USMNT: Where Do We Stand?
Coming off its 2-1 Gold Cup Final win over Jamaica, the USMNT’s stock has risen to its highest point since emerging from World Cup group play in 2014. Now, the U.S. will ride Head Coach Bruce Arena’s 14-match unbeaten run into a pivotal World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena on September 1st. Going into the Gold Cup, many were initially critical of Arena’s decision to travel with a B-squad for a major summer tournament that they felt was our best chance to bring home hardware in years. But Arena proved capable in an area where Klinsmann had previously shown weakness: Managing the balance between fielding a competitive lineup and simultaneously engineering meaningful minutes for younger, less-experienced individuals who could play significant roles in next year’s World Cup squad.
In its six Gold Cup matches, Arena started 27 different players in an attempt to get one last look at some fringe candidates for next year’s January camp. Players like Jorge Villafana, Darlington Nagbe, and possibly Kellyn Acosta (depending on the U.S. tactical shape) look to have played their way into the XI, while others like Dax McCarty and Paul Arriola seem to have cemented themselves into bench roles.
Come next January, Arena will also find himself managing a starting XI that, for the first time in recent memory, will consist entirely of players working in their natural positions. With Villafana slotted in at left back, Fabian Johnson will finally be able to work in a full-time midfield capacity. Nagbe and Johnson will be the strongest outside midfield lineup the U.S. has ever shown, finally spelling an end to the Bedoya-Zusi-Yedlin-Zardes committee pool. If Arena elects to go with a five-man midfield, Acosta will be Bradley’s preferred central pairing along with Pullisic atop the triangle, while a 2-man attacking unit will likely see Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood working together at the expense of Acosta.
The only true unknown will be the right back position, which at this point, appears to be in the hands of Yedlin. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks are, in my opinion, the strongest central pairing we can offer, but Cameron is extremely versatile and could just as easily move to the right back position in place of Yedlin while Omar Gonzalez comes in to work alongside Brooks in the middle. Cameron at right back offers a much stronger defensive alignment for the U.S., but also sacrifices Yedlin’s attacking ability and speed down the right. Perhaps Arena chooses to save this decision until the U.S. organizes its tactics in the days leading up to the opponent, but I think Yedlin still has some work to do as far as defending ability goes before next summer.
PROJECTED WORLD CUP ROSTER (Bolded names are starters)
Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Bill Hamid
Still in consideration: Nick Rimando, Jesse Gonzalez, Sean Johnson
Jorge Villafana, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi
Still in consideration: Eric Lichaj
Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Tim Ream
Still in consideration: Matt Miazga
Fabian Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Alejandro Bedoya, Paul Arriola
Still in consideration: Gyasi Zardes, Sebastian Lletget, Chris Pontius, Kelyn Rowe
Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta, Dax McCarty
Still in consideration: Joe Corona
Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris
Still in consideration: Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer
Some closing thoughts:
I tried to list the “still in consideration players” from left-to-right in order of their priority.
A third GK will be selected behind Howard and Guzan, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who it might be at this point.
The 22nd and 23rd players selected will likely come down to Tim Ream, Jordan Morris, and Joe Corona. You can argue that the outside back depth is lacking, which is why I think that Ream – a versatile defender who has shown he can play both in the middle and on the outside – makes the most sense. Corona looked very strong in advanced attacking roles this summer, and Morris’ Gold Cup-winning strike was a much-needed tally for the young striker who was probably moving in the wrong direction on the forward depth chart prior to the final. Both are competing for spots in already crowded positions, so the decision may come down to which player is showing better form at the club ranks at the time the calls come in.
I think that the XI will be tied slightly to the tactical formation that we line up in going into each match. Most of the starters will be locked into the XI regardless of our formation, but electing to go with a 4-4-2 over a 4-5-1 will likely be the deciding factor in pairing Bobby Wood up top with Jozy or moving Kellyn Acosta into the central midfield triangle.