April 2017, USMNT

As US Health Questions Linger, Arena’s Summer Choices Become More Difficult

Neil W. Blackmon

As the calendar lurches toward another summer of soccer, US Men’s National Team manager Bruce Arena faces both tactical and fitness questions about his player pool as European seasons wind down, MLS players rounding into form and the health of key American players. 

Clint Dempsey is back with a vengeance, building on his four goals in two game performance in the March qualifying campaign with a monstrous game for the Sounders Sunday against the LA Galaxy, where the 34-year-old Texan was the best player on a talented field. Last week, after a lengthy injury layoff, DeAndre Yedlin returned to the starting lineup for Newcastle United, and the 23-year-old fullback was in the 18 for the Magpies today as they secured passage back to the Premier League with a 4-1 rout of Preston North End. Bobby Wood returned to the starting lineup for Hamburg, and appears to be fully recovered from the lingering ailment that kept him out of the March qualifiers. 

While Dempsey was available and vital in March, Wood and Yedlin are but two of the nine American players that Bruce Arena did without in March, his first two competitive matches back as the US manager. And while it is shortsighted to suggest Arena has already transformed the USMNT into a side that will avoid World Cup qualifying calamity, Arena’s four point haul, coming thanks to a 6-0 win over Honduras and a 1-1 draw at Panama, is all the more impressive given the Yanks managed it without probable starters Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks and the aforementioned Wood and Yedlin.

While Cameron, Yedlin and Wood have returned to action, John Brooks tore a hip muscle with Hertha Berlin this week and is out indefinitely – a devastating blow to the center of the American defense if it extends into June. And all eyes remain on the oft-injured Johnson’s recovery at Borussia Monchengladbach, the bulk of the most critical American players appear to be getting fit- and playing in form- at the right time heading into the summer. Beyond Brooks and Johnson, Sebastian Lletget, who started against Honduras, is out for a while after suffering an injury in that match. Complicating matters for Arena, key pieces of defensive depth are currently on the training table. Michael Orozco, playing unquestionably the best soccer of his life with Tijuana, is dealing with a leg knock. Steve Birnbaum, another player that adds depth and experience, remains in concussion protocol.  

There are, of course, still six weeks before the US resume World Cup qualifying June 8 with a massive home tilt against Trinidad and Tobago at Dicks Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. Form-wise and injury wise, that’s an eternity in the world of soccer. But the optimism swirling around US health even two weeks ago has been tempered by the Brooks injury, and the resolution of these health issues could dictate whether the Americans enter he summer confident and fit ahead of two vital qualifying matches. 

And while an abundance of depth and options is certainly a preferable problem to have to the spring’s depleted roster and limited choices, a fit US Men’s National team does complicate the choices for Bruce Arena.  Assuming Johnson, still in this writer’s view the best American soccer player in the world, recovers – Arena will have difficult decisions to make, both in terms of player selections and perhaps more vitally, formation choice. This is particularly true in the midfield and at forward.  The schedule does Arena few favors: only 72 hours separate a must-win at altitude in Denver against a Trinidad and Tobago team with talented wings and competent finishers, and the ever-looming cauldron of near invincibility that is Azteca June 11th. Heady stuff for a side clinging to fourth place in the qualifying table, with little margin for error. 

It’s a worthwhile endeavor to examine some of Arena’s choices as the US move toward June. Midfield first.

The US midfield setup, at bottom, centers on two fundamental questions, in no particular order:

  1. What to do with Jermaine Jones?
  2. Where to play Christian Pulisic?

The answer to each reveals the options elsewhere.

On a conference call with media earlier this month, Bruce Arena mentioned Jones specifically, noting he was evaluating the merits of continuing the longstanding but often frustrating midfield partnership of the LA Galaxy midfielder and Michael Bradley.

“Regarding the Bradley-Jones partnership, (in the Panama qualifier) it certainly didn’t look like anything special,” Arena said. “And as we move forward we continue to look at different possibilities.” 

On their own, both Bradley and Jones offer plenty.  

Bradley is an invaluable leader, in the dressing room and on the pitch. He is still capable of making plays lying deep, dropping diagonals from the scrum and providing excellent positional cover defensively. He covers acres of ground, reads the game well defensively and is an adequate tackler. The idea of dropping him deep where he can facilitate counters and/or help the US build possession from the back makes sense. What he isn’t is a number ten or a tip-of-the-diamond playmaker. And his turnovers, long a source of frustration for the loud dissidents who oppose his inclusion, often come when he’s asked to play more forward in the midfield, when he presses things in attack, or when he is asked to cover extra ground in midfield gaps because Jones, deployed ahead of him, will not stay tethered.

The latter point elucidates the largest issue with continuing the Jones-Bradley partnership. If you play Bradley deep, he enjoys freedom of movement but is often asked to do too much while Jones marauds and goes walkabout in search of the ball. If you play Bradley forward, it removes the best element of Bradley’s passing from his game and Jones is unlikely to stay tethered and provide cover, creating unnecessary risk on the back end.  

Meanwhile, now in his mid-30s, Jones provides irreplaceable leadership and experience. One of three current US players to play deep into the Champions League knockout rounds, very little fazes Jones. And for all the mythology surrounding his tendency to get yellow cards or make rash challenges, the Honduras match was the first in years Jones had missed due to card accumulation. 

Still, Jones’s leadership, his ability to win the ball and his penchant for playing his best on the grandest and largest stages and in the biggest games (see Copa America last summer or World Cup 2014) suggest the Galaxy man will be a player the US want to keep around. The question is about role.

If Arena is breaking up the Bradley/Jones band, what next? To begin to answer that question, one has to factor in Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund wunderkind recently called one of the best two young players on the planet by highly-respected tactical analyst Michael Cox.  

At bottom, the choice with the largest cascading impact on the US lineup is simply whether to deploy the playmaking  Pulisic centrally or on the wing. 

If Arena deploys Pulisic on the wing, the US will likely opt for two traditional midfielders, in perhaps a double pivot, opening the door for a few different combinations, assuming a departure from Jones/Bradley.

Arena could go “offensive”, using Sacha Kljestan or Darlington Nagbe centrally ahead of a deeper lying Michael Bradley. MLS fans are clamoring for the inclusion of Nagbe in the American starting 11, and goals like the one he scored this weekend are part and parcel why.

But the reality is the Timbers man has been up and down in limited US appearances and when he has played well, he has done so from wide positions.  As for Kljestan, it is fair to ask if his time to seize control of a starting role came and went in the spring, when coming off his best year in New York he was included in the roster but did not play.

Another option in this set up would be Bradley playing a defensive role very deep, something akin to what Kyle Beckerman played for the Americans last cycle, with either FC Dallas star Kellyn Acosta or Reading man Danny Williams or even AFC Bournemouth midfielder and Leeds United target Emerson Hyndman, fresh off a tremendous loan stint with Rangers in Scotland,  ahead. This would certainly represent a generational shift – Arena moving past Jones and looking into the future of the US midfield- and while the idea is exciting in theory, it is unlikely given the necessity of results in the qualifiers ahead.

Arena could opt to deploy Pulisic as the tip of a narrow diamond as well, tucking him in underneath two forwards and asking his fullbacks to offer width.  Long-term, this might be best for Pulisic, who is tidy and fast on the ball and tremendous running at defenders and has shown an unbelievable ability,  given his age, to  keep defenses guessing with his fast, decisive passing. Comfortable floating between the lines and strong with either foot, it almost does a disservice to some of Pulisic’s strengths to force him too far wide. 

The diamond would also potentially allow Nagbe and Pulisic to play on the field at the same time, with Nagbe pinched-in as a wide midfielder alongside either a tracker (Alejandro Bedoya or Alfredo Morales) or another midfielder comfortable wide, like Sebastian Lletget or Lynden Gooch. This scenario would leave Michael Bradley on the field as a defensive midfielder, with plenty of depth options behind him, ranging from Jermaine Jones and Dax McCarty to Perry Kitchen and Kellyn Acosta. 

One negative here is that the US would likely have to play Fabian Johnson at left back, and one of the basic tenets of sound football management, if you believe Johann Cruyff, is to “avoid playing your best player outside his most comfortable position.”  But there are certainly those who think the US should play Johnson at LB because he’s comfortably better than any other alternative in that spot, and another sound footballing management theory is optimize the talent at your disposal. Either way, the inquiry and debate requires a healthy Fabian Johnson to have much meaning. 

The best bet is that Arena changes who partners with Bradley in both the June qualifiers. There’s logic in this – two entirely different opponents, only 72 hours between games, and one game, if all are honest, far more critical than the other. The Americans must defeat Trinidad and Tobago at home if they’d like to play soccer in Russia next summer. The need for a result at Azteca is different than the desire to get a result at Azteca. The demands and tactics of each match will be different.

In Denver, the US will be on the front foot, likely keeping one mid a bit deeper to help the fullbacks when Trinidad and Tobago break with Joevin Jones or Levi Garcia down a flank or Kevin Molino in the channels. But mostly, the Americans will stalk the Soca Warriors goal while Trinidad and Tobago absorb pressure and hope to counter.

In Mexico City, the US will likely play deep, making the use of either an empty bucket or dual-destroyer set up, or (more likely), a back wall of four with three staggered but deep mids shielding it. It will be an almost complete role reversal from the game 72 hours earlier, except that the US will hope to deploy Pulisic ahead of the walls of four and three and see if they can find a goal or a winner on a break or against the run of play. 

The changed tactics will demand different personnel. Dax McCarty, Alfredo Morales, Perry Kitchen and even Kellyn Acosta should be on high alert for the Azteca tilt. Three of those four are less likely to feature in Denver.  

The good news? The stark contrast in the two qualifiers will afford Bruce Arena two drastically different, live competition opportunities to evaluate the talent at his disposal. That’s invaluable moving forward.

Speaking of forward, Arena will have plenty to consider here as well. Throughout the three year cycle, the US have had only two reliable goal scorers: Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. Starting them as a pair may be Arena’s best option. 

Then again, for the first time in several years, the US have the benefit of a fit and in-form Jozy Altidore. Improved as a passer, target man and long-willing to do the work needed to find a game, Altidore has proven his merit as a support forward in Toronto and for the US, with a tremendous shift against Honduras in March. Clint Dempsey isn’t getting any younger. Do the US optimize Dempsey’s impact by saving his legs for substitutions? Is it wise to sit a player who has been your heartbeat for at least half a decade and creative force for longer when he’s fit and playing well? Could Arena surprise everyone and play 4-3-3? Would it be worth it to play Dempsey underneath the other two in a diamond?

These are fascinating questions, and Bruce Arena addressed them, in aggregate, briefly on a conference call this month.

“There’s so many factors,” Arena said. “There’s form, there’s fitness, there’s your gut feeling. There’s two games in a short period of time, June 8 and June 11, and one would assume you’d make some changes to [account] for that. So I think we’re going to find we don’t have enough forwards. Three is not enough. It’s all of those things, and obviously we’ll be watching that players over the next six weeks.”

The US will likely also have Jordan Morris at their service (injured in March) as a depth option up top, and the inclusion of another forward wouldn’t be stunning, given the compressed time frame between matches. But if all options are healthy, Bruce Arena will face the most challenging tactical choices a US manager has had perhaps ever, and in a sport like international soccer, graded harshly on the smallest of sample sizes, whether he gets them right may dictate whether the US play important soccer matches with more challenging tactical questions the following summer in Russia. 

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon