By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 26, 2016) US Soccer Players - Florida and the Caribbean rank among America's very favorite places to visit. For those living in and around most of the United States' main population centers, a relatively short airplane ride can transport you to a completely different environment. Places where life moves slower. The sun is usually shining. Temperatures hardly ever drop below what we consider room temperature. The beach is never too far away.
Such escapes lure us by the hordes every winter. A quick online perusal of flight availabilities shows low prices and plenty of capacity over the next few weeks as heat, rain, and storms roil America's backyard lagoon. It's hardly the ideal time for the USMNT to gather in the tropics. But this is a business trip, and not for pleasure.
The USMNT will congregate in Jacksonville, Florida next week to prepare for CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches vs. St. Vincent & the Grenadines (Friday, September 2) and Trinidad & Tobago (Tuesday, Sep 5). Jax will serve as home base and site of the T&T match.
From there, the Yanks will jet down and back to little St. Vincent, one of the most remote and rural outposts in the region. They'll see this from the moment their plane makes its final approach to E.T. Joshua Airport. It's a humble facility wedged into the narrow coastal plain that separates the small island's rugged volcanic mountains from the Caribbean Sea.
The St. Vincent game should present relatively little to fear on the field. The US won their first meeting 6-1 in St. Louis back in November. The minnows' goal scorer that night, Seattle Sounders speedster Oalex Anderson, has yet to report to his national team's camp. Still, it's an away game in CONCACAF.
“Vincy” is a welcoming country, but a blue-collar place that's rough around the edges. The Arnos Vale Stadium sits a long goal kick from the airport and with the rainy season well underway, is quite unlikely to feature a pristine playing surface. With a kickoff time of 3:30 pm, the equatorial sun will singe and temperatures in the high 80s will feel 10 degrees hotter and muggier.
Even for MLS players in midseason form or those fresh and fit at the dawn of the European campaign, these conditions could prove tricky. History suggests coach Jurgen Klinsmann will push his team through its paces to acclimate them in the brief preparation window he has. And that's a delicate balance for hard-working hamstrings and groin muscles.
August and September are not high season in that part of the world. Not only are the northern industrialized regions still wallowing in ample sun and heat of their own. It's also the most unpleasant time of year in the West Indies and Florida. Trade winds ebb and humidity swelters – with the added discomfort of hurricane season's arrival. At this moment a storm system is stewing off eastern Cuba. Forecasts suggest it won't threaten either US match, but could complicate travel itineraries.
It all adds up to a dramatic backdrop for two games of importance. Klinsmann has surely targeted the full six points as the USMNT's goal, which would both bank advancement to the Hexagonal round and attain preferential seeding status. Anything less would court real tension. The US remain in second place in Group C, three points behind T&T. Though a first-place finish is well within their reach, Guatemala's position just one point back means that there actually isn't all that much room for error.
The St. Vincent job must be negotiated carefully before full focus turns towards victory vs. the Soca Warriors in Jacksonville. From a CONCACAF-wide perspective, Trinidad & Tobago's resurgence is one of the more positive developments of the past few years. At present it's just another headache for Klinsmann & Co., however. A growing cadre of foreign-based players are raising T&T's traditional standards, with former England youth international John Bostock the latest addition – pending FIFA's long-delayed approval of his allegiance change.
However, island fans may not relish the possibility that 23-year-old Greg Ranjitsingh, who keeps goal for USL side Louisville City, could step straight into the starting lineup in his first international action. Visiting the USMNT for their final game of the round effectively puts T&T in a must-win position when Guatemala visit Port-of-Spain in the Friday fixture. A draw or victory would bank advancement, while defeat would put Los Chapines in the driver's seat for Hex qualification.
“I don’t anticipate this game to be pretty at all,” T&T coach Stephen Hart said of that game on Thursday, and it's useful advice for all four teams in the group over the next fortnight.
Don't be fooled by the low pressure readings. The Caribbean is a tense place to be at this time of year.
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