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Soccer

U.S. faces clear goal in pair of World Cup qualifiers

U.S. faces clear goal in pair of World Cup qualifiers
U.S. defender Matt Besler, right, and Ecuador’s Enner Valencia fight for the ball during a Copa America Centenario quarterfinal soccer match on June 16.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

There are no complicated formulas, stupefying scenarios or difficult math facing the U.S. national team as it returns to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying against St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Win on Friday in a cricket stadium in Kingstown (12:30 p.m. PDT, BeIN SPORTS) and again Tuesday over Trinidad & Tobago in Jacksonville, Fla., and the U.S. wins its group and advances to the final round of regional qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Lose either game, however, and the U.S. runs the risk of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

“Our message for players coming into … the two World Cup qualifiers is very clear: Approach it with a lot of urgency,” Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. “It’s not easy to go into those Caribbean countries and get the results. It’s not going to be easy in St. Vincent on a very difficult field with heat and whatever else.”

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Nor is it going to be easy trying to accomplish all that without five key starters. The U.S. will be playing Friday without captain Michael Bradley, who is suspended for yellow-card accumulation in June’s Copa America,  while forward Clint Dempsey, midfielders Gyasi Zardes and Jermaine Jones and defender John Brooks are all out with health or injury issues.

Also unavailable Friday is defender Michael Orozco, who is serving a one-game suspension for drawing a red card in the Copa America third-place match. That could make it hard for the U.S. to tap the momentum it built in the Copa America, where it reached the semifinals before losing its last two games to Argentina and Colombia.

Klinsmann figures to replace Dempsey with Jozy Altidore, who hasn’t started for the U.S. since February because of a hamstring injury. Altidore scored twice in a 6-1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines to start off the semifinal round of Cup qualifying last November.

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Filling the three holes in the midfield could be more challenging, with Klinsmann probably choosing three players from the quintet of Alejandro Bedoya, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Graham Zusi and Kyle Beckerman. Matt Besler is likely to start in Brooks’ place.

Meanwhile, Brad Guzan has already been named the starter in goal Friday and Cup veteran Tim Howard will start in goal for Tuesday’s game.

“What makes us optimistic going into these qualifiers is watching our strikers scoring goals,” Klinsmann said.  “We know our strikers are hungry for goals and hopefully they can start with that right away in St. Vincent.”

The U.S. goes into Friday’s game second in its four-team group, trailing Trinidad and Tobago by three points and leading Guatemala by one. So a win Friday, combined with a Guatemala loss at Trinidad and Tobago, would give the U.S. a spot in the six-team hexagonal round of Cup qualifying regardless of what happens next week.

But a loss to winless St. Vincent and a Guatemala victory would leave the Americans facing a must-win game Tuesday in Jacksonville to avoid elimination. The U.S. is also playing for position in the next round of qualifying, because winning the group means the U.S. will open the next round at home against Mexico, which has already won its group.

“This is a big stage,” Klinsmann said. “We are preparing for these two games very seriously, with a lot of urgency because we want to finish off our group in first place. This group of players gets the chance to do that.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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