Miami (AFP) – United States coach Bruce Arena has challenged his team to finish the job and seal World Cup qualification against Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday after an emphatic rout of Panama which has transformed American fortunes.
Friday’s exhilarating attacking display against Panama, where Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic excelled in a 4-0 thrashing of Los Canaleros, has left Arena’s side on the brink of a place in next year’s finals in Russia.
Heading into the final round of games, the US sit third in the standings with 12 points, two points clear of Panama and Honduras, their only rivals for the final automatic qualifying berth from CONCACAF.
A win over Trinidad on Tuesday would guarantee that the US extend a proud record of qualifying for every World Cup since 1990.
And with a sizeable advantage in goal difference of plus five, compared to Panama (-2) and Honduras (-7), a draw at Trinidad’s tiny 10,000-seater Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva will almost certainly be enough.
Nevertheless, Arena has warned his team to be ready for a stern physical challenge against Trinidad, even though the Caribbean nation are already eliminated and have little but pride to play for.
“The game in Trinidad won’t be easy but we are in a good position now,” Arena said. “It will be challenging. We faced challenging conditions in Honduras and Panama so we will be ready. Trinidad are out but will be a handful.
“We are moving along well, our goal difference is better and now we need to finish it off.”
History suggests the US should comfortably achieve qualification on Tuesday. In 25 meetings between the two sides since 1982, the US have won 18, drawn four and lost on only three occasions. The last of those defeats came nearly a decade ago, in a 2-1 loss in 2008.
More recently, Arena’s side won 2-0 at home in June and also recorded a 4-0 win in an earlier round of qualifying in 2016.
– ‘Job not done’ –
The US will seek to extend that record of dominance with an attack spearheaded by Pulisic and Jozy Altidore, who scored twice against Panama.
“The job’s not done yet,” said Altidore. “We need a result and we know it’s going to be a tough place to play.”
US captain Michael Bradley is also confident the team will punch its ticket on Tuesday.
“It’s been a long road to put ourselves in this situation,” Bradley said.
“Ultimately, we’ve played 15 games in qualifying and now we’ve got a chance in 90 minutes in Trinidad to finish the job and make sure we’re on the plane to Russia. The motivation will be huge to go down there and do whatever it takes.”
While the blossoming of teenage star Pulisic has given the US forward line a potency it has not always been able to rely on recently, Arena was hesitant when asked if he was tempted to build his side around the youngster.
“I’ve never built a team around one player,” Arena said. “He’s exceptional and he stands out, but for him to be more effective he needs better players around him. The better players we have around him the better he will be.”
Pulisic has been the subject of some uncompromising tackling during the qualifiers, and Arena took the precaution of withdrawing him against Panama once victory was assured.
“He was kicked a few times, he’s been beaten up a few times in this CONCACAF qualifying competition so I wanted to protect him,” Arena said.
With the US in control of their destiny, Panama will aim to bounce back in their home game against Costa Rica. Panama will secure fourth place, and a playoff against either Syria or Australia, if they match or better Honduras’ result against Mexico in the day’s other game.
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