Ten months ago, Bruce Arena took over a national team in trouble. The USA opened the final round of World Cup qualifying with an historic loss to Mexico in Columbus and then a four-goal humiliation in Costa Rica. Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and the Americans were in disarray.
“When I took the job last November, if you said to me you’d be in position in game nine to play a game at home that you had to win, would you take that? I would say ‘Yes’,” Arena said as he unveiled the 26-man roster for the final two games of the Hexagonal. “In 2017 we’ve had one blip in the Costa Rica game [on September 1]. All the other results went along as we expected, and maybe even an extra point in Mexico. I think if it comes down to where we need four or six points in our last two games, I think that’s fine and we’ll get it done.”
This isn’t where the USA wants to be—needing results from its final two qualifiers to get to the World Cup. But after a miserable start, a solid recovery and then the slip-up against Costa Rica, this is the reality. The Americans (2-3-3) meet Panama (2-2-4) next Friday in Orlando and then visit Trinidad & Tobago (1-7-0) four days later. Four points could see the USA through to Russia or, if it finishes fourth, to a November playoff against either Australia or Syria. It isn’t ideal, especially after starting 2017 with a 14-game unbeaten run. But at least it’s a reality for which Arena feels prepared, thanks to a squad players seasoned in this sort of crucible.
“It’s a roster we’ve selected that we believe will give us success in these next two games. We have a pretty balanced roster with experienced players and if any issues arise, I think we have cover in all positions,” Arena said.
Most of the team (17 of 26) saw time in September’s qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras. Defender DeAndre Yedlin has returned from a hamstring injury. Forward Jordan Morris has been lost to one. Fabian Johnson, a player who proved so critical under Klinsmann but who’s been injury-prone and inconsistent for the USA this year, is the biggest name left out. And there are a few intriguing moves lower on the depth chart, including the return of playmaker Benny Feilhaber and defender Michael Orozco. Overall, however, this is the national team as it stands. Whether an overhaul is required will be determined over the next two weeks.
“The players always give the commitment. That’s never an issue,” Arena said. “The issue is whether or not we get the results we need, and I think we’re positioned to do that.”
Training will commence Monday in Orlando. Arena called in 26 players (only 23 are permitted on a match-day roster) in large part because nine face suspension against Trinidad if they’re cautioned against Panama. Those players are Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, DaMarcus Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey and Yedlin.
Here’s a look at Arena’s team for two massive matches:
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
There are no surprises here. In each of the past two pairs of qualifiers, Howard has started the home game and Guzan then played on the road. Howard, however, was in net when the USA and T&T drew, 0-0, in a semifinal round qualifier in Port of Spain in November 2015.
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
It will be mix-and-match once again for the American defense. Cameron, Gonzalez and Ream all had miserable moments to forget in the September qualifiers. But along with Besler, they remain the most experienced center backs available (John Brooks is out long term). Arena will have to hope those errors were outliers. Cameron has had recent hamstring issues as well, but he went the distance in Stoke’s win over Southampton on Saturday.
Questions remain at left back—that’s a U.S. national team tradition. Beasley struggled in Honduras, but Arena never fully vetted a second choice to Villafaña and so will fall back on the veteran he knows. There was some speculation that circumstances might prompt Arena to ask Johnson to return to the back four. But the winger is out altogether, his fitness in question after a slow start to the campaign with Borussia Mönchengladbach. Johnson did play 78 minutes in Saturday’s win over Hannover, but it was his longest outing this season. And he’s played just three times for Arena.
Considering how effective the switch to a 3-5-2 was in the second half against Honduras, it won’t be a surprise at all if the formation makes an appearance in Orlando or Trinidad. Yedlin did well as a wing-back against Mexico in June and Cameron, Ream or Besler each has the range to play on the outside in a three-center back set.
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
The Americans had some trouble with the ball against Costa Rica and Honduras. They struggled building out from the back and establishing options or rhythm against a pressing opponent in the first game. And the USA lacked the sort of accuracy or combination play that can unlock a defense in the second.
Arena appears to have made an attempt to address some of that with the inclusion of Feilhaber, an in-form playmaker who can use the field and bring teammates into the game. The Sporting KC veteran earned a long-awaited USA recall once Arena took over but then quickly fell back out of the picture, and he hasn’t made an appearance since early February. Arena needs someone to take some of the distribution load from Bradley’s shoulders. Feilhaber now is a candidate.
Agudelo and Zardes are somewhat surprising inclusions. Neither is expected to see much time (UPDATE: Zardes tweaked his groin in the Galaxy's match Saturday night and was forced to withdraw). The key questions will continue to center on who plays in the middle with Bradley (Nagbe, Bedoya, McCarty and Acosta all are options—along with Feilhaber—and all bring something significantly different to the table) and whether Pulisic has a central or wide attacking role. Arriola’s presence represents another hint at the possibility of a 3-5-2.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)
Morris is out (and so Wondolowski is in), but Arena will be relieved that Altidore and Dempsey had productive weeks. Dempsey was in a bit of a slump in Seattle, but he recovered nicely with a goal and seven shots in last Wednesday’s win over Vancouver. Altidore (hamstring) had missed three games but then went 90 in TFC’s Supporters' Shield-clinching win over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday evening. He had an assist in the 4-2 triumph.
Wood has scored twice in six games for HSV but tallied perhaps the biggest goal of the year for the Americans. It was his late, close-range finish in San Pedro Sula that put the USA in the position Arena referenced. It doesn’t look great now, but the hardest games of the Hex are out of the way. And so the must-win ones are here.