Featured, March 2017, USMNT, World Cup Qualifiers

Shorthanded, US and Bruce Arena Try to Right World Cup Ship vs. Honduras: TYAC Preview

Michael Bradley and the Americans enter San Jose in dire need of points.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

The United States Men’s National Team, under new management, resumes World Cup qualifying Friday night when they take on Honduras in San Jose, California (10 PM ET, FS1). The Americans match against Honduras will be the first of two qualifiers in five days, with a trip to Panama and another qualifier coming Tuesday evening. And while US veterans evaded the term “must win” when discussing the need for a result with the media this week, there’s little debate that after opening the final qualifying round “Hex” with zero points in two matches, there’s little debate the US need points.

In a strict sense, the veterans are correct. The game against Honduras is not a “must win.” A loss wouldn’t come close to eliminating the US mathematically from qualification for the World Cup next year in Russia. And Fabian Johnson, out of the team with an injury, is correct to point out to TYAC that the “US were in great shape last summer, showing people the quality they have”, when they finished a surprising fourth at the Copa America Centenario.

But the US failed to garner momentum from the Copa America finish, and as Jeff Carlisle documented brilliantly at ESPN, US Soccer has been a program in turmoil for months, under fire on a host of fronts, from the pitch to the board room to the locker room. 

The play on the field saw the Yanks succumb to rival Mexico at a venue in Ohio where the Americans had previously appeared invincible. A trip to Costa Rica that has forever ended in defeat for US teams ended in abject humiliation. Jurgen Klinsmann was fired shortly after the Costa Rica humiliation, ending a five year tenure that had mixed results and above all, lacked the fluid football he’d promised. 

In the board room, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati was dealing with far more than the unhappy separation with Klinsmann, his anointed leader who he had delegated near plenary authority in 2011. Disputes with the US Women’s National Team, over the collective bargaining agreement and over equal pay, continued in conference rooms and courthouses. A policy over whether national anthem protests would be tolerated stirred controversy. And the U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida, long a centerpiece of the US development plan, was scuttled, out with a whimper after roaring beginnings.  

And for the first time in several years, a specter of discord loomed over the American locker room. And while the players insisted almost to a man this week that there’s no friction or lack of chemistry and togetherness as a unit, the public spats have felt genuine. Political divides over President Trump’s proposed immigration ban, as well as odd remarks by Tim Howard about the commitment of dual-national American players who grew up abroad created very vocal, public divisions in the team. Earlier this month, the always candid Alejandro Bedoya’s made postgame remarks that Jozy Altidore may have a propensity to “dive”, stirring a Twitter back and forth that ended with an inelegant walk back and deescalation of the conflict by both players. These incidents have created reasonable questions over whether the Americans, long admired in international soccer circles for their togetherness and grit, truly like each other at present. 

Fabian Johnson has been brilliant in Germany. He’ll be missed this evening.

These circumstances would be heady enough questions for any side, let alone one facing a qualifying deficit with significant roster depletion due to a host of injuries.The Americans are, to put it bluntly, beat up. The best American soccer player in the world, Fabian Johnson, will miss both of the upcoming qualifiers with a leg injury. Jordan Morris rolled an ankle Sunday in MLS and is doubtful for Friday night’s fixture. John Brooks is coming off an injury and faces questions about match fitness. Bobby Wood, one of the team’s only reliable goalscorers this World Cup cycle, came off in a Bundesliga match this weekend and is absent due to injury. DeAndre Yedlin, the incumbent for the Americans at right back, is on the shelf with an injury as well. Timothy Chandler is suspended for Friday night’s game and unlikely to join the team in Panama for a one-off.  Jermaine Jones will miss Friday night’s match due to card accumulation. The Americans are as depleted as they are desperate. 

So tonight’s match in San Jose, where various issues from ticket prices to traffic to skepticism about the team’s success have hamstrung ticket sales, is clouded by questions and doubt. 

The Americans new boss (same as the old boss) Bruce Arena remains confident. He claims spirits are high and chemistry is good.

“The mood is we’d like to be playing right now,” he said. “The guys are very eager to play. We have a great attitude; they’re looking forward to the game. I don’t know if the word [urgency] is the right word. I just think they’re looking forward to the game. They’re a very enthusiastic group right now and we can’t wait to kick off tomorrow.”

And this isn’t unchartered water for Arena. In 2001, he managed a US team with its back against the wall, needing a win to avoid elimination from the 2002 World Cup qualifying tournament. Arena’s team calmly dispatched Jamaica in Boston and then drew Trinidad and Tobago in Port-of-Spain to secure World Cup qualification. That US team ended up playing in the World Cup quarterfinals, and that history of success has the Americans confident in their new manager, according to the only veteran of both teams, DaMarcus Beasley.

“Bruce does a great job instilling confidence in the group,” Beasley said. “We believed we were going to win that night in New England, and we have that same feeling going into Friday night. He keeps the team loose, and at the same time gets everyone well prepared.”

Let’s get you, the reader, prepared then. 

The TYAC preview. Usuals. Then particulars.

Series: 24th meeting. United States lead 15-4-4. The Americans are 12-2-3 against Honduras on US soil. The Americans are 5-2-1 against Honduras in World Cup qualifiers and they are 1-0 (narrow win at 2015 Gold Cup) against Honduras under manager Jorge Luis Pinto. 

Weather: Mid-50’s with a slight chance of some mist at kick. The match may not actually kickoff until around 11 PM ET, and by then, the evening mist off the mountains may have descended into San Jose. Either way, it is perfect weather for a World Cup qualifier and the venue, Avaya Stadium, is one of America’s most attractive new soccer-specific facilities. Fabian Johnson is missing, which makes the Neil W. Blackmon Misery Index about a 9. 

Jorge Luis Pinto led tiny Costa Rica to the World Cup quarterfinals. Now he’s trying to provide Honduras with similar success.

Neil W. Blackmon on What to Watch For From Honduras:

Following a messy contract dispute, Jorge Luis Pinto left Costa Rica after guiding the country to a World Cup quarterfinal and signed on to give it to the Ticos for not paying him good money by managing one of their biggest rivals, Honduras. It was front page news stuff in both countries when it happened and this tournament marks the first competitive outlet for Pinto as Honduras manager. It may be too soon to know if Pinto can make good on his promise to “revolutionize” Honduran soccer, but he believes the players and federation support is there to make good on this promise before the 2018 World Cup. Pinto promised, on his introduction, to create a team that is “tactically strong in all aspects and plays dynamic, quick soccer” and has quickly shuffled around his roster, injecting youth and phasing out the older guard who finished 31st in Brazil. 

Pinto is a great tactical mind– he keeps his own blog complete with tactical posts and zonal marking videos-and after remaking Costa Rican soccer in his own image, his hire by Honduras was nothing short of a coup.  His very presence in the opposing manager’s box tonight is an independent reason for American fans to be very concerned.

Los Catrachos qualified for the previous two World Cups thanks to a very strong group of midfielders, including Wilson Palacios, who Pinto has phased out due to horrid form. Also gone are familiar names like Luis Garrido, who was a great deal different than Palacios, except he drifted around the field more and was probably a less brutal destroyer. He suffered a horrifying leg injury at the end of 2015 that likely ended his career. Under the old regime, Garrido would pair with Jorge Claros (this was the group for Honduras’ best performance at the World Cup, a fun 2-1 match against Ecuador), who does nothing exceptionally well outside of tackle but is a better passer than Palacios. Claros was the deeper-lying member of the empty bucket against Ecuador, but the more forward lying one against the US in Salt Lake City (a match that Garrido missed due to card accumulation, if memory serves correct.)

Claros remains, but Pinto has replaced Garrido and Palacios with the genuine winger talent of Romell Quioto, also of the Houston Dynamo, who is playing the best soccer internationally of his life and is a more efficient attacking player and passer than Garrido or Palacios ever were. Anchoring the center for the next decade, if Pinto has his way, will be Bryan Acosta, who helped Honduras to a surprise medal round match at the Olympic Games in Rio, has played often for the senior team in the center of the park as well. Acosta played 90 and nabbed an assist when the Pinto-led Honduran U23s dominated the Americans under Andi Herzog. And It was Acosta’s sharp passing and tenacious tracking that helped Los Catrachos draw Argentina in the group stages of the Olympic games on South American soil, and because Pinto managed that team, Acosta has earned the Colombian’s trust.  I’d expect him to play a role Friday night, even if Pinto opts for the veteran Claros and a different partner to start.

Pinto’s sides emphasize defensive integrity, often deploying a cautious 3-6-1 that functions like a 5-4-1.  They play deep defensively and rely heavily on the likes of Andy Najar, of Anderlecht, and the aging but still fast Celtic fullback, Emilio Izaguirre, for width, along with the above-mentioned Quioto. They’ll happily sit back, stay organized and wait for chances to get out into the channels on the break. It’s the formula Pinto used to navigate Costa Rica to the World Cup quarterfinals, surrendering only two goals along the way, and it is the method he’s used to get Honduras to the Olympic medal matches and the senior team to a position where they haven’t conceded a goal in the run of play in the opening two games of the Hex. Both opposing goals came on set pieces.

There’s this idea circulating that Pinto’s teams play flat and linear and boring. Don’t believe that. They are clever tactically and are nowhere near as narrow as they were before Pinto’s arrival. They’ll dare you to bring an extra man up into the attack, and then a back three that’s really a back five opens like a butterfly. 

This puts the US in a tough tactical spot. History suggests both Jozy Altidore and the 30+ Clint Dempsey benefit from a forward partner. But an extra forward with an incutting Pulisic floating around towards zone 14 is exactly what Pinto wants: Honduras are not stretched on the flanks, or outnumbered in midfield. With a spare man, they can sit deep against two strikers without too many problems. There is not yet a Cristian Gamboa type to really exploit teams who get caught too high up the field on the break– Brayan Beckeles just isn’t that player, and as of now, Pinto hasn’t slotted Najar back to a wing/fullback spot he’s played in Belgium for his club. That’s a pretty important piece of the Pinto puzzle- his blog, linked above, says so and anyone who saw theTicos backbreaker goal against Uruguay knows what happens when Pinto gets his wing backs out on the break.  

But the finishing pieces- while not as aged and seasoned and critically acclaimed as say Joel Campbell- are brilliant players. Alberth Elis is a demon in the air and should play in Europe soon if he’d like. Add in Quioto’s end to end speed and Eddie Hernandez as an option around minute 65 when the legs of a 30-something DaMarcus Beasley or a not quite match fit John Brooks get heavy and you see the formula very much exists for Pinto to break American hearts again.

Neil W. Blackmon on What to Watch For From the United States:

Who scores the goals?

Can the US centrally, through some combination of Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Sacha Kljestan, Kellyn Acosta and Alejandro Bedoya create enough chances against a defense structured to make it difficult to get in between the lines?  

The always candid Pinto believes Arena will make the US “tactically stronger, much more complete defensively.”

But for two years, the Americans have also struggled to score critical goals- and one of the figures that could be relied upon to score them, Bobby Wood- is out with an injury. The other, Clint Dempsey, is coming off a career-threatening heart issue. Jozy Altidore (more below) has bagged plenty of goals for the Americans in his career, but has not played much meaningful soccer for his country in three years, with an assortment of injuries keeping him out of big matches since he pulled a hamstring in the soft Natal rain against Ghana to open the 2014 World Cup.

A set piece goal would work too, and the Honduran CBs are aging and not particularly tall or rangy in the air. The US should have their opportunities. But the US have missed Landon Donovan’s service on set pieces since his phase out/international retirement and save John Brooks’s massive goal in Brazil, have not been particularly threatening in the air. 

To defeat Pinto’s teams, you have to attempt to do what the Netherlands did- albeit without scoring- at the 2014 World Cup. You have to utilize strong off ball runs and prolonged spells of possession to try to force defenders out and make small gaps wider. It’s both an argument for playing Michael Bradley deeper, where his divine diagonals and chips can find runners in those gaps– and an argument for playing Christian Pulisic as either a number ten or a pinched in wide midfielder who probes repeatedly at the gaps, whether it be with the US on the ball in the final third or on the rare chances they’ll have to break. Because of how Los Catrachos set up, the young Dortmund man’s probing runs while the US have the ball are more critical. He doesn’t have to score. But can he get fouled and get the US multiple looks at the goal against a team that has struggled on set pieces? 

Defensively, the thinking here is that Matthew Doyle is correct and the Americans will trot out the unproven Jorge Villafana at home, saving Beasley for the brutal road qualifier. To start Villafana, Arena will deploy tireless tracker/insurance policy Alejandro Bedoya ahead of him. Against Honduras, you’ll get a deeper defense, but the Americans have to be aware and wary that the brunt of Honduras’s breaks– 61.2% of them, in fact– come down the flanks. Villafana should have been playing minutes for his country two years ago, early in the cycle in places like Cologne and Amsterdam where he figure out what is required at this level. His manager at the time did not make those choices. That means that now, an insurance policy is sensible.

The US should almost certainly go Brooks/Cameron in the CB spots and then choose a safe, sensible, no-nonsense RB- probably Michael Orozco- to play a support role and be a safety net against the break. Geoff Cameron could fill in this role as well but isn’t as fleet of foot as Orozco and the US sacrifices familiarity in the CB combination if it opts to start Omar Gonzalez. I’d like to argue that Gonzalez is better in the air or worth a start for set pieces- but there’s zero empirical international evidence this is true.

In goal will be Tim Howard. This is who I would want starting a critical American international eight years ago. And four years ago. And today. That he is required to start it today is a different discussion and one that US soccer must address in the next couple of years. And it is likely a liability in Russia, regardless of Howard’s commitment to fitness and training, which is beyond admirable. Keep in mind against a defense that requires you to probe and run, Howard had to be subbed off in a qualifier last autumn. The US cannot afford to lose a substitute Friday evening.

The wild card in Pinto’s defensive alignment?

Jon Levy on the Honduran Player To Watch: Andy Najar (Anderlecht)

Andy Najar has been more than a passing fascination for us here at The Yanks Are Coming. He’s a almost been a separate beat for us. Like, “Yeah we’ve got a soccer blog; we cover the US Men’s National Team, the women’s team from time to time, and y’know, Honduran/American right back/midfielder Andy Najar.”

But attention paid to this precedent-setting winger has always been warranted, and not just due to his talent-level. Our Neil W. Blackmon did a series on Najar leading up to his “controversial” decision to represent Honduras instead of the US (NEIL PLZ LINK TO YOUR FAVORITE OF THOSE ARTICLES), and more recently Will Parchman (an immensely talented writer and friend of TYAC) wrote about what Najar’s national team choice and eventual move away from MLS as a homegrown player have meant for the league, and more specifically DC United.

But Najar’s rippling impact on the US Soccer landscape didn’t earn him this spot in our match preview. He’s the wild card in Jorge Luis Pinto’s deck, and that’s why we’re tasked with writing about him yet again.

When Andy made his decision to play for Honduras in 2011, most MLS fans figured the reigning Rookie of the Year would quickly become a really important player for Los Catrachos. He was on the fast track to a great career, and he stayed on it for a while. He represented Honduras well in the 2012 Summer Olympics, and secured a transfer to one of Belgium’s biggest clubs, where he quickly got on the field and made an impact in both the domestic league and in Europe. But a few ill-timed injuries, and some positional uncertainty have kept Najar from becoming the national team mainstay we all expected him to be by now. When an international date would come around, Pinto and his predecessors almost always had a question mark in front of Najar’s name, and rightfully so. Yes, on raw talent Andy should have been one of the first names locked into the squad, but was he healthy? Rehabbing? And even if those answers were the right ones, where would he play for country? He’s usually an attack-minded right back for Anderlecht, but Honduras had almost always used him further forward on the pitch. So how do the great club performances translate to the national team where he’ll likely be playing a different position? The quandary sounds a little familiar, right DeAndre Yedlin fans?

So, instead of coming into this immensely important World Cup qualifier as the young engine that drives Honduras, Andy Najar is playing the role of the forgotten man. Not so forgotten that he’s not on the roster, mind you. And it’s worth noting that he’s on a run of good form with Anderlecht again; big surprise there. So, while we can’t even guarantee Najar will see the field in San Jose, we’re left to wonder if, and how, Pinto will deploy him. Will he start on his favored right wing? Will he come on as a sub on the left when anyone from Graham Zusi to Michael Orozco is gassed?

I guess that’s Arena’s wild card counterpunch. We don’t know when or where electric winger Andy Najar will be terrorizing our backline? Joke’s on you Honduras, because you’ve got no idea who’s playing fullback for us anyway! I guess let’s just hope for the best.

Jon Levy on the American Player To Watch: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)

Help us Jozy Altidore, you’re our only hope.

Ya get it? Star Wars? See what I did there?

Sorry. Yes, it’s too on the nose to even qualify as halfway clever. But accuracy matters, and that sentiment damn sure is accurate. I didn’t think it had to be this way, but apparently the gods of soft tissue injuries disagreed.

Jozy Altidore was supposed to be a guy we argued about at this point. Is he still worthy of being the lead striker for the US? Bobby Wood gives us a great option to either partner Jozy in attack, or play up top in his stead. He brings a different skill-set to the table  some would call more team-friendly, and he’s in form. But Bobby Wood, like star winger Fabian Johnson, took a knock and has been jettisoned from this squad. Not that Arena isn’t carrying any walking wounded in his USMNT strike-force this time around. We’ve got Jordan Morris listed as day-to-day, and a couple 34 year old dudes we weren’t sure we’d ever see play for the Stars and Stripes ever again. Granted, one of those dudes is Clint Dempsey, but he’s never counted as a pure striker. If he did count, we couldn’t still say, “no American striker’s scored in the World Cup since 2002.” And we love to say that. Right?

So, in an almost poetic turn, oft-injured Jozy Altidore is the only one hundred percent fit American striker ahead of our most important World Cup qualifiers in decades. Okay, Bruce made a late night phone call to Wondolowski, who can drive to the stadium from his house down the street, so he’s available. But I’m no longer comfortable entertaining a conversation about how Wondo can produce in a big spot for the US. He didn’t do it on a team that was fit and firing three or four years ago, so let’s say his chances are slim at age 34. Jozy Altidore will have to take his chances well against Honduras, and likely in Panama as well. Let’s all hope he can create a real connection with Pulisic, score some goals, stay healthy, and play the full match. His new manager may need him to do all those things for the US to get the win.   And the US may need the win to get to a World Cup.

Prediction: Honduras 1, USA 1. An early Alberth Elis goal on a Howard mistake drives American fans to the edge, but the kid rescues the Yanks from the World Cup abyss- for now- with a late goal that helps the US earn a point. 

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @nwblackmon and @TYAC_Jon.  Write them at nwblackmon@gmail.com and jon.f.levy@gmail.com.