COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Twice in four days, at progressively higher altitudes, the United States men’s national soccer team will play World Cup qualifying matches. The two games present a single conundrum.
From a pool of 26 players, a few more than usual, Coach Bruce Arena will formulate lineups for Thursday night against Trinidad and Tobago here and Sunday night in Mexico City that reflect both the punishing logistics and the urgency of the Americans’ situation.
Despite stabilizing their qualifying campaign in March by emerging with a victory and a draw from their most recent set of games, and despite a forgiving format that assures berths in the 2018 World Cup in Russia for the top three teams in the six-nation Concacaf field, the United States remains desperate for points.
The Americans’ predicament — they are in fourth place, which, if it held, would put them in a playoff for a World Cup berth — increases the likelihood that Arena fields his best possible squad against Trinidad and Tobago. A victory would mitigate pressure before their encounter with first-place Mexico at the hostile Estadio Azteca, where the United States has won only once, in a friendly in 2012.
“We firmly believe that we have to win the game,” Arena said Wednesday before the Americans’ last training session. He added, “I could care less about Mexico until the final whistle blows on Thursday night.”
That is somewhat of an exaggeration, seeing that Arena also said he already has a strong sense of how he will proceed against Mexico. Which is?
“We are going to show up and play,” Arena said with a smile.
Before the United States does, it must face the Soca Warriors, take a four-hour flight to Mexico City and then acclimatize to different conditions — smoggier air, a hostile stadium and a 2,000-foot increase in elevation — within a span of roughly 70 hours. The last time the Americans endured this swift a turnaround during qualification came in 2009, when they lost at Costa Rica before defeating Honduras in Chicago three days later.
“It does make a difference,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Anytime you have less days to prepare physically, it’s tough on the players, but it’s what’s asked of us.”
It was what was also asked of them during the last cycle, although the United States had three days to recover between the Snow Clasico victory here against Costa Rica and its draw in Mexico.
Pairing those matches together alleviated the lung-scorching impact of Azteca, midfielder Michael Bradley said, as did the Americans’ good fortune of playing El Tri in the evening instead of the sweltering midday sun, as Mexico generally prefers. As part of the agreement to move up the match two days to accommodate El Tri’s participation in the Confederations Cup, which begins June 17 in Russia, Mexico assented to a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
Mexico leads the group with 10 points, 7 clear of last-place Trinidad and Tobago, which, like the United States, responded well to a coaching change made before the last pair of matches. The Soca Warriors are one of the few Concacaf teams that can match the physical style of the Americans, who feature several players — forward Jozy Altidore, midfielder Bradley and defender Geoff Cameron among them — facing a one-match suspension if they receive another yellow card.
If that were to happen, Arena has nearly a full complement at his disposal. Unlike three months ago, the Americans’ four top forwards — Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood — are all healthy, and the returns of defender DeAndre Yedlin and midfielder Fabian Johnson add pace and stability.
That depth softens the impact of the Americans’ demanding schedule — or so they hope.
“A typical club team doesn’t have the depth that a national team program should have,” Arena said, “so I think, whatever the circumstances may be in terms of getting us ready to play the second game, I think we’ve got solutions.”
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