PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad --
Consider the first test for the United States men's national team in this World Cup qualifying cycle as a modest success.
This fixture did not offer the punctuation mark offered by Paul Caligiuri 26 years ago this week or end all three points as it has so often in the past, but it served a valuable purpose nevertheless. This 0-0 draw against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night represented the sort of away performance required to grind through Group C and keep the quest for Russia firmly on track at Hasely Crawford Stadium.
Trinidad and Tobago produced a genuine chance for Joevin Jones to fire high inside the opening 30 seconds, but it proved one of rare menacing forays produced by the home side on the night. The Soca Warriors always offered a threat on the break without truly testing Tim Howard. Influential captain Kenwyne Jones posed only intermittent menace as the Americans managed him well and reaped the benefits.
Gyasi Zardes spurned the best American opportunity of the night when he headed onto the crossbar in the early moments of the second half. It marked a turning point as the Americans improved markedly after the interval. They exerted control after the break without producing the goal necessary to confirm their superiority during the second half.
"As we expected, it was a very tricky game," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "I think Trinidad and Tobago started well in the first 20 minutes, but I think after 20-25 minutes, we took over. Chances went for both sides. I think we had the clearer ones. We should have put one in of those, but, overall, a tie is alright."
The draw represents an acceptable haul in the most difficult of the six Group C fixtures and keeps the Americans top of the group after two rounds. Klinsmann and his players need to smooth out some of ragged work on the ball displayed in the first half to prepare for the challenges ahead in the Hexagonal, but they move forward with a valuable point ahead of the home-and-home dates with Guatemala in March.
Klinsmann chose to reinforce his defense by making three changes from the 6-1 victory over St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday. Howard replaced Brad Guzan in a goalkeeping switch laid out at the start of this international window. Fabian Johnson kept his place on the left side of midfield, but Michael Orozco started at right back to push DeAndre Yedlin onto the right flank. Gyasi Zardes pushed up front with Bobby Wood dropped to the bench.
T&T entered the field to the roar of a sold-out crowd and signaled its intent inside the opening 30 seconds. Kenwyne Jones stormed up the right flank and swung his cross into a threatening area. Joevin Jones thrashed over the bar as the hosts attempted to channel the energy inside Hasely Crawford Stadium.
The pressure continued inside the opening quarter of an hour as the Americans tried to find their footing. Kenwyne Jones spun quickly on the edge of the penalty area and thrashed just wide of the near post to underscore the home side's bright start.
Most of the energy petered out as the first half progressed and the Americans worked their way into the game. There were times when the Americans settled down and knocked the ball around in possession, but there were few signs of the ingenuity or precision shown against recalcitrant and overmatched St. Vincent before the break.
Jozy Altidore and Johnson both tried their luck from distance as the Americans ventured forward, but the increased role in possession left them exposed to the counter. A long diagonal out of the back split Matt Besler and Tim Ream and ushered Cordell Cato through the right channel. Both defenders recovered in time to hassle Cato's attempt and prompt him to drag wide of the far post.
The best American move of the first half soon followed as Jermaine Jones stepped up in midfield and played Altidore into space on the left. Altidore delivered a tempting cross to the back post, but Zardes just missed his attempt to nod home.
Both teams remained largely content with the status quo as halftime approached. Kenwyne Jones forced a save from a free kick in first-half stoppage time, but the effort posed little threat to the returning Howard. The state of play left the Americans reasonably satisfied despite the lack of sharpness on the ball and the occasional lapses.
"There were little things that we corrected," Klinsmann said. "After 20-25 minutes, we settled in the game. There is always the chance either team scores a goal, but, in the second half, I thought we were definitely closer to scoring that goal.
All of those foibles nearly faded away in the midst of a bright start to the second half. Altidore created a gilt-edged chance when he drifted free and curled his cross to the back post. Zardes arrived at the perfect time, but he only managed to smash his header off the bar from close range.
Matt Besler nearly threw Zardes a lifeline when he flicked his header over the bar from a set piece moments later, but the impact of that miss hung in the air. This languid affair presented few genuine opportunities and the Americans squandered a particularly vital one to bolster their second-half efforts.
They persisted nevertheless as the combination work improved and the home side sat back more willingly in a bid to set up the counter. Both teams produced half-chances as they tried to tip the balance. Those endeavors inspired Klinsmann to drop Johnson into the left back role, insert Darlington Nagbe for his second cap and withdraw Ream as the final 20 minutes beckoned.
Nagbe glided around on the ball and strengthened the work in possession, but he did not produce the winner. The match spiraled to an uneventful end with the Group C favorites relatively content with their lot and their continued perch atop the four-team group.
"We have to keep ourselves going," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "Four points from these two games was important. Now we know that when we come back in March, the home-and-away with Guatemala will be huge. We're excited for it."
Rapid reaction: Second-half improvement secures deserved point
Away qualifiers in CONCACAF present their fair share of challenges. This trip to Trinidad and Tobago loomed as the Americans' most difficult assignment in Group C. They survived it by escaping a difficult early period and stamping their imprint on the game in the second half.
More than anything, these matches require composure. There were times when the Americans slipped in that difficuly first half -- they dropped their marks at the wrong times, they lost the ball too cheaply and they struggled to produce opportunities -- and yet they survived those scares.
Those worries dissipated after the break. Zardes should have scored in the early moments of the second half, but his thumping effort off the crossbar highlighted the improvement. The Americans knocked the ball around, retained possession deftly and stopped the Soca Warriors from breaking quickly. A goal would have ended the night perfectly, but the good work after the interval guaranteed a necessary and deserved point nevertheless.