Sunday, December 3, 2023

Past hovers over USMNT’s return to Trinidad and Tobago, but focus is on present for Concacaf Nations League

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A 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday in the first leg of the Concacaf Nations League quarterfinals arguably sets up for a fairly routine scenario ahead of the second leg, but for the U.S. men’s national team, a return to the Caribbean nation comes with history.

It is not all bad history. The goal that ushered in the modern era of the USMNT was scored in Port of Spain by Paul Caligiuri in a 1-0 win that ensured the team would be at the 1990 World Cup, ending a 40-year absence from the competition. It is that history U.S. Soccer opted to embrace ahead of the side’s Monday match in the same city by inviting Caligiuri to speak to the current squad, made up almost entirely of players born after that moment.

“We actually had Paul in, connecting the past with the present. I was only a couple years old, I think, at that time so I don’t remember it but you hear and we’ve seen highlights of that game,” defender Tim Ream said in a press conference on Sunday. “Without that goal, without qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, potentially we’re not sitting here again. Being able to connect the past with the present during this camp has been nice and it is something that we’ve discussed and touched on.”

Caliguiri’s triumph is no longer the USMNT moment most associated with Trinidad and Tobago, though. The country shares its title as the host of one of the team’s greatest moments with the distinction of being the site for one their worst — the 2-1 loss in Couva that meant the USMNT would miss out on the 2018 World Cup. That failure ushered in a new era for the team including a coaching change and a full squad overhaul, which almost makes that moment seem truly like the past. Ream is the lone member of the squad that lost six years ago to make the trip this time around and said the team has moved on from the disappointment.

“For everybody, it’s personal when they move on, when they move past it,” he said. “I think for me, it was, I’d say the 2019 Gold Cup. I believe we played Trinidad, if I recall correctly, and that was kind of the moment for me and then as a whole, as a squad, I’d definitely say it was going into the World Cup last year, when the guys qualified for that and put the wrongs of the past on a better path.”

The fact that the team has made peace with the past allows them to focus solely on the present, especially considering the issues they currently face. The 3-0 win on Thursday was a slog at times, in which the USMNT took 82 minutes to score the game’s first goal. Ensuring the team does not feel as stifled on Monday is imperative, per Ream.

“We weren’t completely happy with the performance,” the defender said. “Obviously to come away with three goals and a win is nice but especially in the first half, we didn’t feel like we were doing enough in the final third. Obviously you have to give them credit for the way they defended and stayed behind the ball and made things compact and difficult for us, but it’s one of those where we made some adjustments at halftime.”

Improving upon Thursday’s performance comes with an added complication, though. Midfielder Weston McKennie left the squad on Saturday with a knee injury after battling the issue in the buildup to the game.

“All week, we discovered it,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “There were some training sessions where he’s hobbling around and it really took a lot for him to even play in this match. I had to go to him and have a private conversation to see his availability and thankfully, he was able to play this match but sometimes you push it to the limit and something bad can happen. In this case, where he was getting treatment all week, we saw him hindered in training and after speaking to him, it was about recovery and getting this thing right and trying to nip it in the bud so it doesn’t linger for months and months.”

McKennie’s withdrawal is the latest in a burgeoning injury crisis for the USMNT. The side is without wingers Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah through minor hamstring issues, while midfielder Johnny Cardoso pulled out before camp began with an ankle injury. Berhalter insisted that he will not make too many tactical tinkers for Monday and said “it’s not time to experiment.”

“All we really did was drop one of the wingers in, one of the wingers played high,” he said of Thursday’s lineup, which featured Malik Tillman and Kevin Paredes in those roles. “It’s a very simple little tweak to our buildup. We’ve played a double pivot before so it wasn’t much of a difference.

“For us, it’s looking at our personnel. Who do we have that can best fit the needs of the game and what we’re looking for in this match? And we’ll base it on profile, who we have and who do we have after that because we know we’re going to need to make some substitutions in this game and as you’ve seen in the last game, the substitutions make a big impact and we want to carry that through to this match as well.”

Despite the scenario, Berhalter still takes away positives from Thursday, ensuring the USMNT enter Monday’s matchup with a healthy advantage that puts them in strong position to reach the Nations League semifinals and qualify for next summer’s Copa America. The progress that the team made in-game, though, provided him with optimism that their focus remains firmly in the present.

“You have the tendency, the longer the score goes 0-0, start pushing, getting frustrated, openly frustrated and all that does is lead to unwarranted negativity and we didn’t have any of that and that’s what I’m really proud of,” Berhalter said. “From minute one in the second half, we pushed for the goal, a number of great opportunities, we didn’t score and then finally we had a breakthrough late and then when we had the breakthrough, what do you see? You see guys going into the net, picking the ball up, starting it again and I think that’s the mark of a mentally strong team, not being satisfied with 1-0, wanted to continue on and make more goals.”

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