In today’s FOX Sports Insider with Martin Rogers: Trips to Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador mean traveling to nations where national pride is firmly on the line every time the national team plays ... we take a look at the key storylines for the NASCAR playoffs ... and Toronto Blue Jays All-Star Bo Bichette has a must-see Spider-Man-themed bat.
Trinidad and Tobago traffic isn’t Los Angeles traffic and the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway, running down Trinidad’s western coast, is hardly a parking lot on a typical midweek evening.
And yet, on Oct. 10, 2017, as the United States fought to avoid a humiliating failure to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, there were far more people traveling those well-lit lanes than the number that bothered to veer off and stop by tiny Ato Boldon Stadium, situated right beside it.
T&T was playing the U.S. and the locals didn’t care. It was supposed to be a non-event. T&T had lost eight straight qualifiers, were long since out of World Cup contention and had nothing to play for. The U.S. needed only a draw to ensure a difficult campaign pockmarked by Jurgen Klisnmann’s firing, at least had a positive ending by booking a spot in Russia the following summer.
Only about 1,000 patrons occupied the stands, and most of those were friends and relatives of the host nation’s players or had some link to the T&T soccer federation. Nothing to see here, was the general vibe. Until there was.
Even if you’re a very recent soccer fan or an extremely young one, you know the details by now; a 2-1 victory for the home side, Clint Dempsey hitting the woodwork late with a strike that might have saved the Americans, a baby-faced Christian Pulisic sobbing in the arms of the coaching staff at the final whistle, Bruce Arena stepping down as coach and no U.S. presence at a men’s World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Whenever a team that expected to reach soccer’s grandest show doesn’t manage to do so, the clock starts ticking, and it is one heck of a long wait. Never more so than this time - thanks to COVID delays, 47 months have elapsed between arguably American soccer’s darkest hour and this week, which confers the beginning of the chance to set things right.
On Thursday, the qualifying journey toward the 2022 World Cup in Qatar gets underway, and the U.S., now with a new look squad marshaled by Gregg Berhalter, will travel to El Salvador to kick things off.
The last campaign ended amid a backdrop of local apathy. That certainly won’t be the case this time.
“Going on the road in CONCACAF is still a thing,” FOX Sports Soccer Analyst Alexi Lalas told me via telephone this week, referring to the seven overseas trips to Central America, the Caribbean and Canada that the team will undertake. “It is less formidable than it once was but it is still something new for most of this young and talented group of U.S. players.”
Trips to locations such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador mean traveling to nations where soccer runs deep in the blood and where national pride is firmly on the line every time the national team plays. In this region, there is no greater satisfaction to be had than knocking off the U.S.
Think fire alarms mysteriously going off in the team hotel in the middle of the night, various items being hurled from the stands, playing fields of somewhat less than pristine condition and you’re getting the right idea.
“You need to have a punk ethos about it,” Lalas added. “You need to embrace and love the challenge. You are going into a cauldron. Once the players are out there it doesn’t matter what club team you play for, how many social media followers you have, how much money you make. It is not a place for shrinking violets.”
At the beginning of the 2018 campaign, there was a school of thought that the challenges of CONCACAF had greatly diminished. Mexico no longer opted to play its home games against the U.S. in the middle of the afternoon to maximize the discomfort, field conditions were generally better and with so many players from the region plying their trade overseas, home advantage had apparently lessened.
But the Americans then managed just three points from their five road games, including the infamous night in the Trinidadian suburb of Couva, a record that would condemn the team to CONCACAF’s fifth-place spot, not even good enough for an inter-continental playoff.
The day before the Trinidad matchup, Arena claimed even some big-name European teams would struggle if they had to face the rigors of CONCACAF qualifying, an argument that was largely scoffed at by soccer fans. Ultimately, his comments were eerily prescient.
Most of the current squad have come on board in the years since the 2018 failure. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta is one of the few that were involved back then, and said that the difficulties of CONCACAF travel would not serve as an adequate excuse for under-performance.
“Regardless of the weather or the field we’ve got to be up to it,” Acosta told reporters this week.
Lalas expects the U.S., coming off a big summer in which it won both the Nations League and the Gold Cup, to have little trouble during qualifying. The group is loaded with talent, although the U.S. team’s top star, Pulisic, did not travel with the team to El Salvador on Wednesday and will miss the Americans' opening qualifier.
The El Salvador game is followed by a trip home to face Canada in Nashville on Sunday, then another road tour to Honduras next Wednesday. Lalas admitted he would be disappointed with anything less than a seven point haul from the three games. The top three teams in CONCACAF’s octagonal qualifying round go to the World Cup, the fourth heads to a playoff.
After the tumult of the 2018 campaign, a strong start and a smooth ride would be sincerely welcome. But, as we saw last time, in CONCACAF you just never know.
Here’s what others have said ...
Michael Lewis, Front Row Soccer: “When the U.S. men’s national team ventures to Central America for World Cup qualifiers, the players are not only battling the team on the field. There are plenty of issues and distractions off the pitch, such as transportation problems, local supporters blaring loud music outside the team hotel at night, moats around the field and trying to avoid flying projectiles.”
Dave Sarachan, Former USMNT Coach: “It’s always a challenge as a team mentally to make sure everyone’s pretty much prepared that if it can go wrong, it likely will. Mentally, that’s a huge obstacle to make sure we’re on top of. You go in with some expectation, but you have to be flexible. There are some things that change, always on the fly.”
If you are a fan of superhero movies, specifically Spider-Man, you are going to love this post. Check out the photos posted by the Toronto Blue Jays, which shows All-Star Bo Bichette rocking a Spider-Man bat. Take notice in the detail, everything from the web to his name written on top of the bat. This is awesome!
Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals (ESPN+, 7:05 p.m. ET) Aaron Nola takes the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies, who take on Paolo Espino and the Washington Nationals.
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Odds provided by FOX Bet Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers: UNDER 8
Max Scherzer takes the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who go up against Max Fried and the Atlanta Braves. Scherzer has been lights out since arriving in LA, sporting a 4-0 record and a 0.83 ERA. On the other side, Fried has been outstanding in the month of August, posting a 4-0 record and holding opponents to just five runs in 33 innings of work. In other words, look for this to be a low scoring affair. Taking the under of eight runs is a great play.
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Superstars Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have shown that athletes’ mental health is just as important as physical health. Their respective withdrawals from Grand Slam tennis tournaments and Olympic gymnastics competitions have highlighted the need for better support. Join us Wednesday, September 8 at 11:00 a.m. ET as we discuss the technology that can play a role in identifying and treating mental health concerns in sport.