Neil W. Blackmon
The United States Men’s National Team resumes World Cup qualifying September 1 when they take on Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena. The United States sit third in the Hex with four games remaining, holding a one-point edge over Panama for the final automatic qualifying spot. Should the US slip to fourth, a two-match playoff, held in November, would decide their World Cup fate. Despite all the good work done under Bruce Arena, the Americans enter the Labor Day weekend with plenty of work to do and little margin for error.
Undoubtedly, Bruce Arena knows this, reminding reporters after winning the Gold Cup that he was “brought in to qualify for the World Cup and there was plenty left to be done on that front.”
Arena also understands very well, even if he doesn’t say it out loud, that the September qualifiers are the meaty, testy ones- a full and confident Costa Rica side that has beat the US on the same New Jersey field this World Cup cycle and a never-simple, hostile trip to a desperate Honduras days later.
“We are very aware of what’s ahead of us and how difficult it will be,” Clint Dempsey said shortly after winning the Gold Cup. “It’s never easy. There’s always adversity. The road games in our region are a different type of challenge, whether it’s the hostile crowds or the lights or the heat or the field or all of that. For some of us, it’s the last go-round. We’ll be ready.”
Unfortunately, the Americans are heading into these tricky Labor Day weekend qualifiers with a host of key defensive players injured or in questionable form. Given the warning signs regarding US defensive depth the US displayed while winning the Gold Cup, these injuries create legitimate concerns for Bruce Arena and his staff as they prepare for Costa Rica and the testy afternoon qualifier in Honduras that follows it September 5th.
Incumbent CB starter John Brooks is out with a thigh injury, suffered in his very first match at new club Vfl Wolfsburg after being the storied club’s highest-priced transfer over the summer.
Fabian Johnson, an option for the US at left back and one of the team’s best players, was out of Borussia Monchengladbach’s opening day 18 this weekend with an undisclosed injury.
DeAndre Yedlin, the preferred American starter at right back, returned to training for Newcastle United last week but hasn’t played in a few weeks due to a hamstring issue and was not an option off the bench for the Magpies this weekend. Muscle injuries are complicated, especially for speedy overlapping fullbacks, and the US are unlikely to have Yedlin match-fit for both matches given the travel and compressed international schedule.
Omar Gonzalez hasn’t featured for C.F. Pachuca since leaving a Copa MX game in the 24th minute with an injury August 9th, and the club told TYAC this morning there is no immediate timetable for his return.
There are form concerns as well, even if form is fallacy. Jorge Villafana, a potential US starter at left back, has played only once this month for Santos Laguna since returning from the Gold Cup, going 90 mostly listless minutes Friday night in a 2-0 defeat to Club Tijuana.
Needless to say, the US are at far less than full strength heading into a match against a team that lit them up for four goals in their last World Cup qualifying meeting.
An analysis of the challenges this reality presents, the US defense under Arena, and potential options at the manager’s disposal, follows.
First, for all the Gold Cup concerns about organization and shape, the Americans have improved defensively under Bruce Arena. A good amount of this is due to the resurgence of Michael Bradley.
The bottom line confirms the United States have played much better defense under the pragmatic, conservative Arena than they did under Jurgen Klinsmann, conceding only eight goals in his fourteen in charge, and only three of those from the run of play. And to date, only Carlos Vela’s counterattacking goal to equalize proceedings at Azteca has occurred in the run of play when Michael Bradley has been on the field. This demonstrates that the US have certainly benefitted not only from Arena’s tactical nous, but from the renaissance of Michael Bradley under Bruce Arena. No longer asked to play multiple positions in the midfield at once, Bradley has thrived in a deeper-lying role, helping shield the US CB’s and asked to play the role of simple distributional fulcrum from the back of the US defense. With his chance-creating and playmaking tasks moving forward limited, we’ve seen Bradley engaged defensively, creating turnovers and putting 1.6 more tackles per 90 under Arena than the final year of Klinsmann; he’s also limiting distribution turnovers the other direction by the not-insignificant margin of .8 per 90 minutes. With Bradley sitting deep, shielding and directing traffic, the Americans have been far less vulnerable in the run of play.
Many thought it was odd that Bradley won the Golden Ball at the Gold Cup as the tournament’s best player, despite playing only half the competition. That was understandable, especially given the performance of Andre Blake for Jamaica.
But if you divorce that award from your thinking about Bradley and evaluate him in terms of sheer value to his team, then you’re left with this telling 2017 statistic: in his last 34 games for club and country, Michael Bradley’s teams have lost twice.
But United States set piece defense is a large concern.
Four of the eight goals the US have conceded under Arena have come off set pieces, an unusual problem for the Americans to have given their usual strengths at the goalkeeping position, in the air, size and athleticism. But a problem it has been, and while it hasn’t reared its head in qualifying yet, it could have, had Kenwyne Jones buried a sitter of a header off a Kevin Molino spot kick in the Trinidad and Tobago game. Costa Rica have legitimate goal-scoring threats off set pieces in Francisco Calvo, Kendall Waston and Marco Urena, and plenty of good free kick service from the likes of Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges.
Lapses in concentration, like the one Jordan Morris had in the Gold Cup final against Jamaica, are execution-based, but the margin for those slims even farther when dominant aerial players like Omar Gonzalez and physically-gifted players like John Brooks are out. Couple these concerns with legitimate questions about Tim Howard’s range as he continues to age, and Brad Guzan’s command of his area after two rough campaigns in England, and you begin to see a troubling trend ahead of four essential qualifiers.
As is communication behind Michael Bradley.
For all the strengths of Omar Gonzalez as an aerial or emergency defender, he’s never excelled calling the lines and it showed at times in the Gold Cup, with the US gap-prone and inconsistent in terms of shape at the Gold Cup. But it wasn’t just Gonzalez. For all the range and size Matt Hedges offers the international game, he was a step behind on reading plays and a step late to close out shooters and angles. Matt Besler, as good a positional defender as you’ll find in MLS, remains physically limited against elite sides and isn’t the most vocal back line organizer, at least for country. And the US fullbacks were lost at times too, whether it was Villafana’s struggles face-up one on one, or Justin Morrow getting caught too far out of position and failing to diagnose a simple route one ball, as in the sequence below.
— Jason Foster (@JogaBonitoUSA) July 20, 2017
The continued refrain at the Gold Cup was “this will improve dramatically when the first-choice defense returns.” The problem now, of course, is given the form questions swirling around Villafana, and the injuries to Brooks, Gonzalez, DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson, there are genuine questions as to what constitutes a “first choice” defense.
If the US survive the final four qualifiers and qualify, the Americans are nine-months from a World Cup and their most important player on defense is Geoff Cameron, who turned 32 last month.
If it wasn’t already obvious after his monstrous game at the Estadio Azteca this June, his absence at the Gold Cup demonstrated that the Stoke City defender is without question the anchor of the American defense.
Cameron’s a self-professed “fitness freak”, the first guy at training and among the last to leave, an “underestimated, underappreciated, consummate professional”, according to Stoke City manager Mark Hughes. He’s also 32, right at the point in a footballer’s career where the body can begin to break down, where it takes the calves a bit longer to get going in training and the lactic acid a bit longer to clear out on short rest. And yet, to open this Premier League campaign, his sixth, here he is, playing some of the best soccer of his life, chugging along in the English Premier League at a time when so many elite US players have opted for the comforts of home or the more free-wheeling football of the Bundesliga.
Cameron helped Stoke City upset Arsenal this weekend, earning praise for winning multiple aerials and three of four one on one duels in the victory. He was also the highest-rated Potter on the pitch in a hard-fought, tough-luck opening day loss to Everton the week prior. It’s only two games, but he’s rating as a top ten CB in the Premier League thus far, and doing it while playing on the left, away from his preferred foot and usual side.
Still, his age makes questions about whether he can sustain his form, or simply stay healthy, fair game, and for the US, essential. Cameron is quality in the air, calm on the ball, and the vocal organizer of the US defense, calling out the lines and diagnosing build-ups for his mates.
Cameron, who was selected 42nd by Dom Kinnear in the MLS draft, probably rates as the greatest “steal” in the young history of MLS. He was not, at any point, a particularly coveted or heralded young player. He’s made a career out of defying expectations. But for the US to have a successful World Cup, Cameron must defy perhaps his toughest adversity to date: the heavy weight of expectation and the inevitable weight of time.
Nevertheless, there is hope in form too. And this remains the deepest US pool ever. And there’s always DaMarcus Beasley.
Hey- Beasley started and played well in the last US qualifier in June. Never count out that guy, especially when his country needs him and it is a brutally tough spot. Beyond the frontrunner to start at left back in Qatar in 2022, however, the US have other options…
Tim Ream, another American who shined at Estadio Azteca in June, has been steady to start the season for Fulham, twice earning EFL Team of the Week honors early in the season. With Gonzalez on the mend and Brooks out, he figures to move central and start against the Ticos. And even if he doesn’t start, his versatility and consistency appear to have earned Bruce Arena’s trust.
Timothy Chandler scored to open his German season with Frankfurt, and was going to be a part of Bruce Arena’s 23 in June before having to withdraw due to a muscle injury. There are and will always be lingering commitment questions surrounding Chandler when it comes to his participation in a US shirt. Chandler has never wowed in competitive matches for the States, and the September qualifiers include a trip to Honduras, which was the sight of an epic Chandler disaster in the prior World Cup cycle. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old is in his prime, playing the best soccer of his life over the last two seasons. If the US staff opt for quality over known quantity, he is an obvious selection.
Matt Miazga has started his campaign in Holland with two starts in two wins for Vitesse, and showed enough in limited time at the Gold Cup to be an option.
Matt Besler continues to be steady for Sporting Kansas City, and was probably the most consistent US player in defense at the Gold Cup. Graham Zusi was marvelous this weekend, pumping in two assists and grading out as the best player on the pitch while playing right back in a 2-0 Sporting KC win over FC Dallas. His status as Arena’s preferred second option at RB seems relatively secure, even if he certainly requires more help on the defensive side than is ideal for a spot start against Costa Rica.
Kelyn Rowe has played fullback on a fairly regular basis for New England, and offers plenty on the overlap and on the ball. The leap to international soccer is a large one- at least against Costa Rica- but as a depth piece- his inclusion in the side would make sense.
Justin Morrow, who was adequate to good in his Gold Cup appearances and is by any account a better individual defender than Villafana, has been marvelous for Toronto this year, and scored two goals in a decimation of Portland earlier this month. His play at a time when Villafana hasn’t played much offers hope for the US on the left, though how he would hold up in the bright lights of a World Cup qualifying start is a different and fair question.
What’s the best four?
At this point, Arena probably rates Cameron and Ream as the top center back pairing, with a gamble in Chandler on the left and a less than fit Yedlin on the right. If he opts for “safe”, he could start Ream out left and trust the positional sense of the Fulham man coupled with the steadiness of Besler to hold the Ticos off on the left, opting for Cameron and Zusi on the right. This would limit what the US do on the overlap, and as such, force Arena to get creative in generating width- but it would at least be safe- which is the name of the game in at least the home qualifier. You don’t want to play the Ticos from behind.
There is still time for Gonzalez to show he’s fit, and if he is, it bears repeating that Arena made him a designated player. If he’s healthy, he’ll likely start. But Ream’s presence and consistency is a fairly nice security blanket.
Nevertheless, the roster situation will require creativity from Bruce Arena, and this time, the stakes are much higher than an off-year Gold Cup title.
The comments, as ever, are yours.