COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Bruce Arena takes his United States national team into a pivotal week of its World Cup qualifying campaign trying to instill a sense of normalcy into a two-game stretch filled with peculiarities.
For a start, the team’s position in the CONCACAF regional final qualifying pool means that its clash with the weakest team, Trinidad and Tobago, is in many ways more important than when it faces its strongest foe, Mexico, three days later.
That Thursday-to-Sunday turnaround is an extreme rarity in international soccer. Throw in a flight from Denver to Mexico City, another shift in elevation and a pair of highly motivated opponents and the task looks extra daunting.
“Our focus is on T+T and until the final whistle blows on Thursday night I couldn’t care less about Mexico,” Arena said at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Wednesday afternoon.
The rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico is such that Arena could have been forgiven for being tempted to rest certain key players from the opening game in order to have a fresh and full-strength lineup at the cavernous Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Had the qualification scenario been different that may have been an option. Not so, however, after the team managed just four points from its first four games of the 10-game campaign, all of those in the two outings since Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann.
Much as any game against Mexico offers the potential of regional bragging rights, Arena’s focus is on making sure the team makes it to the World Cup in Russia next summer. To accomplish that goal, dropping points against the likes of T+T, stuck at the bottom of the six-team group and likely to stay there, is unthinkable.
“We certainly understand the significance of this game,” Arena said. “We firmly believe we have to win the game. I believe our opponent will be glad to walk away with a (draw) and be elated with three points. It’ll be a challenging game. T+T will be organized and try to frustrate us.”
The U.S. has found its share of frustration already, ever since the hexagonal round began in November with a defeat at home to Mexico. Klinsmann did not survive that and the 4-0 road defeat to Costa Rica the following week, while Arena’s swashbuckling start, a 6-0 trouncing of Honduras, was tempered by a hard-fought tie in Panama. That left the squad in fourth place in the group, with three teams to automatically advance to the World Cup and a fourth to take part in a playoff against a team from Asia.
The reality heading into Thursday is that a minimum of three points is needed from this impending pair of matches, and that the easiest way to get those is by taking care of business against Trinidad and Tobago.
Altitude is a factor, with the Denver-area home of the Colorado Rapids picked as host for this game solely because it would help acclimate the team ahead of the Mexico trip.
“(The elevation) is definitely not overrated,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “It is difficult to play at altitude, it is not easy. But at the same time it is the same for everybody so there are no excuses.”