Before the USA's massive World Cup qualifier against Panama, we answer your questions in an all-things USMNT mailbag.

By Grant Wahl
October 06, 2017

ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. men’s national team plays its biggest World Cup qualifier in at least 16 years here on Friday night against Panama (7:35 p.m., ESPN2, Univision), with the specter looming of the U.S. missing its first World Cup since 1986. Chances are you have an upset stomach waiting for this game to start, so I’ll tide you over until kickoff with a Mailbag. Before I dive in, a couple of notes from my end:

• The maxim in sports journalism/commentary is that if you’re going to criticize the people you cover, you had better have the guts to show your face around them soon thereafter. All of which is to say that you have to admire the cojones of my Fox Sports TV colleague Alexi Lalas this week. After his rant calling out the USMNT players went viral, Lalas is staying at the same hotel as the U.S. team this week. The players, unsurprisingly, aren’t happy with him—you can read what Tim Howard had to say here—and I’d pay good money for the video of Lalas and U.S. players sharing a hotel elevator. Hoping nobody ordered a Code Red.

• What if the U.S. misses the World Cup? I wrote about that doomsday scenario here.

O.K., let’s open the ‘Bag:

What are all of the ramifications (from roster to upper management) if the worst happens and USMNT fails to qualify?

- @Wes_Smith

I got into a lot of the ramifications in my column linked above. But to focus on the USMNT players and management, the impact of missing the World Cup would be significant. From a player perspective, the next four-year World Cup cycle could see the likely departures of a few veterans, including Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley. A host of young players would also be introduced into bigger roles sooner than perhaps expected, including Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent, Matt Miazga and several others.

From a management perspective, you can certainly expect a new USMNT coach for the next cycle. Among American candidates, my sense is Tab Ramos and Peter Vermes are the leaders right now, while foreign possibilities might include Juan Carlos Osorio and Roberto Martínez. (I’m not reporting any contacts here; that’s just me talking.) Also, there’s an election for the president of U.S. Soccer in February. Current president Sunil Gulati has not confirmed if he’s running again, but he’s expected to do so. For a change, he’s likely to have competition from a group that may include Eric Wynalda, Steve Gans and Paul Lapointe. If the U.S. fails to qualify for Russia, Gulati would certainly be seen as more vulnerable.

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On some level isn't this all funny?

- @DavidSRudin

It certainly is if you’re a fan of a USMNT rival, and even U.S. fans might look back and laugh at this someday if the Americans go on to qualify for Russia. (Remember that time…?) But if the U.S. doesn’t qualify? This period would be viewed as a dark, dark time.

What are the chances Bruce Arena goes with the 3-5-2 from the start vs. Panama? Should he?

- @zolz_berg

I think there’s a good chance of that—perhaps as a 3-2-3-2, with Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta holding and Christian Pulisic playing as a No. 10—and I like the idea for a number of reasons: It gives the U.S. a numerical advantage in the midfield, which was missing in that horrible home loss to Costa Rica last month; it prevents Pulisic from having to think much about defending; it allows for two strikers, which has always been a better scenario for Jozy Altidore; and using three center backs takes advantage of the U.S.’s decent depth at that position. Yes, there would be a concern about lack of speed on the back line—did you see the blazing coast-to-coast goal that Panama’s Gaby Torres scored last month?—but it should help to have the speedy DeAndre Yedlin back on the field to provide some cover from a wide spot.

Here’s the U.S. lineup I’d like to see:

---------------------Tim Howard---------------------

Omar Gonzalez; Geoff Cameron; Matt Besler

-----------Michael Bradley; Kellyn Acosta-----------

DeAndre Yedlin; Christian Pulisic; Darlington Nagbe

------------Jozy Altidore; Bobby Wood------------

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Does the USMNT really need Clint Dempsey anymore? I mean, a legend for sure, but age has caught up with him.

- @FenderDylan

I think Dempsey can still be useful to the U.S., especially since he has shown a willingness to come off the bench and be a dangerous threat to score. It would be one thing if Dempsey had a diva attitude and sulked about not starting, but that’s not the case, and he clearly wants to play in one last World Cup. In fact, if the U.S. needs a goal against Panama, Arena would be wise to bring on Dempsey sooner than he did in the loss to Costa Rica.

Are we about to get karmic retribution for what we did to Panama the last cycle?

- @OGoodInPractice

Who knows? Panama suffered one of the toughest gut-punches you’ll ever see when its World Cup dreams were shattered in stoppage time at home by Graham (San) Zusi in 2013. Couple things to think about: While the U.S. can’t qualify for Russia under any circumstances on Matchday 9, Panama can actually qualify this weekend with a win against the U.S. and a Honduras tie or loss against Costa Rica on Saturday (in a game delayed one day by Hurricane Nate). And the U.S. and Panama have tied each other the last four times they have met—with three of those games taking place on U.S. soil. Another tie on Friday would be bad for the USMNT.

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Even if USA qualifies, should we lower our expectations for Russia next year since this team looks mediocre at the moment?

- @Jim_Nguyen

Nope. A lot of folks want to act like how you perform in qualifying impacts how you would perform at a World Cup, and that connection simply isn’t there. The U.S. struggled in qualifying for World Cup 2002 and then had its best modern World Cup run ever in South Korea. Four years later it was the opposite: A dominant qualifying campaign followed by a washout in Germany. Look back to Mexico at World Cup 2014: Barely qualified, then got to the round of 16 in Brazil.

If you were Arena, name one forward, midfielder, defender and goalkeeper that you would have called up instead of Arena’s squad. Who would be left off?

- @BlueCityRadio

Forward: Would have called up Dom Dwyer instead of Chris Wondolowski.

Midfielder: Would have called up Weston McKennie instead of Dax McCarty.

Defender: Would have called up Matt Miazga instead of Michael Orozco (and I know they’re not a total like-for-like).

Goalkeeper: Would have called up Ethan Horvath instead of Nick Rimando.

I like Wondo, McCarty, Orozco and Rimando as players, but none of them are expected to start, and having the younger guys around would be a good thing in my mind.

Why is Bruce Arena held to a different standard than Jurgen Klinsmann? It seems to me that Bruce has more room for making mistakes? Do you agree? And if so, could it be because Jurgen is a World Cup winner and former world-class player? Could it be because he’s German and Bruce is U.S.-born?

- @ElPibeVV

I don’t agree. Arena has had one very bad result—the home loss to Costa Rica—and he took some genuine heat for it, as he should have. If the U.S. doesn’t qualify for the World Cup, this phase of Arena’s career will not be remembered fondly at all. Klinsmann had five years in charge. People had an open mind when he came in, but by the time he was done it was obvious that he needed to go.

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Saw Jozy rocking Pumas on the USMNT Instagram. New shoe deal?

- @srcuello

Yes. Altidore recently signed a deal with Puma.

Why has the USMNT struggled through the Hex?

- @uiucjesus

The outlier results have been the two home losses to Mexico and Costa Rica (the two best teams in the region right now). Both games had fine margins. The Costa Rica loss was marked by a couple huge U.S. mistakes. The Mexico loss was marked by poor U.S. preparation for a new formation and a schoolboy-mistake lack of marking on Rafa Márquez’s game-winner. If you include the way some U.S. players quit on the field in the 4-0 loss at Costa Rica, the general issue was a loss of identity—the U.S. wasn’t nearly as hard to play against as it used to be.

If we qualify, do you feel we'll get Arena 2002 where he risked youth (i.e., playing Landon Donovan/DaMarcus Beasley)? Or do we get Arena 2006 and an old veteran roster?

- @kjchanusmnt

I think it would be closer to 2002: If the U.S. makes it to Russia, in fact, I expect McKennie to be on the roster.

Assuming the best, at what point do you think Trump will realize the World Cup is in Russia, and what do you think he'll say about it?

- @TomTrenta

Honestly, I doubt he would even say anything. Though I do find it interesting that his young son, Barron, appears to be a big Arsenal fan and D.C. United academy player who enjoys the sport.

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Which qualifying campaign has been worse: USA for Russia or Mexico for Brazil?

- @PowderhornPops

Can’t answer that yet. Mexico won two of 10 Hex games and still managed to qualify through the playoff. USA has won two of eight Hex games and could end up winning four of 10 and qualifying automatically without the playoff. But if U.S. doesn’t qualify for the World Cup, obviously that’s a worse result than Mexico’s four years ago.

Where do you think Fabian Johnson stands with the USMNT? Do you think he’ll be in Russia in 2018 pending our qualification?

- @RachaelMcKriger

For a guy who was one of the U.S.’s best players at Brazil 2014, Johnson’s national team situation has gone through a rough stretch, and he wasn’t called up for these games. Arena said on Thursday that he expected Johnson to be involved in future camps and still thinks he’s a very good player. Part of that is due to Johnson having dealt with some injuries this season at club level, and part is due to his lackluster performance for the U.S. against Costa Rica last month. (He didn’t even play at Honduras.) But Arena knows that Johnson has too much talent to be left out in the cold.

Lastly, with the topic of U.S. athlete protests against racism during the national anthem still being extremely relevant, I wanted to post a screengrab I took from the U.S. Soccer Instagram feed on the day of the Gold Cup final this summer. The photo shows Michael Bradley and Tim Howard posing in front of the statue commemorating the famous black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The official U.S. Soccer hashtag on the photo was #Respect.

Instagram/U.S. Soccer

Personally, I totally agree with all of that. But it got me to thinking about a lot of things, including how perspectives change over time and how anthem protests are being viewed today. If a U.S. player on Friday night did the same salute as Smith and Carlos did in 1968—for which those athletes were sent home from the Olympics—he would risk being punished per the new rule instituted by U.S. Soccer, which reads: “All persons representing a federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the federation is represented.”

Of course, it would remain open to interpretation what “stand respectfully” means, but it would certainly be possible that U.S. Soccer would punish a player who did the exact same thing that Smith and Carlos did. Yet here were the U.S. captain and star goalkeeper showing their admiration for Smith and Carlos, and here was the official U.S. Instagram feed being crystal clear about its “#Respect” for those men as well.

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