- Clint Dempsey can make U.S. history, while we'll learn more about how Bruce Arena opts to use Christian Pulisic in the USMNT's pre-World Cup qualifying friendly vs. Venezuela.
The U.S. national team approaches the midpoint of the Hexagonal schedule in far better shape than it was two months ago, when a patchwork squad had just a few days to prepare for a pair of critical World Cup qualifiers. At that point, coach Bruce Arena wasn’t looking to devise any long-term solutions or new tactical wrinkles. The winless Americans just needed points. And they got them. The USA improvised, finished its chances in a rout of Honduras and then fought to a draw in a chippy match down in Panama.
Now Arena’s team (1-2-1) is on firmer ground, but failure to defeat Trinidad & Tobago next Thursday outside Denver would shake things up again. The Americans need those three points in the bank before heading down to Mexico City, where they’re 0-12-2 in qualifiers against El Tri.
“We came out of death valley and put our heads a little bit above water now. But we got to keep going. We’re far from being where we want to be,” Arena told reporters this week in Colorado.
Arena has a couple advantages now that he didn’t enjoy in March. First, there’s more time to train—plus Saturday night’s friendly—preceding the qualifiers. Second, he’s got a squad that’s as healthy and in-form as any U.S. team in recent memory. Jermaine Jones is the only missing regular. And thanks to the international ascendancy of Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe and Dax McCarty—plus added options up front—there was no guarantee the veteran midfielder would play anyway.
There are options, and Arena will need them. Mexico’s participation in the Confederations Cup—earned with an October 2015 playoff win over the USA—forced the second qualifier to be brought forward by a couple days, leaving only around 70 hours between the conclusion of Thursday’s contest at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and kickoff at Estadio Azteca. That’s a really quick turnaround, especially at altitude.
“As part of the agreement to switch the day, we have the opportunity to play [in Mexico] at night as opposed to the afternoon. So I think that’s a plus for us. But it will require that we have a number of players ready to play,” Arena said when unveiling his roster. “I can guarantee we will not be playing the same team from game one to game two. There will be a number of changes for the game in Mexico, so we’ve built a strong roster to allow us to do that.”
So Saturday’s game against Venezuela at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium (10 p.m. ET, FS1, UniMas) is a meaningful one, as far as friendlies go. Arena needs to build two teams, in effect—one that will take the game to Trinidad and another that can stay fit and focused three days later in Mexico City. The alignment of the front six, substitution patterns, the center back pairing and when and how to use players who might not be able to go 180 minutes are among the things Arena will have to map out. So those 90 minutes against Venezuela become an important sketchbook, testbed and training ground.
Here’s what to watch for:
We’re still used to seeing Pulisic on the right because that’s where he’s typically deployed by Borussia Dortmund. But he’s so skillful, creative and dangerous—and he combined so well with Clint Dempsey against Honduras—that Arena surely will be tempted once again to play the 18-year-old in the middle. While that will take away some of Pulisic’s opportunities to run at defenders, it should give him more opportunities on the ball. He’ll be in position to connect with forwards, use the entire field and draw fouls in prime locations.
Pulisic conceivably could play in the middle in both qualifiers—ahead of Michael Bradley in a 4-4-2 against Honduras and alongside a box-to-box teammate like McCarty, Acosta or Alejandro Bedoya in a 4-5-1 at the Azteca. Either way, Arena’s placement of Pulisic will have a domino effect. If he’s in the middle, it will limit Bradley’s role in a 4-4-2 and force the outside midfielders to pinch in to help defend. If Pulisic plays wide as he did in Panama, it likely leaves either Nagbe or Fabian Johnson on the bench (unless Johnson moves to left back). It also opens the door for someone like Acosta—who’s been fantastic for FC Dallas—to make an impact centrally.
Pulisic’s versatility will be a plus this month, allowing Arena to set up his midfield in different ways for two very different qualifiers.
It appears the American attack will revolve around Pulisic for the next decade-plus, so Arena and his successor will get used to pondering these permutations. The manager’s answer Saturday night very well could be an indication of how he’ll start against Trinidad.
Decisions in back
There’s no goalkeeper controversy. Tim Howard was excellent in March and is Arena’s first choice even though Brad Guzan was back in net recently at Middlesbrough.
“As of now it’s Tim Howard,” Arena told reporters when asked to name his No. 1. “He had two good games. I’ll have to see how these guys look over the next couple of weeks. We have good goalkeepers here, so that’s the least of my worries to be honest with you.”
More pressing is the decision at center back. Stoke City veteran Geoff Cameron remains likely to be one of the starters in front of Howard. The other is up in the air. John Brooks has been inconsistent with the national team since his domineering performance at last year’s Copa América Centenario. Omar Gonzalez started both March qualifiers and did reasonably well. Plus, the Pachuca defender will be more familiar with Mexican opposition than Brooks.
Both can do the job, and Matt Hedges and Tim Ream also are available. Hedges has great promise but probably will be leaned more at the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup. (Matt Besler would have been an option too, but he rejoined Sporting Kansas City for the weekend and will return to the national team for the qualifiers). Chemistry in back is crucial, especially when dealing with a team like Mexico that will have plenty of the ball and fields players who can create from just about anywhere in the offensive half. Arena will hope that a preferred pairing emerges during training and against Venezuela on Saturday. Imposing Vinotinto forward Salomón Rondón, who tallied eight goals this season for West Brom, should provide a decent test.
Dempsey has always felt like he got a late start. He spent three seasons at Furman University and didn’t play his first pro game until he was 21—much later than many other U.S. stars. He’s been hungry for goals and looking to make up for lost time ever since.
That hunger has led to 56 national team goals. He’s now one shy of Landon Donovan’s all-time record and after netting four in the March qualifiers, he seems like a good bet to tie or even break it this month. His pursuit will be an intriguing subplot, but Dempsey took care to put the chase in its proper place this week.
“It would be great to break any record, but most important it would be even better to qualify for the World Cup,” he told reporters.
But make no mistake, he wants the record. It won’t end the argument concerning the best player in U.S. history (Dempsey will have scored his goals in fewer games but Donovan had 58 assists to Dempsey’s 17, etc.) but it will be a moment to savor—especially considering the heart trouble he faced last year.
The question is, how best to put Dempsey in position to get those goals? Does the 34-year-old have the legs to start both games? How much of a creative role will he be expected to have, and how much will that depend on how Pulisic is used? Is the U.S. better served starting Jozy Altidore, whose work-rate and hold-up play were massive against Honduras? Or should Arena go with Bobby Wood, who missed the March qualifiers but has the speed that stretches opposing defenses? Maybe Dempsey’s Sounders strike partner, Jordan Morris, is the right choice because of the understanding they’ve built on a day-to-day basis in Seattle.
They’re clearly the top four forwards in the U.S. pool at the moment, but this is the first time the quartet has been together in the same camp. Altidore and Wood are very different players who will help shape different attacking patterns, and Arena will have to consider several potential partnerships during and after the Venezuela game. If he gets it right, Donovan’s record may very well fall and the USA will be that much closer to Russia.