USMNT Preview: Bruce Arena has Midfield Decisions to Make Against Honduras

The U.S. Men’s National Team has qualified for the last seven World Cups, and seemingly have done so without a hitch. Yet, here they sit just two games into the fourth round of qualifying, already in last place and on the brink of what many are calling a “must-win” match against Honduras.

In November, after succumbing to Mexico at home for the first time since 1972, the USMNT took a beating against an unspectacular Costa Rican side. And just like that, Jurgen’s team became Bruce’s, and there’s no time for Arena to feel things out.

This is Bruce Arena’s second shot at bringing greatness to the U.S. squad, one he hasn’t coached since 2006 when “Secretary of Defense” Tim Howard was still sitting behind Kasey Keller in the lineup. That was at the World Cup in Germany, best remembered for the team’s group stage exit after an embarrassing loss to Ghana. This time, things don’t look much better for Arena: he’s been given a limping roster, and moreover he has inherited a steadily growing hole that the USMNT desperately needs to dig themselves out of if they plan on making it to Russia in 2018.

The uphill climb begins Friday in San Jose, California, and in the wake of injuries and two terrible first games, there’s no sure strategy to get the stars and stripes their mojo back against Honduras. However, one suggestion might be to to play it safe defensively, while taking a gamble in the midfield.

Playing It Safe

In the defensive third of the pitch, the U.S. will be missing its aggressive attacking outside backs DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson. Yedlin’s pace and Johnson’s offensive mindset have given the USMNT a back line that is finally versatile enough to truly join the attack effectively. However, with both players injured, the U.S. is limited in its ability to play aggressively out of the back.

DeMarcus Beasley is just too old to be making those overlapping runs up and down the wing like he used to during his days with the Chicago Fire, and Michael Orozco has barely shown enough defensive prowess to even be considered a valuable component when the U.S. attacks. Before his sacking, Klinsmann made an effort to transition midfielder Graham Zusi to an outside back that could be utilized in a similar fashion as Yedlin and Johnson, but it’s safe to say no U.S. fans are really crazy about his presence on the field.

If Arena is looking to keep things tight back there – and after a 4-0 loss to Costa Rica, he really should be – then he might want to consider settling for a more conservative back line built around the proven solid duo of Brooks and Cameron. It doesn’t really matter who goes on the outside, as long as the defense stays compact, and as long as it isn’t Zusi.

Taking A Gamble

Against Honduras, the life and spark of the USMNT will need to come from the midfield. The problem is, Jermaine Jones is out of the lineup due to yellow card accumulation, and (much to the disappointment of an understandably critical fan base) the not-so consistent Michael Bradley is still wearing the captain’s band.

The good news is that fan-favorite and rising Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic will almost certainly be starting as an outside winger. The 18 year-old is not only incredibly fun to watch with the ball at his feet, but has proven himself as a real threat on both his German squad and for the USMNT.

Arena will most likely be playing with a relatively flat midfield four. Which means that next to Pulisic on the wing and Bradley in the middle, there’s one more of each spot to fill. If Arena’s prior favorable lineups hold true on Friday, those positions will be occupied by the dependable defensive midfielders that are Alejandro Bedoya and Arena’s Los Angeles ally Sebastian Lletget.

However, those aren’t the names U.S. soccer fans necessarily want to see, (though that’s more true for Bedoya than Lletget). It’s pretty likely both players will get the start on game day, but (like so many games that the U.S. has played in recent years with Bedoya in the lineup) two-thirds of the match could wind up as a sloppy midfield grind.

When the time comes to raise the ante and make some subs, there are two players every U.S. soccer fan wants to see: Darlington Nagbe and Sacha Kljestan.

Although both midfielders have shown occasional tendencies to turn the ball over in precarious positions on the field, they have also built tremendous hype around their individual abilities to create scoring chances for their respective teams. At times, their playing styles and tendencies to infiltrate enemy quarters at the expense of leaving gaps in the midfield is risky. But, if the U.S. is still tied or even losing midway through the second half, it’s a risk Arena should be willing to take.

The Rest

Timmy is starting in goal. It’s Tim Howard, everybody.

As far as forwards go, with Bobby Wood out with an injury and the young Seattle goal-scorer Jordan Morris reportedly having tweaked his ankle during Sunday’s match against the New York Red Bulls, Arena will probably rely on the veteran duo of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. Having them both healthy at the same time has been something of a rarity since the last World Cup, and with the USMNT’s limited roster, their rejuvenated chemistry up top is the best bet.

However, note this: if the U.S. is playing for a win, it will undoubtedly need an aggressive midfield. Pulisic is a fine player who is more than capable of putting the team on his back from time to time. But with a non-threatening defense, Arena eyeing a start or substitution with Nagbe or Kljestan might mean the difference for the USMNT against Honduras.

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