COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Whenever the business of World Cup qualifying rolls around, veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard ends up making the same conclusion about the United States men’s national team.
“I feel like every cycle I’ve said the same thing: ‘We’re better than the last cycle,’ ” Howard said the day before the USA’s latest must-win qualifier, a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Thursday.
“And that’s just the evolution of U.S. Soccer. If you look at this team, if we played 11 vs. 11 out here in front of you, I’m not sure who would win. It’s that good of a collection of players.”
Bruce Arena agrees. And the head coach intends to show just how much faith he has in his reserves for the USMNT’s next challenge – archival Mexico at Estadio Azteca on just two days of rest. Sunday’s showdown was moved up a day to allow El Tri to get a head start on its Confederations Cup preparation in Russia.
Arena devised a plan to guide his team through its three-game test of endurance at altitude. His players’ recovery from training and matches (Saturday’s friendly against Venezuela and Thursday’s qualifier in Colorado) have been assessed every step of the way, so he will know who’s really rested enough to go against Mexico on Sunday.
“We have some good players. We also have another group that’s behind them that’s pretty good because we see them every day in training,” Arena said after the T&T win. “I’m very confident in this group of players.”
So is Christian Pulisic. After scoring both goals against the Soca Warriors to raise the hype around him another notch or two, the 18-year-old predicted that the U.S. will go to Mexico City and “come out with a win there too.” However, Arena is expected to send out a fresher starting XI by incorporating backups in a defensive setup designed to escape Azteca with a point.
Bobby Wood figures to start up top with Jozy Altidore. Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty could form a more conservative central midfield partnership along with the hard-working Alejandro Bedoya on one flank. Defender Omar Gonzalez and midfielder Paul Arriola – who ply their trade with Liga MX clubs Pachuca and Club Tijuana, respectively – could be given starting nods as well because of their Mexican club experience.
“You look at these guys walking around and every single guy contributes. They have a purpose here,” Howard said. “Any of them can step on the field and we feel like we’re not really going to lose too much. In fact, in a lot of positions, we gain with the fresh legs. This is a very, very balanced squad from top to bottom.”
Some USMNT starters on Thursday spoke as if they were playing no matter what on Sunday. Pulisic said he would be ready to go another 90 minutes, although he is probably the least likely midfielder to be benched due to his critical role in the U.S. attack. Darlington Nagbe didn’t sound too concerned about bouncing back.
And then there’s Clint Dempsey.
The forward was visibly annoyed by his 61st-minute substitution against Trinidad and Tobago and even had words with Arena before taking his seat on the bench. Player and coach eventually talked, but it will probably take another heated conversation to get Dempsey to accept a reserve role, even though Arena has already told the team about his plans for rotating the squad.
“I understand that,” Arena said of Dempsey’s reaction to be subbed. “He’s a very competitive guy.”
That raging fire is what the Americans will need in Mexico City. They have managed to ascend from dead-last to third place, the last of the automatic qualifying spots, by accruing seven points in the three qualifiers under Arena. But while the U.S. stands only a point behind second-place Costa Rica, it remains just one point ahead of fourth-place Panama and two points above fifth-place Honduras at the halfway point of CONCACAF’s six-team final qualifying round.
In those March qualifiers, the USA managed to rout Honduras 6-0 in the Bay Area and draw 1-1 in Panama without starters Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin. So, in a way, the USA’s depth has already been tested.
But not against El Tri in the cauldron that is Estadio Azteca.
“We all know that playing in Azteca is very difficult,” Arena said. “We know the issues with the altitude and all those challenges. I think, because we got three points tonight, we can go there a little bit relaxed and try to have a good tactical approach to the game and try to come out of there with at least a point.”
Any result would confirm the belief that the U.S. has its deepest squad ever.
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.
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