thursday’s World Cup qualifying match with Trinidad & Tobago. That included, of course, a 2-0 home win to keep the US in qualifying contention, and momentum toward Sunday's looming match at Mexico in Mexico City (8:30 pm ET, FS1, Univision, UDN). 

“It wasn’t an easy game,” Arena said. “I thought Trinidad was well prepared for the match. They had a good tactical plan. On the other hand, we played a solid 90 minutes.... We basically knew how they were going to play.

"We had some mistakes in the first half defensively. On a couple of crosses, we gave them too much room. We missed a couple of good opportunities. We could have done a little bit better in the final third.” 

But things started looking up in the second half, of course, he noted. “Obviously, Christian [Pulisic] had two good goals. These games are tough, but we finished with three points, and two goals," he said. "We’re starting 2017 in pretty good shape.” 

Though the game kept the US’s point-gathering streak alive through the year’s first three Hexagonal matches, that could change with Sunday’s trip to Mexico.

“The altitude issue is real, and it’s going to be challenging on our players,” Arena said. “Mexico has had an outstanding start to the Hex. They have a great team. We all know that playing in Azteca is very difficult, especially with the altitude. I think we the three points tonight, we can have a good tactical approach, and can come out of there with at least a point.” 

Arena’s buoyed, in part, by the squad depth he’s seeing this break. “We have some good players, and we also have another group behind them that’s really good," he said. "We see it every day in training."

Though sticking with his starting XI through the first part of the second half did pay dividends, Arena did make one pivotal change in the 61st minute just before the US doubled its lead. That's when he subbed in midfielder Kellyn Acosta for forward Clint Dempsey

Dempsey, who entered the match one goal shy of Landon Donovan’s USMNT goal-scoring record, was visibly upset with Arena upon leaving the field. The head coach attributed that to Dempsey’s competitive fire. 

“He wants to be on the field,” Arena said. “However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team, position us to win a game. And I understand it, he’s a very competitive guy. We talked about it. He’s okay. He’s got a really competitive edge to him.” 

The substitution, as Arena explained, was needed to help Michael Bradley manage the midfield, while allowing Pulisic the opportunity to play in a more advanced position. “At that point in the game," he said, "we needed to take out a forward, and I chose Clint.”  

Almost immediately after Acosta came on, Jozy Altidore sprung Pulisic into the box with a pass that turned out to be the assist on the US’s security goal. 

Arena acknowledged that the team could use a “little bit more time together,” adding, “tonight’s game was the first time this group has played together in a qualifying game. They need a little more time to get a feel for each other. We’re still getting to know each other. It takes some time. The goal is to get this team better in each of the competitions we have.” 

And yet he ultimately likes what he saw on Thursday. “I’m confident in this group of players,” he said. “If we can keep moving along in qualifying, in the next World Cup, we can put a competitive team on the field in Russia.”