USMNT Has an Injury, Personnel Problem Entering Do-or-Die World Cup Qualifiers
- Alexi Lalas's laundry list is not the U.S. men's national team's biggest problem right now, but a small yet important injury crisis most certainly is.
Alexi Lalas's laundry list of issues is not the U.S. men's national team's biggest problem right now, but a small yet important injury crisis most certainly is.
In three weeks, the U.S. will face Panama and Trinidad & Tobago in a pair of do-or-die World Cup qualifying matches. A ticket to Russia hangs in the balance, a potential ticket to Australia or Syria might be necessary on the way and the worst-case scenario of missing out altogether remains in play. And while direct shots at Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Christian "Wonder Boy" Pulisic and Bruce Arena have the U.S. soccer community heated, a forced and theatrical set of hot takes isn't going to change the U.S. men's fortunes at all. Who Arena has at his disposal to select most certainly will, though.
Arguably the biggest issue for the USA against Costa Rica and Honduras was center back play. Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream made a meal out of two sequences, which led to both Costa Rica goals at home. Omar Gonzalez, who got the start for the benched Cameron against Honduras, had a brutal time dealing with Romell Quioto's opening strike in San Pedro Sula. That picture hasn't cleared any since.
Cameron will miss the next two weeks for Stoke City after suffering a hamstring injury last weekend against Manchester United.
“Geoff’s not available and he will probably be missing for the next couple of weeks,” Stoke manager Mark Hughes told the club's official website earlier this week. “He will most likely be back after the Chelsea game I would think, which is a shame because he’s had a bright start to the season."
The Chelsea game is Sept. 23, and Stoke has one more game after that prior to the international break. Is that ample time for Cameron to return to peak fitness for a pair of rapid-fire games?
His preferred center back partner, John Brooks, hasn't played since Aug. 13, when he suffered a thigh injury, and he is in the middle of a three-month recovery, meaning he won't be ready to go.
Out wide, DeAndre Yedlin has yet to play since recovering from a hamstring injury of his own, appearing on the bench for Newcastle last week vs. Swansea. Should he not see the field against Stoke, Brighton & Hove or Liverpool prior to the break, his last competitive action will have been on June 11–for the USA vs. Mexico.
Graham Zusi's transition to right back has been commendable, but it is not the stopgap measure Arena needs with Yedlin out of commission, and DaMarcus Beasley, who undoubtedly is a U.S. legend as he vies to compete in a fifth World Cup, can't possibly be the best left back answer at this stage.
That's three-quarters of the preferred starting defense either out or with question marks mixed with one-quarter uncertainty, and with the USA conceding first in both September qualifiers and a lock-down showing required in high-stakes environments in October, that is reason enough for an unsettling feeling going forward.
Up top, Jordan Morris is out, according to SI's Grant Wahl, leaving Arena's options thinned out. Morris may have under-delivered for the Seattle Sounders this season, but his Gold Cup winner showed he can provide a late-game spark, and his effort on Bobby Wood's equalizer in Honduras was integral to the play. Altidore is fresh off a card-accumulation suspension, so barring a red card vs. Panama or an injury of his own, he'll be available for both games and can start with Wood. But eight other U.S. players are on yellow-card accumulation patrol–Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler, Bradley, Cameron and Dempsey. Any number of refereeing decisions in the Panama game (and who doesn't love a good CONCACAF refereeing controversy?) could drastically alter who is available for the Trinidad trip.
The Gold Cup showed that the USA's depth chart, especially from Arena's most trusted group, is top-heavy. With a seven-tournament World Cup streak on the line, he needs to have as much of it as possible available to him–or else the viral rants may just be getting started.