There’s no surprise, controversy or confusion, and it’s a roster free of eye-openers, head-scratchers or jaw-droppers.
The core is solid and in-form. A depth chart has been more-or-less established. Momentum has been generated by a 14-game unbeaten streak, a climb to third place in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal and a Gold Cup title. And the task ahead is crystal clear. Thus, no one needed to be near a crystal ball to predict the USA squad unveiled Sunday by coach Bruce Arena. The 26-man team is stocked with the names you know.
The Americans (2-2-2) face second-place Costa Rica (3-1-2) on Friday at Red Bull Arena and then visit fifth-place Honduras (1-3-2) on Sept. 5, and the results will go a long way toward determining the USA’s World Cup fate. Even qualification is possible with two wins and favorable results elsewhere. Arena has been working for nine months to identify the right mix and roles for just such an occasion.
“I think we have a good roster. The decisions are simply based on the fact that we need our best roster possible in order to achieve what we want to achieve here, and that’s to earn points in both games,” Arena said. “Everyone here is experienced inside the group. They know what needs to be done, what’s expected of them, our style of play, and how we go about doing things. I think since everyone’s been with us now in 2017. It’ll make what is a really difficult week a little bit easier.”
Arena faced a couple minor complications when compiling his team. The first was the injuries suffered by two potential starting defenders, John Brooks (thigh) and DeAndre Yedlin (hamstring). They’re likely the best at their respective positions but each has started for the USA only three times this year. Arena is accustomed to going without them. The second issue is the absurd yellow-card accumulation rule that would see the likes of Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler or Jozy Altidore suspended in San Pedro Sula if they’re cautioned on Friday against Costa Rica.
“Our back line has had some injuries over the past month that will hurt us a little bit, but I think if everyone comes into camp healthy, we have good options in our back line and good depth,” Arena said. “We’ve called 26 players because we come into camp with six guys that have yellow cards, and we also have some players that are dealing with injury so we have to be smart.”
There’s sufficient quality and experience to survive suspensions or substitutions ahead of the Honduras game. But the three full days between matches should prevent Arena from having to platoon his players like he did in June. Save Brooks and Yedlin, the best team Arena can field should be on the pitches at Red Bull Arena and the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano.
“I think the experiences we’ve had together during the year will allow us to deal with any kind of issues that may arise as we get involved in these next two qualifying matches,” he said.
A dozen players have more than 10 qualifying appearances, led by Clint Dempsey’s 39, and 18 of the 26 played in the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico. There will be no surprises, and no excuses. At least three points is essential, and four is quite attainable. Here’s a look at men expected to get it done:
Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
It wouldn’t have been a much of a shock if Arena had called in Bill Hamid or Ethan Horvath as the No. 3 goalie, but the decision to invite Rimando hammers home the win-now atmosphere surrounding these two games. Although the RSL stalwart has never appeared in a qualifier, his 22 caps and years of national team camp seasoning make him the obvious option if catastrophe strikes. After taking over from Guzan following the Gold Cup’s group stage, Howard has the inside track to start against Costa Rica.
DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Yedlin still may be the first-choice right back, but Zusi has grown into the position following his winter switch for both club and country, and his 11 appearances under Arena this year are tied for most on the current roster. He’ll likely be the choice against Costa Rica as the USA will expect to have more of the ball. If Arena opts to make a change against a Honduran side that might be a bit more of a threat on the wings, he can turn to veteran fullback Eric Lichaj or perhaps the 3-4-3 he deployed in June at the Estadio Azteca.
Alongside Zusi at the top of the caps chart this year is Villafaña, who took a significant step toward starting for the USA when he worked his way back into the Santos XI last week. He went 90 minutes against both Chivas de Guadalajara and Club León. Beasley also is a good bet to get some qualifying time.
The Americans are well stocked centrally despite Brooks’ absence. Cameron and Besler could very well start with Gonzalez and Ream providing capable depth.
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
Arena’s key midfield cogs are in form, from Bradley—who won the Golden Ball at the Gold Cup—to Pulisic, who’s off to an excellent start in Dortmund. Johnson has only recently returned from injury but Arena said the winger was “ready to go.” He started and played 74 minutes in Gladbach’s draw against Darmstadt on Saturday, and Arena will have all week to gauge how Johnson best fits in once training begins Monday in New Jersey. Johnson has appeared for the USA only twice this year. His availability forces Arena into a couple difficult decisions, from how/whether to use Nagbe to how many forwards to deploy.
There isn’t an obvious partner for Bradley in the middle, which leaves Arena with some good options. The captain has played with Pulisic, Acosta or Nagbe in recent matches, and each offers a different wrinkle. The versatile Bedoya could factor in as well—he had some good moments as a playmaker during the Gold Cup’s group stage—while McCarty and Roldan provide defensive depth.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)
The USA has never been blessed with a larger crop of quality, in-form forwards.
“Our strikers have started off well,” Arena said.
Altidore, Dempsey and Morris all showed well at the Gold Cup and Wood just scored the game-winner in HSV’s triumph over Köln on Friday. That was his second goal in three games at the start of the 2017-18 season. Wondolowski is there in case of injury or if Arena needs a late body in the box. He has two goals in his past four MLS matches and just hit double-digits for a record eighth consecutive regular season.
With his next goal, Dempsey will break the program record he now shares with the retired Landon Donovan. And if he plays against Costa Rica or Honduras, the Texan will equal the Californian’s American appearance record in World Cup qualifying. Dempsey already has a combined 10 goals against the upcoming foes.