JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Although the U.S. national team’s place in the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying is almost certain, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann is approaching Tuesday’s match against Trinidad and Tobago as if the Americans are desperate for victory.
“We are looking at the strongest lineup in order to beat Trinidad and Tobago,” he said Monday before a training session at EverBank Field. “This is it. This is World Cup qualifying. This is not the time to experiment. We can talk about that if everything is done about next month’s friendlies, but not in World Cup qualifying. We take this very seriously.”
The only way the Americans (10 points) do not advance is if they lose and Guatemala (seven) defeats St. Vincent and the Grenadines (none) by margins that overturn a plus-12 U.S. goal differential, which is the first tiebreaker. Trinidad and Tobago (11 points) has already clinched.
The United States has not lost a home qualifier since 2001.
Nonetheless, Klinsmann isn’t messing around.
“The situation is very clear. We badly want to win this game,” he said. “We want to finish first in this group. We are not through yet and this is what we clearly tell the players so for not even one second they underestimate the situation. We are fully prepared to go 100 percent full speed.”
In other words, anyone hoping to see a young, unproven player in the starting lineup, such as Christian Pulisic, is probably going to be disappointed.
Still, Klinsmann will make changes to the lineup that strolled to a 6-0 victory at St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday. Center back Matt Besler returned home after the birth of a child and right back DeAndre Yedlin will serve a yellow-card suspension. Klinsmann also announced early last week that he would rotate his goalkeepers, meaning Tim Howard will replace Brad Guzan.
Midfielder Michael Bradley, the captain, rejoined the squad after sitting out on yellow cards and defender Michael Orozco is back in the mix after serving a red-card suspension.
As for Pulisic, who scored twice and assisted once in a reserve role Friday and is seeking his first U.S. start, Klinsmann said the 17-year-old attacker is a “very special talent. … We bring him along, and when I have the feeling that I [need to] hold him back a little bit, I will hold him back. When I have a feeling to give him a go, I will give him a go.”
Although advancement is, for practical purposes, locked up, the Americans do have incentive. By winning, they will finish first in the group — they’ve never failed to do so in this stage — and probably get two of their most difficult final-round matches out of the way in November: Mexico at home and Costa Rica away.
The framework for the six-nation final round is already is place; it’s now a matter of filling in the slots after Tuesday’s matches in the three groups.
Mexico has clinched the top slot in Group A and will visit the Group C winner (United States or T&T) on Nov. 11. The Americans always play their home qualifier against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio — and they have always won, 2-0.
As the top seed in Group C, the United States would play its second game on the road Nov. 15 against the Group B winner. Costa Rica is three points ahead of Panama and will host the Panamanians on Tuesday in San Jose.
If the Americans finish second in the semifinal-round group, they would probably host Costa Rica and visit Honduras. Those are treacherous, as well, but playing Mexico early in the 10-game schedule is appealing. Otherwise, the United States would have to go to Azteca Stadium in October 2017 for the penultimate match in the final round.
“There is none bigger than Mexico,” Bradley said. “You talk about the next few months, the chance to play Mexico at home in November to start the hex, that makes for a big night.”
As Bradley noted, November is a good time for the U.S. players to meet their longtime nemesis: Those coming from MLS teams are fit after just completing the regular season, and the European- and Mexican-based players are three months into their club campaigns.
“So in all ways,” Bradley said, “it could set up well.”
Howard, too, likes the idea of an early Mexico showdown.
Reflecting on past qualifying schedules, “You drop points down in Guatemala or Honduras or somewhere, and the next matchday we have to play Costa Rica or Mexico, and those are always tough games,” he said. “It would be nice to get that out of the way, perform well, put some points on the board and then put some pressure on them.”
Trinidad arrived in Jacksonville without a worry in the world, having secured passage with a 2-2 home draw against Guatemala on Friday.
Klinsmann, though, believes the Soca Warriors are plenty motivated.
“There is nothing bigger in that group than playing us,” he said. “There is nothing bigger for their players to showcase themselves [than] to play the U.S. team. I expect them to be hungry. They have nothing to lose. They can go in there with no fear, no nervousness – nothing. In their minds, they want to show off, they want to maybe go for contracts” with bigger clubs.
U.S. notes: About 17,000 tickets have been sold for a match that, given the opponent, day of the week and ramifications, was not expected to draw more than 20,000. … Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m. ET on FS1, UniMas, Fox Sports Go (app), univisiondeportes.com and foxsoccer2go.com. … The Costa Rican officiating crew is headed by referee Ricardo Montero. … Howard has not conceded a goal in four previous appearances against T&T (three victories and one draw). He started the 0-0 draw in Port of Spain last November. With Tuesday’s appearance, Howard will surpass Kasey Keller for most qualifiers by a U.S. goalkeeper. They are tied with 31 apiece. … The Americans are 11-0-1 all-time at home against T&T and 16-2-4 overall. … Nine of the 23 T&T players are employed by U.S. leagues: five in MLS, two in the second-tier NASL and two in the third-flight USL.