U.S. World Cup hopes will sink or swim in water-logged Trinidad

Ato Boldon was a sprinter, not a swimmer. But you wouldn’t have known that Monday from the condition of the stadium that bears his name.

When the U.S. soccer team showed up for its midday training session, an ankle-high lake covered the track and water lapped on to the soccer field, flooding the sidelines and leaving the corner flags protruding like skinny lighthouses.

A tiny, solitary pump, set up near the field, hummed enthusiastically but appeared to be having little effect in draining the grass surface or the synthetic track.

“I just kind of giggled,” said midfielder Christian Pulisic who, like many players, had to be carried across the water and onto the wet grass for practice.

Forward Bobby Wood wrapped his cleats in plastic bags and waded across.

“It was more comedic than anything,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said.

But coach Bruce Arena wasn’t laughing. This was the field on which the U.S. was scheduled to meet Trinidad and Tobago in a crucial game Tuesday, with the U.S. needing at least a tie to ensure passage to an eighth consecutive World Cup.

And now much of it was under water.

“It’s going to impact your footing, your passing, your running. Etcetera, etcetera,” said Arena, who appeared to be choosing his words carefully.

“I’m told that we’re playing a game [Tuesday] night and whatever the conditions are they’re going to be the same for both teams. I don’t think there’s any politics surrounding this. I don’t think Trinidad is making it rain. It is what it is and we’re going to play the game.”

But while Arena was struggling to remain diplomatic, it was clear that he and the rest of U.S. Soccer weren’t happy with the conditions. With the field unusable Monday, the team’s scheduled practice was limited to a little jogging. And when pictures of the flooded stadium were posted on social media, the Trinidad and Tobago soccer federation quickly responded with a terse seven-paragraph email statement that expressed concern about the posts but not the condition of the field.

Attached to the email was a picture of a 2013 World Cup qualifier in which the U.S. played host to Costa Rica in a Colorado blizzard.

“The Trinidad and Tobago Football Association continues to work alongside Stadium Management to prepare the facility for tomorrow’s planned game and all parties are confident the game will be contested,” the statement said.

None of the parties were confident the game would be a good one, though.

“The conditions change the game in a key way, always,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “I certainly wouldn’t expect it to be a night where there’s perfect football, that’s for sure.”

Tuesday’s qualifier will be only the second played in Ato Boldon Stadium, a 10,000-seat multipurpose facility in Couva, about 45 minutes south of Trinidad’s capital. The playing surface in the national stadium in Port of Spain appeared to be in much better shape, but a spokesman for Trinidad’s federation said problems with the lighting system prevented the game from being contested there.

More rain was originally predicted for the area late Monday and Tuesday but none fell and the updated forecast calls for clear skies and 80-degree temperatures at kickoff with 84% humidity.

Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, said the final decision on whether the field in Couva is playable will be made a few hours before kickoff by the game commissioner and the head referee.

”We’ve played in all sorts of conditions,” Gulati said. “Right now the field’s draining very well. At this point we’re playing.”

The field conditions won’t be the only obstacles for the U.S. With Trinidad and Tobago eliminated from World Cup consideration, coach Dennis Lawrence has summoned a team of young players, most of whom compete for domestic teams. And with nothing to play for, they performed well against unbeaten Mexico, leading 1-0 until the 78th minute in a game they lost.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

The U.S. can clinch CONCACAF’s third and final automatic berth in next summer’s World Cup on Tuesday or it could be eliminated from consideration. Here are the scenarios:

CONCACAF Standings

Team W L T Pts. GD

  1. Mexico* 6 0 3 21 +10
  2. Costa Rica* 4 1 4 16 +7
  3. U.S. 3 3 3 12 +5
  4. Panama 2 3 4 10 -2
  5. Honduras 2 3 4 10 -7
  6. Trinidad and Tobago 1 8 0 3 -13
  • - already qualified for World Cup

Tuesday’s schedule

(all games at 5 p.m. PDT)

Trinidad and Tobago vs. U.S. in Couva, Trinidad

Panama vs. Costa Rica in Panama City

Honduras vs. Mexico in San Pedro Sula

Scenarios

  1. U.S. wins: Team qualifies.
  2. U.S. ties: It would almost certainly advance the U.S. to the Cup in Russia since it has a commanding lead in goal differential — the first tiebreaker — over Panama and Honduras, both of which would need a victory to catch the U.S. in the standings.
  3. U.S. loses: This is where things can get dicey since a loss would keep the U.S. on 12 points. If Panama or Honduras wins, it would drop the U.S. to fourth place and send it to an intercontinental playoff against Syria or Australia with the final Cup invitation at stake. If Panama and Honduras win, the U.S. would finish fifth and be left out of the Cup for the first time

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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