While Christian Pulisic was offering compelling and historic evidence in Dortmund that he’s more than ready to start on the right in this month’s vital World Cup qualifiers, his national team coach, Bruce Arena, said Wednesday that he’s ready to see another Bundesliga star anchor the U.S. left.
It’s been an issue that’s followed Fabian Johnson since he became a U.S. regular in 2012. He’s dangerous and dynamic going forward and has spent much of his career as a wide midfielder, first for TSG Hoffenheim and now for Borussia Mönchengladbach. But he’s an effective outside back as well, and it’s there that the USA’s need has been greatest.
Johnson started at right back during the 2014 World Cup and then once DaMarcus Beasley stepped aside (temporarily), the Munich native spent more time on the left. Former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann experimented in an effort to get Johnson higher up the field but never found a solution. Johnson was in back at the 2015 Gold Cup and 2016 Copa América Centenario and made only his second and third midfield starts of ’16 in Klinsmann’s final two games. Sporting Kansas City center back Matt Besler was out on the left as the USA fell to Mexico and Costa Rica.
Speaking during a Facebook chat on Wednesday, Arena indicated that he’s ready to see if he can steer Johnson toward becoming regular international midfielder.
“He plays almost on a regular basis as a left-sided midfielder at Mönchengladbach and if we can, we want to play Fabian in the midfield,” Arena said. “So that’s obviously one of our goals in 2017, is to find a position for him and allow him to play it on a consistent basis.”
Arena wasn’t ready to make a full commitment, however, because spots in back remain unsettled. And with the Honduras (March 24) and Panama (March 28) games coming up, and with at least four points a virtual necessity, Arena may have to keep the tweaking to a minimum this month.
“I wish I could give you the answer right now,” he said when asked who was the current first-choice left back. “All kinds of possibilities exist—from Fabian Johnson, who I indicated our preference is to have him in the midfield. Jorge Villafaña and Greg Garza had good showings in January and February with us in camp. Also DaMarcus Beasley showed well in his first game with Houston over the past weekend, so those are all four candidates.”
Arena went on to mention Tim Ream, Besler and Eric Lichaj as dark-horse options.
“We’re hopeful that we’re going to arrive at the right plan,” the manager said.
Arena reiterated that he’s considering a pool of around 40 players and plans to name a team of 23-25 on March 15. The squad won’t gather in San Jose until the 20th, leaving Arena and his staff with the option to make a change or two based on form, injury and what happens that final weekend. They face an interesting challenge. The players with whom Arena is most familiar are in MLS. He coached against them while with the LA Galaxy and spent a month working with them at the recent U.S. camp. But the players who are the fittest and most in-form are in Europe and Mexico. The only interaction Arena has had with them has been from the stands or over the phone. The four days of training leading up to the Honduras game will be vital, as Arena told reporters earlier this week that his foreign-based charges have an edge.
"The players abroad are certainly match fit and a little bit sharper," he said. "You could see the MLS games this weekend. The teams aren't fit yet—not a whole lot of combination play. They're just starting. It takes time. That's what the Premiership looks like in August as well. It's no different. I think all things being equal, I would think we would lean towards a player who has been playing on a regular basis or training on a regular basis.”
He added Wednesday, “For the most part I was fairly pleased [with the MLS openers]. This weekend is going to be very important for the MLS players as we make our final decisions.”
Arena said he likely would be in Kansas City this weekend as Sporting KC hosts FC Dallas.
Here are a few more highlights from Arena’s chat on Wednesday:
— Regarding the goalkeepers, he said Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando emerged from January camp with “a little bit of an edge” over his domestic competition. Tim Howard has been out since suffering a groin injury against Mexico and wasn’t on the active roster when the Colorado Rapids began their season last weekend.
“We’re waiting to see whether he plays for Colorado this weekend,” Arena said. “If he continues to remain healthy and makes progress, he’s obviously going to get strong consideration for the call-ups in March.”
Brad Guzan has played only six games for Middlesbrough this season, the most recent coming on Feb. 18 against Oxford United in the FA Cup.
“If he continues to stay healthy, I would think that he’s going to be included in our roster as well,” Arena said.
— Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin were first-choice defenders for much of last year, and the former seems to be in good shape to recapture his spot. Cameron had been out since October with a knee injury but returned to Stoke City’s starting 11 on Saturday and then went another 90 minutes Wednesday (in midfield) as the Potters held Manchester City to a 0-0 draw.
“He’s moving along well. If he gets through the next couple of weeks without any problems, we expect to name him to our qualifying roster,” Arena said.
Meanwhile, Yedlin missed Newcastle United’s Tuesday match against Reading with a thigh injury sustained in practice. Newcastle coach Rafa Benítez told reporters following the game, “You could see that maybe it would be one week or two weeks. He had a knock—maybe has a small tear.”
Said Arena, “If DeAndre is healthy he’ll be part of our squad in March and we just have to allow him over the next couple of weeks and see how he’s dealing with that injury.”
— Clint Dempsey, who turned 34 Thursday, made his dramatic return to the field after missing Seattle’s 2016 stretch run with an irregular heartbeat. He started Saturday’s season opener and scored a second-half goal as the MLS champs lost in Houston. It’s a great sign, but Arena preached patience.
“With Clint, we need to be cautious in our approach,” he said. “It was great to see him play in the opening game in Houston for Seattle. We want to follow him again this weekend and really see where he’s at physically, if he’s getting a little bit stronger, if he’s increasing his work load on the field. We know he’s obviously a very good player and he’s got a great history with the national team. But we want to be smart about Clint and make sure that he’s ready to play international soccer. The next two weekends are going to be very important. We will follow him closely. But I’m happy to see that he’s back on the field, and I’m confident he’ll be part of the national team at some point in 2017.”
Seattle visits Montreal on Saturday, then hosts the New York Red Bulls on March 19.