Finishing the job: Why the USMNT can't stand still against Trinidad and Tobago

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

An aggressive approach throttled Panama, but the Americans will likely be more conservative on the road.

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Bruce Arena was hired to get the U.S. men’s national team to the World Cup. A dominant win against Panama on Friday night has put the U.S. on the brink. It has also presented more evidence for the argument that Arena’s second tenure as head coach has been far more successful than the pre-Panama picture may have painted.

The U.S. has lost just once in 17 games under Arena in 2017. The team’s goal differential in World Cup qualifying, as Arena pointed out after the game, has gone from minus-5 to plus-5 over the last seven matches, and the team has moved from sixth place in the Hex to third.

“We’ve had a great year despite what some of you people think,” Arena said in the postgame press conference, his wry smile only slightly masking what was likely some true annoyance. “We’ve come a long way and we’re well-positioned to hopefully qualify for Russia.”

The one defeat under Arena was, of course, a big one. In a qualifying cycle that had little room for wiggle room, the poor outing against Costa Rica was enough to cause doubt because it threw such huge stakes on the final two games. Arena’s tactic – to win at home and get at least a point on the road through the qualifiers – left little margin for a home loss, but his team now stands on the brink of World Cup qualification.

The plan, in other words, will likely work.

The more specific game plan, though, so perfectly-executed against Panama, will have to change in the next few days in order to ensure a result. Things will not be this smooth in Trinidad and Tobago, and the approach of Friday night will likely get left behind when the plane takes off for the Caribbean.

That was the vibe after a dominant 4-0 win over Panama, at least.

The U.S. has to “prepare like they’re a team that’s going to play to beat us,” Arena said. “We have to respect our opponent, we have to put the right players on field, understand the conditions. We did a remarkable job in both Honduras and Panama getting results there. So we understand how difficult the conditions are. I think in game 10, when you’re playing a team that’s eliminated, they can play relaxed, they can play aggressive, they could care less whether they have a player sent off and those kinds of things. I suspect they are just going to be a handful because they have nothing to lose.”

What does that mean? At the least, probably a touch more of a defensive look for the Americans than the 4-1-3-2 they trotted out against Panama. In Friday’s game, they knew they had to be aggressive and take the game to the Panamanians, who had given up only five goals in eight previous games in the final round of qualifying. On the road in a small venue and likely a poor field in Trinidad, the U.S. will probably take fewer risks.

That doesn’t mean the Americans will play for the draw, but you could see Michael Bradley paired with a defensive partner – Dax McCarty or Kellyn Acosta – or Arena could opt for a one-striker lineup that gives a bit more defensive help in the middle of the field.

Whatever the U.S. opts to do, players know they will be in for some kind of fight on the road.

“It’s always different, CONCACAF. I don’t think you really ever know what to expect,” Christian Pulisic said.

The only expectation is that the U.S. does enough to finish the job and escape what has been a far-too-dramatic qualification cycle. The path now looks a bit less perilous, but with the way things have unfolded, nothing is being taken for granted.

“The job isn’t done yet,” Jozy Altidore said. “There’s still a way where we can’t be in this World Cup. So for us, the job is on Tuesday to get a result.”

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