It’s tough to find the origin of the phrase, but lots of NFL people—players and pundits—have said it or something very close to it: “The backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town.”
It’s been a popular lament in American football circles for decades, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Quarterback arguably is the toughest position in team sports. Watch one struggle—feel the frustration build with every three-and-out—and it gets easier to project success onto the blank slate that is the backup.
He can’t be worse, right? The coach’s myopia is holding this team back. Look how confidently he holds that clipboard!
The certainty that the backup can step in cold and deliver an accurate, tight spiral is only one more turnover, beer or Tom Brady highlight video away.
Brady is the exception, of course. The vast majority of backups are the backup for a reason. But that doesn’t make the aphorism any less true. Reserves are popular because they represent unrealized potential.
Which brings us to the U.S. national team, the September loss to Costa Rica and the ensuing conversation about this World Cup qualifying campaign. When Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann over the winter, that campaign was off to an historically bad 0-2-0 start. The team’s identity had been stripped away. Arena sought to rebuild the foundation, establish chemistry and communication and instill stability in tactics and personnel. He relied on players who wouldn’t be cowed by the task ahead. And it worked. The USA went unbeaten in 14 matches, won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, got a point at the Estadio Azteca and most importantly, looked set to qualify for Russia.
Then there was one bad game. There was blame to go around, from Arena to his most decorated veterans. And Los Ticos took their chances. The 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena put qualification back in jeopardy. Win your home games—that’s another aphorism. The USA, once under Klinsmann and once under Arena, now had lost two of five in the Hexagonal. The Americans salvaged a point from an ugly match in Honduras, but the damage was done. The USA enters the final two games of qualifying—next Friday against Panama in Orlando, Florida, and then at Trinidad & Tobago four days later— in fourth place at 2-3-3 and one point behind Los Canaleros for CONCACAF's third automatic World Cup berth.
The criticism of Arena and his players was vehement, and more of it was inspired by the Hex standings and the performances against Costa Rica and Honduras (for the first hour or so) than by the big picture. Because the big picture says this: there’s been one defeat in 16 games under a coach who’s been committed to sticking with a core he trusts. And two of the biggest matches in recent U.S. history are around the corner.
Fans call for new blood. The starters should have a better record. But for Arena, they’re starters for a reason. Fans project their hopes onto the relatively blank slates of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga, Justen Glad or Jesse Gonzalez. They yearn for the return of players they were glad to see left out just a few months earlier or those who’ve been out of the team for months or more. But Arena is unlikely to be moved by any of that. When he unveils his team Sunday—expect there to be more than 23 players as he considers potential injury and suspension—it’s going to be full of the same familiar, frustrating faces. There’s enough evidence to suggest that September was an outlier, and Arena is going to place his faith in that rather than in players who are unproven in the qualifying crucible and who might significantly alter the established chemistry. At least backup quarterbacks practice with the team.
Asked this week whether he’d call on some new players who might add a spark, Arena told reporters, “We don't have the luxury of doing that. This is not experimental time. We pretty much have to go with who we have."
In the Americans’ favor: on paper, these are two of the easiest games of the Hex. Panama has proven to be a tough out, certainly, but it’s an older team that hasn’t offered much going forward. Los Canaleros earned a point against the USA in March in what looks like the final game of the ‘Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones just never figured out that central midfield partnership’ era. Panama’s heavy, unpunished treatment of Christian Pulisic made a difference as well. Trinidad, meanwhile, already has been eliminated and will take the field in the Oct. 10 finale absent several recognizable veterans as coach Dennis Lawrence looks toward the future.
Qualifying is tough, and it can be weird. The USA should get the points it needs, but it cannot overlook either Panama or T&T. And so Arena will rely on players he knows are unlikely to make that mistake.
"The roof hasn't caved in yet,” Arena said in New York. “It might after the next game, but not yet."
Here’s a quick look at where things stand ahead of Sunday’s unveiling:
Brad Guzan had a couple mishaps in the Gold Cup and Tim Howard should’ve been better against Costa Rica. But it’s almost impossible to imagine Arena turning away from his veterans now. Both will be comfortable under the spotlight and we may see them split duties again, as they did at RBA and in San Pedro Sula this month. Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando was the third goalie on that roster and likely will be again.
If Arena had hoped to establish a consistent back four, that was derailed by injury long ago. The Americans remain in flux in defense. Toss in the poor timing of Geoff Cameron’s struggles against Costa Rica and that strange goal yielded by a flat-footed Omar Gonzalez in Honduras, and you find yourself in a qualifying predicament.
Arena won’t bail on either, however, especially with John Brooks injured and unavailable. Cameron (who’s returning from a hamstring injury of his own), Gonzalez and Matt Besler will be in frame to start. None are perfect, but all have proven themselves in big games. Tim Ream could get another look as well.
The USA will welcome back right back Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin, who missed out on the Costa Rica and Honduras games.
"It's good to get him back," Arena said this week when asked about Yedlin. "He's a different kind of defender for us, so I think it'll be great if he stays healthy through the week and he arrives in Orlando.”
Graham Zusi will be there to back up Yedlin, and Jorge Villafaña should remain the favorite to play on the left. It will be interesting to see if Arena is tempted to go against his initial instincts and deploy Fabian Johnson at outside back. Johnson has only three caps this year and had no impact against Costa Rica in midfield.
Considering Arena’s options further forward, his lack of options in defense and the fact that Johnson has significant experience along the U.S. back four, it wouldn’t come as a shock. Nor would some time in a 3-5-2, a formation that made a difference in the second half against Honduras.
Whether Pulisic should play out wide or in the middle will be the most frequently posed question next week, and it’s unlikely Arena will tip his hand. Pulisic was hammered and harassed in Panama and struggled without protection from the referee. Perhaps those fouls will be called in Orlando. And perhaps Arena will bring Pulisic inside, where potential free kicks could be more dangerous and where he can combine more easily with the likes of Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore.
What Arena does have to consider is how the USA can be more effective in the build-up. That’s where it struggled against Costa Rica. Bradley was isolated from Pulisic and Johnson on the wings and Darlington Nagbe struggled to make himself available. If the Americans are pressed, there has to be someone else, in addition to Bradley, who can receive and move the ball. Alejandro Bedoya might fit the bill. Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty also have been routine call-ups under Arena. Out wide, Paul Arriola has proven to be a player who can put the opposition on the back foot. And that can give the rest of the midfield some breathing room.
The U.S. midfield is healthy. Arena knows which players he feels comfortable with individually—the question will be how to put the pieces together.
Jordan Morris, who’s had a knack for making big plays despite adversity, isn’t going to overcome his hamstring injury in time for the qualifiers. He’s out for at least several more weeks. The good news is that Dempsey rediscovered the spring in his step as the Seattle Sounders routed the rival Vancouver Whitecaps Wednesday, while Altidore appears ready to return from a hamstring issue.
He told reporters in Toronto that he hopes to play in TFC’s game this weekend and that he’s “full throttle and ready to go.”
Chris Wondolowski becomes the likely fourth forward, if Arena feels he needs one beyond the MLS star duo and Bobby Wood. Wondo’s inclusion will cause a few eyes to roll, for sure. But the 34-year-old knows what weeks like the one ahead for the USA entail, on and off the field, and that’s what Arena will be looking for as he prepares for the two biggest games since his return.