Tim Howard and USMNT are prepared for must-win battle at altitude

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Tim Howard and the U.S. Men’s National Team will have to deal with the altitude for the second straight game against fellow Colorado Rapid Mekeil Williams and Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday.

After a warm-up friendly against Venezuela in Salt Lake City (elevation 4,226 feet) on Saturday, the USMNT will continue their quest to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia against Trinidad & Tobago in the Mile High City. The game is a must-win for the USMNT, which currently sits in fourth place in the standings behind Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama.

The top three teams in the standings at the end of the qualifiers will earn automatic bids for the 2018 World Cup. The fourth place team will have the opportunity to earn a bid in an intercontinental playoff against a team from Asia. The USMNT is currently one point behind Panama and three points behind Costa Rica, and those teams play against each other on Thursday.

Regardless of the result between the two Central American sides, if the USMNT can defeat Trinidad & Tobago, they will at the very least move into a tie for third place. If Costa Rica beats Panama and USMNT wins, the USMNT will move into sole possession of third place. If the Central American teams tie, the USMNT will again move into third place ahead of Panama with a victory. If Panama wins, a win from the USMNT puts them in a tie for third place with Costa Rica.

Head coach Bruce Arena spoke Wednesday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, where Thursday’s match will be played, about the importance of getting three points in the matchup against current Williams and Trinidad & Tobago.

“We certainly understand the significance of this game,” Arena said. “We firmly believe we have to win the game. I believe our opponent would be glad to walk away with a point and certainly be elated with three points, so it’ll be a challenging game.”

Colorado natives and most athletes have a complete understanding of the difficulties of playing at altitude when one doesn’t train here. Obviously, Rapids players Howard and Williams will have a distinct advantage in that category, but the issue compounds upon itself because the USMNT not only recently played in Salt Lake City, but they have to go and play Mexico in Mexico City, which is even higher than Denver at 7,382 feet, on Sunday.

Arena mentioned in the press conference that his game planning had to take into account the altitude, but also the distance that the team had to travel in such a small amount of time. For his part, Howard will take advantage of the altitude, and he knows exactly what it feels like when one is not used to playing at such an elevation.

“There’s not much advice you can give if you’re not prepared for it, because it sucks,” Howard said about his advice to teammates on playing at altitude. “But we’re prepared, so we’re hoping that we can run them into the ground and that our guys are ready.”

The two Rapids players who will be on opposite sides Thursday apparently even have a friendly wager between them.

“We’ve got a bet going and he’s going to lose the bet, and I’m going to make sure he pays up,” Howard said.

The bet is such that if the USMNT wins, Williams must relocate his locker next to the bathrooms. If Trinidad & Tobago wins, Howard must sit with the rookies for the rest of the season, according to the New York Times.

On a side note, Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus participated in a jersey exchange with the USMNT’s 18-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic during training. New Broncos Menelik Watson and Domata Peko were among other Broncos who also attended the practice.

The all-important game kicks off at 6 p.m. MDT Thursday night at Dick’s Sporting Good’s Park.

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