PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- It's tough to feel a sense of urgency when you're sitting in a luxury hotel overlooking the Caribbean Sea on a glorious late-summer afternoon. But it's still possible, especially if you're Tim Howard, the goalkeeper whose U.S. national team needs a victory in tonight's World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, TeleFutura) to feel good about its chances of reaching South Africa 2010.
"I've said it all along, you win your home games and you hope to pick up something on the road," Howard says. "But I think now the mindset has to change a little bit. For the four teams right now who are at the top of the group, I think we all would probably say we've got to go for it."
A U.S. tie here just won't cut it. Not when Mexico's surprising 3-0 win at Costa Rica on Saturday made a close four-team race for three automatic World Cup spots even tighter. Not when this is the easiest road venue in the Hexagonal. And not when a tie or loss would be a step back for a U.S. team that won its last qualifier here that mattered in 2005.
"We need to win this game," said Landon Donovan on Wednesday night. "Our last two are very difficult games [in October at Honduras and at home against Costa Rica]. This is a [T&T] team that is not mathematically out but likely out of it, and a team that we need to beat, clearly."
The U.S. figures to make a few changes from the lineup that beat El Salvador 2-1 on Saturday. Coach Bob Bradley said Oguchi Onyewu will return to the central defense after serving a one-game yellow-card suspension. Onyewu has been training with the team all week, and Bradley said he's not concerned that the AC Milan player hasn't played a competitive game since the U.S.-Mexico qualifier almost a month ago.
Bradley has a couple of options for the rest of the back line. He could use Chad Marshall in the center next to Onyewu and put Carlos Bocanegra on the left, but I suspect Bocanegra will play in the center, leaving Bradley with a decision: Does he continue on the left with Jonathan Bornstein, who struggled on Saturday? Or does he move Jonathan Spector from the right side to the left (where he plays for West Ham) and put Steve Cherundolo on the right?
That's what I suspect will happen, and we'll see (from left to right): Spector - Bocanegra - Onyewu - Cherundolo. If Spector does move to the left, it will be important for Cherundolo to show that his crosses can be just as dangerous as Spector's have been in recent months.
Otherwise, I think the only change we'll see is in the central midfield, where Ricardo Clark could return to the lineup replacing Benny Feilhaber. That would mean a midfield of: Donovan - Clark - Michael Bradley - Clint Dempsey.
Up top, I figure we'll again see Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies, provided that Davies is O.K. after leaving the game on Saturday in the second half with a thigh contusion. "We needed to see how a few guys felt, Charlie being one of them," Bob Bradley said on Tuesday night after practice at Hasely Crawford Stadium. "Based upon the little that we did, guys seemed O.K. We'll see how they are later tonight and tomorrow and make final decisions. But the hope is we'll have everybody open for selection."
Altidore, you may recall, had a hat trick in Nashville the last time these two teams played. The rise of Davies since then has to be an encouraging development for the U.S.'s attacking future. After all, how many Top 15 national teams start a 19-year-old and a 23-year-old up top?
As for T&T, the cuddly upstart that made a splash at World Cup 2006 (tying Sweden and giving England all it could handle) is essentially out of contention for South Africa. But it does have one of the better front lines in CONCACAF. Kenwyne Jones (Sunderland) and Cornell Glen (San Jose Earthquakes) started in the team's 4-1 loss at Honduras on Saturday, but we could see the debut of recently naturalized Bobby Zamora (Fulham).
"These are all guys who are pretty decorated, particularly in CONCACAF," says Tim Howard. "They're a handful because, first off, you look at their physical stature, they're really big. But then they also possess good speed, they're good in the air. A lot of what they bring, ironically, kind of plays into our hands. Because from a defensive standpoint we're very good at those things as well. We're good in the air, we're fast, we're strong. So oftentimes our matchups have been pretty good against those guys for that reason."
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Saturday (other than Mexico's win at Costa Rica) was that the U.S., which had so readily picked up cards in 2009, didn't receive a single yellow against El Salvador. On the one hand, that left no players suspended for tonight's game, but it also means that seven U.S. players are one yellow card away from being suspended for October's qualifier at Honduras: Altidore, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Clark, Dempsey, Donovan and Feilhaber.
"At this point we can't worry about cards," says Donovan, who was the Man of the Match against El Salvador. "The last game we were a little cautious of it and we did a good job. Right now we need to play to win the game, and if we take a yellow and miss a game that's part of it. We've got enough guys who can fill out the team."
THROUGH-BALLS: President Obama has been supportive of U.S. Soccer recently, writing a personal letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter in support of the U.S. bid for the 2018/2022 World Cups and hosting Blatter in a private Oval Office meeting. We're also told that White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina is such a U.S. Soccer fan that he wore a Landon Donovan jersey on the day of the U.S.-Brazil Confederations Cup final. But Obama's scheduling of a big nationally televised speech tonight during an important U.S. World Cup qualifier? Lame ... If the U.S. builds a sizable lead, I wouldn't be surprised to see forward Robbie Findley get on the field. Findley's parents, Vanessa and Rawle, are from Port of Spain, and Findley has many relatives here. He even had a try-out with the T&T Under-21 team in 2005 ... It's amazing how often you see soccer references in non-soccer areas here. Trinidadian Jack Warner, the all-powerful FIFA vice-president, also appears in the papers here as chairman of the UNC-A political party, and there was also a front-page picture in the Daily Express of a beauty pageant that took place in the João Havelange Centre of Excellence, named for the Brazilian former FIFA president. Nice to see that Warner is acting as the Robert Byrd of soccer politics, bring lots of $$$ to his home state.
How do you see the U.S.-T&T game playing out? Who do you think will start for the Americans? Post your thoughts below and check back later for updates from the stadium.