The Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team players must feel sick at the sight of United States teenager Christian Pulisic. On their last visit to USA on 6 September 2016, Pulisic made his first competitive start for the “Stars and Stripes” and tormented the Soca Warriors backline in a 4-0 romp at Jacksonville, Florida.
The hosts were not as emphatic tonight—but Pulisic was, as his two second half goals secured three points for USA in an entertaining Russia 2018 World Cup qualifier.
More to the point, Trinidad and Tobago remain bottom of the CONCACAF Hex and are in danger of dropping five points behind the fourth placed FIFA Play Off spot; if, as expected, Panama defeat Honduras in Panama City next Tuesday.
The Warriors have three points from five matches so far and must get to 13 points for a FIFA Play Off showdown with the fifth placed nation in Asia, which is likely to be Australia on current form. It is a point more than they would have hoped to be aiming for, as Panama pulled off an unprecedented draw away to a 10-man Costa Rica team tonight.
There are two home games against United States and Honduras to come as well as trips to Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. Next Tuesday, Trinidad an Tobago coach Dennis Lawrence takes his troops to Costa Rica for what has traditionally been an even tricker away assignment than the one they faced tonight.
A point would do. But another loss, which would be the third straight qualifying defeat under his watch, would leave Trinidad and Tobago needing a point in Mexico City to have a decent shot at the Russia World Cup—once the Warriors win their remaining home games and, crucially, defeat Panama in Panama City.
Can Trinidad and Tobago turn those games in hand into points?
In Commerce City tonight, roughly 5,233 feet above sea level, the Warriors were ultimately outclassed but there were encouraging signs too.
Captain Kenwyne Jones could have put the two island republic ahead with an imperious leap in the first half, only to head his effort against the bar off a Khaleem Hyland cross.
And Nathan Lewis, on his World Cup qualifying debut, was harshly adjudged offside when he converted within seconds of Pulisic’s first item.
Hyland worried opposing goalkeeper Tim Howard on a few occasions while, for the first hour at least, Kevin Molino was the most involved of the attacking players on the field for either team.
Lawrence vowed to go toe to toe with USA and it was no vain threat. Almost inevitably, it did not work. But then nothing has worked since coach Everald Gally Cummings and the Strike Squad got a draw in Torance, California, some 27 years ago. And the rookie coach, a former World Cup 2006 hero, can reasonably suggest that his boys were not disgraced either.
It was all pretty exciting in the first half actually, although it would be a stretch to say Trinidad and Tobago were ever really in control.
Fabian Johnson, a versatile Germany-based midfielder, miskicked from eight yards out in the 10th minute while veteran attacker Clint Dempsey shot over from the edge of the area, four minutes later, and defender John Brooks and forward Jozy Altidore both stung the palms of Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams.
Yet Hyland twice had Howard scampering with efforts from outside the penalty area—as the ball zipped through the thin air—while Kenwyne and Molino threatened with headers.
Lawrence, who surprised observers with a 3-4-2-1 line-up that saw Joevin Jones and Carlos Edwards at wing back, would have been the happier coach at that stage.
“We need to play a little quicker,” said USA coach Bruce Arena, at the interval. “There has to be a greater sense of urgency in the final third.”
Molino gave the hosts a scare in the 50th minute as he stripped Johnson and delivered an incisive cross that Lewis could not get on the end off at the far post. But, despite a sterling performance from Jan-Michael, it was little surprise that it was USA who struck first.
Hyland conceded possession in his own half and then failed to stop tricky attacking midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Nagbe found right back DeAndre Yedlin whose low cross was turned in by Pulisic for the opener.
Lewis, who generally struggled in his biggest challenge as a professional so far—and he owed his opportunity to the wayward Cordell Cato, who was axed for indiscipline—momentarily silenced the crowd as he produced a neat finish off a fine Molino cross.
However, the flag of the referee’s assistant was up and the effort did not stand. Lewis appeared to be in line with his marker at the time the ball was delivered and attackers really should get the benefit of the doubt there.
Pulisic was quickly back in the hunt as he struck the outside of the upright in the 56th minute while Jan-Michael produced a brilliant double save from Jozy Altidore and Pulisic in the 57th minute.
On the hour mark, Arena made the first change of the night as he replaced Dempsey—who is one goal away from becoming the USA’s all-time record international scorer—with Kellyn Acosta.
Dempsey’s scowling response, capped off with some terse words aimed at his coach, suggested that it was not a pre-arranged change and certainly not a welcomed one by the attacker.
Arena, it appeared, was already thinking about their clash with Mexico at the dreaded Azteca Stadium on Sunday.
Two minutes later, his gamble was justified as Pulisic finished off a flowing move, after another Trinidad and Tobago turnover, as he ran on to an Altidore through pass to beat Jan-Michael at his near post.
Maybe Lawrence also decided to save the legs of some key players, as he replaced Joevin, Hyland and Kenwyne at various stages in the second half.
Acosta forced another fine save from Jan-Michael off a 77th minute free kick while another American substitute, Bobby Wood, his the upright in the 83rd minute. And, at the final whistle, the 2-0 deficit seemed a fair result.
The Warriors are not down yet. Although Panama’s point in San Jose tonight raises the stakes for Trinidad and Tobago and would ensure that Costa Rica are highly motivated too next Tuesday.
The situation is even more dire if Lawrence cannot count on his players to keep their eyes on the prize and it is hard to picture Cato storming out of the team hotel if he truly believed that Trinidad and Tobago could be sharing the field with Brazil or Argentina at the Russia World Cup in 12 months’ time.
T&T defender Mekeil Williams had a personal wager on tonight’s match with his Colorado Rapids teammate, Howard, and will now have to spend the rest of the MLS season seated near to the restroom of his club’s dressing room.
But the Warriors’ World Cup chances are not quite in the toilet just yet.
Trinidad and Tobago (3-4-2-1): 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK); 5.Daneil Cyrus, 4.Sheldon Bateau, 17.Mekeil Williams; 11.Carlos Edwards, 19.Kevan George, 8.Khaleem Hyland (23.Leston Paul 75), 3.Joevin Jones (12.Shahdon Winchester 67); 10.Kevin Molino, 7.Nathan Lewis; 9.Kenwyne Jones (captain) (20.Jamille Boatswain 81).
Unused substitutes: 1.Marvin Phillip (GK), 22.Adrian Foncette (GK), 2.Aubrey David, 6.Radanfah Abu Bakr, 13.Hughtun Hector, 14.Andre Boucaud, 15.Curtis Gonzales, 16.Alvin Jones, 18.Hashim Arcia.
Coach: Dennis Lawrence
United States (4-1-3-2): 1.Tim Howard (GK); 2.DeAndre Yedlin, 20.Geoff Cameron, 6.John Brooks, 21.Jorge Villafana; 4.Michael Bradley (captain); 15.Darlington Nagbe, 10.Christian Pulisic, 23.Fabian Johnson (11.Alejandro Bedoya 73); 8.Clint Dempsey (16.Kellyn Acosta 60), 17.Jozy Altidore (9.Bobby Wood 82).
Unused substitutes: 12.Brad Guzan (GK), 22.Nick Ramando (GK), 3.Omar Gonzales, 5.Tim Ream, 7.DaMarcus Beasley, 13.Dax McCarty, 14.Paul Arriola, 18.Jordan Morris, 19.Graham Zusi.
Coach: Bruce Arena
Referee: Oscar Moncada (Honduras)
(Thursday 8 June)
United States 2 (Christian Pulisic 52, 62), Trinidad and Tobago 0 at Commerce City;
Costa Rica 0, Panama 0 at San Jose;
Mexico 3 (Alanis Oswaldo 35, Hirving Lozano 63, Raul Jiminez 66), Honduras 0 at Mexico City.
CONCACAF Standings (Played-Won-Drawn-Lost-Goals For-Goals Against-Points)
Costa Rica 5-2-2-1-7-3-8