By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 9, 2015) US Soccer Players – “On the road again.” That’s the title of the famous Willie Nelson song about a musician and the pleasure of traveling from one gig to another away from home. The life of a soccer player really isn’t much different. Well, except the part about players on the road always greeted with the love and devotion of a famous singer. On the contrary, soccer players never expect a warm welcome away from home. During CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, playing on the road can be downright impossible.
The USMNT went 11-3-2 during the last World Cup Qualifying cycle, winning the Hexagonal on its way to Brazil 2014. However, a closer look at the USMNT’s performance showed a team that, at times struggled on the road
In the last World Cup cycle, the USMNT went 3-3-1 on the road, amassing 10 points. That was just enough to put the United States into the World Cup. The USA’s lone away draw, a 0-0 tie at the Estadio Azteca against Mexico, was widely viewed as a victory. Mexico City, with its altitude, searing heat and loud crowds, makes it a very difficult place to earn three points.
As the United States prepares to take on Trinidad & Tobago on November 17 at Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, the discussion of winning on the road is again at the forefront. With the USMNT hitting a snag recently with a string of mediocre results, the question of whether Jurgen Klinsmann’s team can win in general – and on the road in particular – is something that makes fans nervous.
It’s easy enough to criticize CONCACAF as an easy region to qualify out compared to Europe, South America, or Africa. Even easier for fans of countries that have never played an away game in Honduras, Jamaica, or Costa Rica with World Cup qualifying on the line. Winning in those countries is extremely tricky. Fans teeming with excitement, cheering on their beloved National Team for 90 minutes in stadiums that feature barbed wire fences and police in riot gear can make for a tense setting. That has not deterred the USA from winning on the road. A never-say-die approach, for example, has helped at the World Cup level, but it has also been key on the road during qualifying. The Americans had three stoppage time goals during the last Hexagonal alone. Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored back-to-back stoppage time goals away at Panama, while Brad Evans recorded the winner in a 2-1 victory against at Jamaica.
Winning on the road is also the stuff that makes great memories. Look at Landon Donovan and all he achieved for the National Team. He played at three World Cups and scored an epic goal at the 2010 tournament against Algeria to put the Americans in the knockout round. Despite all that, Donovan told ESPN in a 2014 interview that one of his personal highlights in a USA shirt was defeating Barbados – hardly a world soccer power – on the road in 2001 during a World Cup Qualifying match.
“One of my favorite memories was when we went to Barbados in 2001 and we were in the preliminary round of qualifying. Not even the final round. And we had to beat Barbados to advance, it was the last game. A tie wouldn’t have gotten us through, so it was a tense, tense situation,” Donovan recalled. “Into the 60th minute, it was 0-0, and they had a great chance to score and (Tony) Meola made an incredible save. And then we ended up scoring — I think Joe-Max Moore scored – and we ended up winning 4-0.
“You could imagine this tense situation, these highs and lows of the roller coaster, and then afterwards we got to go out in Barbados. There was just this sense of relief and enjoyment, so it made the night incredible. I remember Clint Mathis coming up to me with all the money the guys had put in for the night saying, ‘Here, you’re in charge of it for the night.’ It was my job as the rookie on the team. And we got to go out and just enjoy ourselves and have fun. It’s moments like that that you never forget.”
The last time the USA played at Hasley Crawford Stadium was in 2009, the Americans won 1-0 in a World Cup Qualifying game decided by a Ricardo Clark goal. The stadium – named after a former track and field star who became the first person in T&T history to win an Olympic gold medal – was opened in 1980 and serves as Trinidad & Tobago’s home for soccer matches. The 23,000-seat venue, which features a track around the field, swelled to as many as 40,000 when it hosted the USA back in that epic 1990 World Cup Qualifier on Nov. 19, 1989.
Former US defender Steve Trittschuh, a member of the team that qualified for Italia ’90, recalled those tough road matches. “We had no idea what to expect when we played in Costa Rica the first game. What I remember about the game was it was so loud in the stadium I could not hear my teammates on the field,” he said. “We lost the game 1-0 and that would be our only loss in the group stage.”
Trittschuh said coach Bob Gansler was essential in getting the players, many of them fresh out of college, prepared for the challenges of playing at a high level – something that paid off when the Americans defeated T&T and advanced to the finals. “I really believe Coach Gansler prepared us well and we fought and competed in every match. We all had confidence going into that final game in Trinidad and we came out victorious. We all grew as players going through that qualification,” he recalled.
The National Team program has grown tremendously in the past 26 years, but some of the same challenges remain. The Americans will need to conjure up the same type of magic that helped it qualify for past World Cups if it wants to play in Russia. The United States has become used to qualifying for the World Cup and done it with a certain amount of ease over the past two decades. That shouldn’t create a false sense of security. Qualifying for Russia ’18 will be very difficult. The USMNT and everyone else in CONCACAF knows that securing points at home is only half the battle. It’s winning on the road that gets you to the finals.
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