SANDY — When the U.S. Men’s National Team lost its first two matches in the second phase of World Cup qualifying back in November, and then fired coach Jurgen Klinsman a few days later, suddenly qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia seemed anything but a foregone conclusion.
New coach Bruce Arena guided the United States to a win and a draw in Games 3 and 4 back in March to right the ship, and heading into two more qualifiers next week there’s plenty of optimism with a healthy squad at Arena’s disposal.
Before looking ahead to qualifiers next week against Trinidad and Tobagao in Colorado followed by a trip to Azteca Stadium in Mexico, the United States will try to fine tune things on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in a friendly against Venezuela (8 p.m., FS1).
“It’s preparation for us for these difficult World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad and Mexico, and Salt Lake City has always been a great venue not only for their team but certainly for the U.S. team, we’re pleased to be here,” said Arena ahead of Friday’s training session at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The squad spent the past four days training in Colorado, and it will return there on Sunday as it builds toward the Trinidad and Tobago match on Thursday.
U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said the focus this week has been really good, and he’s anxious to cap the week with a good performance at Rio Tinto Stadium before shifting gears to meaningful qualifiers next week.
“After two games the situation wasn’t good. I’d say after four games it’s better, clearly better, but still we’re not where we want to be. Coming into games five and six it’s very, very important that we understand where we are, we understand that there’s still a real need for urgency to take points,” said Bradley.
Through four of 10 matches, the United States sits in fourth place out of six teams after collecting only four of 12 points. The top three automatically qualify for Russia in 2018, and the fourth-place team has an inter-confederation two-leg playoff with the fifth-place team from Asian qualifying.
“We’re in a much better position than we were to start the year, so we’re obviously happy about that, but the job’s not done yet, and I don’t think we will be happy or comfortable until the job is done,” said defender Omar Gonzalez.
Arena has a full complement of players to select from. Back in the March qualifiers, Fabian Johnson, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin were all injured, but they’re all back in camp this week.
Even though it’s a friendly, Gonzalez said winning is always important whenever the United States steps on the field.
“We want to win every game that we’re in. Our focus is to put together a good match against Venezuela, to build a little bit of chemistry, to work on our formation and the things we’ve been working on at practice, put them at full speed against real competition,” said Gonzalez.
U.S. forward Clint Dempsey is one goal shy of tying Landon Donovan’s U.S. record of 57 career goals donning the Stars and Stripes.
A pair of Real Salt Lake players will be in uniform on Saturday. Nick Rimando is one of four goalkeepers in camp for the United States this week, while RSL newcomer Jefferson Savarino was called up to the Venezuelan National Team.