- Bruce Arena has set his roster for the USA's key World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama but questions remain about starters, especially at fullback.
Shortly after unveiling his squad for this month’s two massive World Cup qualifiers, U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena took to Facebook on Wednesday afternoon and elaborated on his choices and plans. The Americans will gather in San Jose, California next week and prepare for matches against Honduras (March 24) and Panama (March 28).
The USA is 0-2-0 and in last place in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal.
“We go nowhere unless we come out of the games with points, and by that I mean three points or more. My goal is to get six. We need to get three in the Honduras game and we need to go to Panama and be aggressive and get at least a point,” Arena said.
Regarding the first game in San Jose, he said, “This is a very important game for the U.S. team. We need to win the game. There’s certainly going to be some tension and pressure, but that’s all part of it. We have elite athletes and they’re accustomed to playing in games like this, so I’m confident they'll show up and be in the right kind of frame of mind to be ready to play and perform well.”
Arena took the job in November following those first two qualifying losses and spent a month with his MLS-based players at the team’s annual January camp. His 24-man qualifying roster is evenly split and is comprised of 12 campers and 12 men based in Europe or Mexico.
Arena hasn’t been able to work with his foreign charges but has taken two trips to Europe to visit them and said Wednesday, “I’ve had a chance to meet with every European-based player that’s on this roster … They’ve responded very well. They’re very excited about being a part of this roster, and team and I think they're going to blend in beautifully with our domestic players.
Here’s Arena speaking on a few more specific topics:
— Clint Dempsey, the national team’s second all-time leading scorer and the man who paced the USA at each of the past three major tournaments, is back in the fold after missing seven months with an irregular heartbeat. Arena had expressed some reluctance to commit to Dempsey at the start of his second stint in charge and explained Wednesday why he now believed the veteran forward belonged on the squad.
“I’ve spoken to Clint starting in December and at that time he still hadn’t had full clearance from the Seattle medical staff,” Arena explained. “In January, we talked again. He was cleared to go into preseason and then he was given the full go and had a full month in February in training camp and played two matches in Major League Soccer to star the regular season. And he keeps getting better. We’ve dealt with his fitness coach and we see the improvement, and we really feel that on any roster that the U.S. has, if you can include a healthy Clint Dempsey in any kind of manner or form, its a plus.”
Dempsey has started both games this month for the MLS champs and played the full 90 minutes in each. He scored his first goal of 2017, and his first of any kind since August, in a 2-1 season-opening loss in Houston.
Dempsey can play as the second forward in a 4-4-2 or perhaps as a quasi-playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, although the attacking options available in midfield make the latter less likely.
— Newcastle United right back DeAndre Yedlin, who was the first option at that same spot for the USA in 2016, wasn’t called up by Arena because of an injury. But Yedlin did travel from England to California, the manager revealed Wednesday, in order to be examined by U.S. Soccer physicians. The conclusion was that Yedlin would miss “about five weeks” and would likely be ready to return to the field for Newcastle toward the end of April.
Newcastle coach Rafa Benítez told reporters last week that Yedlin might miss “one week or two weeks” and that the player “maybe has a small tear” in his thigh.
The USA is thin at right back. Not only is Yedlin missing, but Timmy Chandler—who manned the spot frequently in 2015 and in November’s qualifier in Costa Rica—wasn’t called in because he must serve a qualifying suspension.
There are no obvious, slam-dunk replacements, but there a few options.
“With the roster we have, we can play with a back three, back five, back four. Experienced players on the right side in the back line have been Geoff Cameron—he’s played there before—and Michael Orozco has played there a lot for Club Tijuana over the last couple months,” Arena said. “At Stoke, [Cameron is] playing as a defensive midfielder, sitting in front of the center backs. For the national team, he’s played more often than not as a center back. But he’s also played right back and holding midfielder. We don’t want to make a habit of moving players around a whole lot, but in this case we’ll probably look at Geoff as either a center back or a right back.”
Fabian Johnson played right back for the U.S. at the World Cup and last summer’s Copa América Centenario quarterfinal, but he’s more frequently deployed on the left and Arena has said that he hopes to use the Borussia Mönchengladbach star in midfield. Graham Zusi played right back in the two friendlies that concluded January camp, and his absence suggests Arena is comfortable with at least one of the aforementioned options.
— Arena wouldn’t commit to a starting goalkeeper. And that’s not surprising, considering the fact that Tim Howard has just returned from a long injury layoff, Brad Guzan isn’t playing regularly at Middlesbrough and Nick Rimando has just started his season with Real Salt Lake.
“We have three experienced goalkeepers and I'd feel very comfortable playing any of them, and I think once we get into camp on Sunday and we see how our players get out of the weekend matches and how they look in training, we’ll determine who starts in the goal,” he said.
— Arena said after taking over that he wanted more accurate and incisive passing in the U.S. midfield, and his decision to start Sacha Kljestan against Serbia in January, along with the re-integration of Benny Feilhaber into the program, suggested the manager’s commitment to giving the Americans a real No. 10 option.
But neither Kljestan nor Feilhaber made the qualifying roster. Arena said previously he was considering trying Christian Pulisic in that role (he plays out wide for Borussia Dortmund), and on Wednesday he rattled off a list of capable midfielders and suggested that he’s comfortable with his options.
“We also have Sebastian Lletget, Alejandro Bedoya, Darlington Nagbe and Clint Dempsey playing underneath the forwards are all possibilities playing in the central part of midfield,” Arena said.
Support would come from captain Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones (suspended for the Honduras game), Dax McCarty and/or Kellyn Acosta. Arena stressed that Acosta is a defensive or box-to-box midfielder and not an outside back, which is where Jurgen Klinsmann preferred to use him.
“I believe we have a lot of options there,” Arena said.
Pulisic as a No. 10 likely would necessitate two more center midfielders for cover—Bradley and either Jones, Acosta or Bedoya. That means Arena could field only one forward, and he seemed reluctant on Wednesday to consider sidelining two of his three potential front-running starters—Dempsey, Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore. The fourth forward, Jordan Morris, probably would enter as a late substitute if the Americans need a goal.
“Bobby Wood is in great form. Jozy is an experienced player. Jordan’s speed is a factor and Clint is obviously a dangerous player when he's on the field,” Arena said. “Looking at those four players, one would think we have to consider playing with two strikers as well.”