Somewhere lost in the hysteria surrounding Folarin Balogun‘s sudden appearance in Orlando is the fact that the USMNT will play their first competitive game since the World Cup, heading to St. George’s to take on Grenada on Friday night in the CONCACAF Nations League.
Even if most fans’ thoughts are on a certain New York-born striker, USMNT interim head coach Anthony Hudson and the 24 players in camp will be squarely focused on their Friday-night opponents Grenada.
By all means, the long flight to the southeastern tip of the Caribbean should yield a relatively stress-free three points for the Americans in their quest to finish atop Group D. In four previous meetings between the teams, the Stars and Stripes have won on each occasion, and will be expecting a fifth victory on Friday.
Nevertheless, the game will be on Grenadian in their national team home of Kirani James Stadium, where they did manage to hold El Salvador to a draw last year in June, so nothing should be taken for granted.
The game will mark the first game back in the Red, White and Blue since at least November for all but three of the players within the 24-man roster. The traditional January camp led by Hudson consisted mostly of MLS-based national team players, who were left out of the current roster with an eye ahead to the meaningless April friendly against Mexico. Only Alejandro Zendejas returns from that roster, while Taylor Booth and Auston Trusty are still uncapped.
The Grenadian team has neither experience nor pedigree on their roster, with their most-capped player being keeper Jason Belfon, who has 46 international appearances. They have a few players scattered throughout the lower tiers of England and the US, with the most notable inclusion being the Florida-born, Charleston Battery mainstay A. J. Paterson.
The team is led by Syrian journeyman coach Mohammad Kwid, who at 66 years is in his first coaching stint outside of the Arab world, where he had moderate success, all things considered, in charge of the Lebanese national team in two stints between 2003 and 2005.
For the Americans, a strong lineup featuring nearly all European-based stars is a certainty, with Miles Robinson being the only MLS representative, Johnny Cardoso joining from Brazil and the duo of Alan Soñora and Alejandro Zendejas representatives of Liga MX.
Still, there will be some uncertainty about how much Hudson will experiment with the lineup and rotate starters between the two games in the window. While both games do matter and there is no room for major embarrassment, reality would still dictate a high degree of flexibility for his on-field choices, and a heavy rotation between the two starting lineups should be expected.
Friday could be the better opportunity for the former New Zealand coach to hand previously-uncapped players such as Booth and Trusty their debuts, and give an extended run-out to Zendejas, who will be looking to challenge for one of the wide front-line attacking spots, flanking Folar…er…Daryl Dike or Ricardo Pepi.
What is likely based on earlier comments from Hudson is that Robison – of the Miles variety – will start at most one of the two games, as they try to manage his workload after a long absence due to an Achilles rupture.
The absence of Tyler Adams due to injury will also create the golden opportunity to evaluate whether Luca de la Torre or Johnny Cardoso can dictate the flow of the game in the central holding role, or if Weston McKennie‘s recent experience of constantly playing on the back foot for relegation-threatened Leeds has opened him up to that sort of role.
A likely win will push the Americans to the top of Group D, where they will only need a draw three days later in Orlando against El Salvador to finish first, and qualify for the final round of the Nations League to be played in Las Vegas in June.
The game kicks off at 8pm Eastern Time at the Kirani James Athletic Stadium in St. Georges.