USA Men’s National Team Head Coach Mike Tolkin will name his starting lineup for Saturday’s game with Canada on Thursday morning, and it is highly likely that there will be a new cap or two in there.
The players are definitely excited now that the match has been converted to a full rankings test – playing Canada matters no matter what, but getting a cap is a big deal for anyone. Not that they needed to add any importance to the game, this being the opening weekend of the Pacific Nations Cup, but they have it.
The Eagles assembled on Sunday in Glendale, Colo., and flew in to Edmonton on Wednesday.
Tolkin wanted to strike a balance for his team in terms of getting into town early enough, and also stay in familiar surroundings as long as possible.
“We don’t have any severe conditions to get used to in Edmonton,” said Tolkin. “As long as it’s not a massive change, we like to stay in our home base as long as possible. Wednesday was an off-day for us so it seemed like a good travel day. We’ll have two days [in Edmonton] and have the captain’s run in the stadium.”
Leading into the travel day Tolkin was getting newer players up to speed with the experienced guys.
“I really think the team culture and chemistry is really vital,” said Tolkin. “We try to pick players who are able to contribute to that in a positive way. We’re pretty meticulous about it.”
With the leadership on the squad – Todd Clever, Lou Stanfill, Brian Doyle, Andrew Suniula – setting the tone, the new players have bought in.
All of that is crucially important against Canada, when the USA has found losing a little easier than winning, and often thanks to breakdowns of skills, decision-making, or unity. Tolkin said the team is very different from the one that lost to Canada a year ago in Kingston, Ont.
“It’s always tough to win on the road, but Canada is a big target for us,” he said. “We come in with a lot of commitment and a lot of desire. It’s the first game of the Pacific Nation’s Cup, and now a ranking test, so all of those ingredients contribute to make it vital for us. We’re going to go at it hard.”
That, of course, is how to defeat Canada, and especially on Canadian soil. In the long history of this 48-game rivalry, the Eagles have beaten Canada in Canada on four occasions, and lost 22 times. A few of those games have been relative blowouts, but most have been very close. All four USA victories have been especially close – three wins by one point (15-14 in 1994, 18-17 in 1999, and 20-19 in 2005), and one game by five (16-11 in 2003).
All of those results carry with them a lesson – defense is king. The USA don’t beat Canada on Canadian soil without playing excellent defense. When the points totals for Canada get north of 20 points, there’s trouble for the Eagles.
“Tackling is big,” said Tolkin. “It is an issue we identified in November as something we wanted to improve on, and we did over that time. We’ve kept it in the forefront of what we want to do, and making tackles is vital. Tackling sets the stage for the rest of it. It helps us slow down their ball, and keep their game not as rhythmic, not as sharp.”
On offense, Tolkin still wants to see a smart field-position game, and he needs his goalkicker to get points when they are on offer. Too often the USA has lost games against Canada due to a silly turnover or one missed assignment. So execution is part of it, too.
“We want to seize advantages when their present themselves to us, and when things aren’t as obvious we want to be patient and create those opportunities," said the coach. "Composure and rhythm and recognizing opportunities when they arise are all important."