The United States men’s national team will return to the scene of one of its most famous triumphs on Tuesday when taking on Trinidad and Tobago at the Hasley Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain. It was at the same venue 26 years ago that the U.S. upset the odds to beat the hosts and secure a place in its first World Cup finals since 1950.
Still in the penultimate round of World Cup qualifying, the reward for victory won’t be nearly as consequential this time around. The price of failure, however, could yet prove to be significant indeed for current coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
The former Germany coach remains submerged in his toughest period since taking over from Bob Bradley in the summer of 2011. A run of five defeats in six matches saw the U.S. post its worst Gold Cup performance in 15 years and lose out on a place at the 2017 Confederations Cup in a heavyweight playoff with fierce rivals Mexico. On top of that, there were demoralizing friendly losses to Brazil and Costa Rica on home soil.
Ahead of the start of World Cup qualifying last month, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati gave a far from resounding vote of confidence for the man who has been handed unprecedented power and resources to reshape the country’s program. Despite recording a 6-1 victory over minnows St. Vincent and the Grenadines last Friday, defeat in Trinidad would lead to five months of recriminations before the team’s next World Cup qualifier. Klinsmann, though, insists he isn’t concerning himself with the price of failure on Tuesday.
“I would never go into a game thinking [about what happens] if I lose,” he said in his pre-match news conference, per ESPN. “That's not me.”
“You also have to live with short-term successes or disappointments, which we had, undoubtedly. That's what coaches have to live with. It's part of your job. But at the end of the day, I'm always focused on the next challenge. The challenge is tomorrow, Trinidad and Tobago, with a good team, good players. Some play in Europe and do very well. We have to figure out ways to get a result.”
The situation has changed considerably since Paul Caligiuri, assisted by current U.S. assistant coach Tab Ramos, scored that famous goal in 1989. The U.S., having qualified for every World Cup since, and the last three as the top team in Concacaf, is no longer an underdog on the continental stage. And since getting the job, Klinsmann has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. should no longer play like an underdog on the world stage. However, he has struck a noticeably cautious tone ahead of the match in Port of Spain, stating that a draw would be an acceptable result.
There is reason for some trepidation. Not only has the U.S. been struggling, but Trinidad and Tobago has been thriving of late. As well as reaching the Gold Cup quarterfinals, where it was only eliminated on penalties, the Soca Warriors have also played Mexico to two high-scoring draws in recent months. And continuing the upward trajectory, Stephen Hart’s team made an ideal start to World Cup qualifying when securing a 2-1 win in Guatemala. Hart, though, has left little doubt that the match with the United States is the most significant.
“Everything we have done has been leading up to World Cup qualification,” he said, according to Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday. “The players know what to expect. The United States (is) probably one of those teams that can match us physically.
“That’s a big part of their game. But they also have some high-quality technical players, so they can mix and match. It’s important for us to realize that and not get caught up in the emotion and the atmosphere.”
Hart is expected to go into the match without any new fitness concerns. Klinsmann, however, has a doubt over midfielder Jermaine Jones, who missed training on Sunday. There will be at least one change to the U.S. side, with Klinsmann’s policy of alternating his top two goalkeepers meaning that Tim Howard will replace Brad Guzan.
Kickoff time: 6:25 p.m. EST
TV channel: bein Sports, NBC Universo