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For U.S. soccer, there’s no point in thinking about Mexico before Trinidad and Tobago

Bruce Arena and the U.S. team will face Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday in the Denver area and visit Mexico on Sunday. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — In 10 days of training camp, the players and coaches of the U.S. men’s national soccer team have worked on high-altitude conditioning, attacking rhythm and defensive coordination.

They’ve also had to master another discipline: compartmentalizing.

On Sunday, the Americans will rekindle one of the sport’s great rivalries by playing Mexico in a rabidly anticipated, politically charged World Cup qualifier in the mad house of Azteca Stadium.

Until they’ve completed a more immediate task, however, they can’t afford to turn full attention to their longtime nemesis.

Before leaving the snow-capped Rockies for the thin air of Mexico City, the Americans must apply all their energy and thought into defeating Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in this Denver suburb.

Coach Bruce Arena said he couldn’t “care less about Mexico until the final whistle blows on Thursday night.”

“At the moment,” captain Michael Bradley said Wednesday, “the only thing we’re worried about is taking care of business [Thursday] night.”

How about Christian Pulisic, the teenage sensation who will visit Azteca for the first time as a senior national team member?

“The Mexico game isn’t in our head at all yet.”

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It shouldn’t be. For if the Americans are to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, they cannot afford to stumble at home against the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, which is last in the six-nation final round with a 1-3-0 record and three points. The United States (1-2-1, four points) stands fourth.

Collecting points in Mexico City is neither expected nor essential; beating Trinidad and Tobago is both.

Which isn’t to say the U.S. coaching staff has spent all of its time and energy on only the first game. Over the course of training camp, Arena has introduced plans for each match. As the first assignment grew closer, however, the focus was squarely on Trinidad and Tobago.

“There is a balance,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We came into camp pretty early on. Bruce made sure we were just focused on ourselves. Four days out, the focus has only been on Trinidad. It’s a tough balance for the coaching staff, but I think they’ve gotten it right. Hopefully it will pay dividends tomorrow and Sunday.”

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Arena has had to address not only the dual matches, but a tighter timetable (two off-days between games instead of three, interrupted by an international flight) that jeopardizes the ability of first-choice players to perform at peak capacity over 180 minutes. With that in mind, Arena plans to change personnel — and probably the formation and tactics, as well — ahead of the Mexico game.

“My attitude is: Play this [first] game and, once the dust clears on Friday morning, finalize the plans for Mexico,” Arena said. “Having said that, I pretty well know what we’re going to do against Mexico.”

What is he going to do against Mexico?

For competitive reasons, Arena declined to go into specifics, other than to say, “We’re going to show up and play.”

In all likelihood, he will field an attack-minded lineup against vulnerable Trinidad and Tobago and a defensive-oriented group against favored Mexico, which sits atop the group with a 3-0-1 record. Before hosting the United States, the Mexicans will welcome Honduras (1-2-1, four points) to Azteca on Thursday.

This isn’t the first time the Americans have played in the Denver area (5,280 feet) ahead of a trip to Mexico City (7,350). In March 2013, with Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm, they outlasted Costa Rica in a snowstorm, 1-0, then earned a 0-0 draw four days later at Azteca.

During the current camp, the Americans played a friendly in Sandy, Utah (4,400 feet), last Saturday, a 1-1 draw with Venezuela.

Amid the hype leading to the Mexico clash, the U.S. players say they are not looking past Trinidad and Tobago.

“All our focus is on that game right now,” Bradley said. “As soon as the whistle blows after 90 minutes, then we’ll shift focus quickly to a big game Sunday night.”

A misstep against the Soca Warriors would heighten the urgency of earning points in Mexico City, where the Americans have never won a qualifier.

“We certainly understand the significance of this game,” Arena said of the T&T matchup. “We firmly believe we have to win this game. I believe our opponent would be glad to walk away with a point and certainly be elated with three points. It will be a challenging game. Trinidad will come in here and be organized and try to frustrate us and perhaps take advantage of set pieces.”

The U.S. team’s 17-2-4 record against Trinidad and Tobago includes a 7-0-1 mark in World Cup qualifiers at home and a 12-1-3 mark in all qualifiers. (The only defeat came during the 2010 cycle after the Americans had already clinched a spot in the final round.) In the semifinal stage of this cycle, the United States earned a 4-0 victory last September in Jacksonville, Fla. Both teams advanced to the final round.

“We’ll do anything we can to win that game [Thursday] without thinking about Mexico,” Pulisic said, “and then Mexico is a whole ‘nother story.”