BEREA, Ohio — “Revenge is for suckers. I’ve been griftin’ for 30 years, I never got any.”
Paul Newman’s character Henry Gondorff said it in the movie “The Sting,” and the same sentiment holds true for the U.S. men’s national team ahead of its Gold Cup group stage game against Trinidad & Tobago on Saturday night.
It was the Soca Warriors who defeated the U.S. 2-1 on that infamous night in Couva, Trinidad back in 2017, a result that knocked the Americans out of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. The repercussions weren’t immediate, but they eventually did arrive. Bruce Arena stepped down as manager. Sunil Gulati ultimately decided not to run for reelection as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. For long-serving players like goalkeeper Tim Howard and forward Clint Dempsey, that was their last appearance in a U.S. uniform.
Twenty months on, Saturday’s match at First Energy Stadium will be the first encounter between the two sides since that qualifier, and while it’s tempting to think that revenge will be a motivating factor for the U.S., that isn’t the first emotion the players are feeling.
“For us as a federation, I think there’s that [revenge] angle, but for us as players, it’s about winning the game, period,” midfielder Wil Trapp said.
First off, the U.S. roster has largely been turned over. Just six of the players who suited up that night in Trinidad are on the U.S. squad contesting the Gold Cup. Twelve of the players are taking part in their first competitive tournament with the U.S., giving them plenty to prove to manager Gregg Berhalter. The impulse is to find motivation in the present as opposed to the past.
Even for those holdovers, the impulse is to focus on the here and now. Given the pain of that night, such an approach isn’t surprising. There’s also the reality that nothing will make up for the pain of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, certainly not a mere group stage game at a Gold Cup that the U.S. is hosting.
“I wouldn’t say there is too much of what has happened before in our minds,” said midfielder Paul Arriola, one of the players who was on the field for the U.S. on that fateful night. “I think internally and for us as a group, the more important thing is we’re playing [them] here in 2019 in the second game of the Gold Cup. A win for us could put us through [into the knockout rounds]. I wouldn’t say there’s too much regarding the revenge aspect.”
Thoughts of avenging a bitter defeat can be a powerful motivator. It can force self-reflection in terms of where a team needs to improve. During the game itself it can provide a boost of energy, and a sense of satisfaction afterwards if the desired result is achieved. But it’s also one that focuses on the ultimate outcome and can distract a player from executing on the building blocks needed to achieve it. While every player is different, it’s not a trick Arriola is using heading into the match.
“From personal experience, I don’t think there’s too much of revenge that plays into my thought process,” he said. “I think it’s more about focusing on the next game and what’s coming up. As professionals, you have to have a lot of short-term memory. You can never get too high, you can never get too low based on results or performances.
“You’ve got to keep going and do the best that you can and bring the best version of yourself to the next game.”
To that end, there is plenty for the U.S. to work on after its 4-0 win over Guyana. The attack can be much more cohesive in the final third, and the quality of the crossing needs to improve, even as the likes of Arriola and Tyler Boyd got on the scoresheet. Defensively, there were moments where the U.S. midfield gambled, creating transition moments that were more dangerous than they should have been. While Guyana lacked the overall quality to exploit such opportunities, T&T has more ability to take advantage with the likes of Seattle Sounders midfielder Joevin Jones, Beitar Jerusalem midfielder Levi Garcia and Minnesota United attacker Kevin Molino.
For Arriola, a more refined defensive approach can lead to more chances in attack.
“I think if I’m being critical of our performance last game, I think defensively we can be more sound as far as what we actually wanted to accomplish,” he said. “Obviously the ‘no goals conceded’ is a big thing for us, but at the same time, we have figure out ways to try and build pressure.
“I think in the beginning of the game against Guyana, we kind of got stuck and weren’t able to find ways to build pressure. I think that’s important.”
Given the Soca Warriors’ ability on the counterattack, that pressure will have to be managed carefully regardless of what T&T are planning. Manager Dennis Lawrence tried to play more of a possession game in his side’s lackluster 2-0 defeat to Panama, but Molino was largely invisible, with just 14 touches in the attacking third according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“[Trinidad & Tobago] have quality players that can beat you off the dribble, they can run in behind, so it’s understanding that if we win the ball higher, we can limit that space,” said Trapp. “Then it’s about your angles, your communication, and getting set up quickly.”
Twenty months after Couva, the U.S. has a long way to go towards rehabilitating its reputation. A win against the team that sent them into the tailspin would make for a welcome step forward.