With Fabian Johnson hurt, how will USMNT line up in must-win vs. Honduras?
Bruce Arena was tasked with getting World Cup qualification back on track for the U.S. men’s national team.
That job truly begins next week as the Americans face two crucial qualifiers, at home against Honduras and away to Panama. Arena had January camp to catch up with some of his pool of players, and this week allows him to go hands-on with the faction of European-based guys. There is no margin for error. The U.S., sitting last through two rounds of play, has to beat Honduras and needs at least four points from these two games.
Arena’s first World Cup qualification roster has some injury challenges it must work around, namely at right back. Both DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj were set to be called in, only for injuries to derail those plans. Fabian Johnson’s late hamstring injury, sustained on Friday with Borussia Mönchengladbach, has thrown yet another wrench in Arena’s lineup, especially because there was a chance he was pegged to start at right back.
Those absences, as well as the decision to leave Timmy Chandler out of the team because he is suspended for the first game, means Arena has few options at the right back spot. Michael Orozco has been playing there consistently for Club Tijuana, so he could fill the role. Geoff Cameron can also play there. Calling in Graham Zusi as a replacement for Johnson hints at the fact that the Sporting Kansas City veteran may be asked to plug into his new position, right back, in an absolutely pressure-packed situation. The roster is also heavy on center backs, which means Arena has the option to play with formations.
One possibility: a 3-4-2-1 that would allow Christian Pulisic to play pinched in underneath a target striker. That formation, though, means Arena might have to sit either Jozy Altidore or Bobby Wood on the bench, which would be a questionable decision considering the team has looked better when the duo is paired together up top.
The right back problem, however, may force some experimentation.
The rest of the lineup is less difficult to figure out.
Howard has returned in net for the Colorado Rapids and looked fantastic in his start this past week. With his experience and the fact that he has as many games in recent months as Brad Guzan, it’s the right call to go back to the man who has been the U.S.’ No. 1 for the past two cycles.
Left back might bring about an interesting choice. Arena knows and trusts DaMarcus Beasley, a veteran of four World Cups. At a time when it’s all about getting results, that may prompt Arena to go with the 34-year-old. Villafaña, though, impressed during January camp and may have done enough to get a chance in the starting lineup. If Arena is going to go with the less-experienced Santos Laguna player, he’d be more likely to do so at home against Honduras. It’s worth noting that Villafaña has only been playing in the Copa MX and not in league play, where his last game before this weekend's start came in September.
My gut says Arena will lean on Beasley, but I’d put Villafaña in the lineup. It’s time to start testing out the next round of starters for this cycle.
With Geoff Cameron back on the field and healthy with Stoke City, it’s a no-brainer to get your first-choice center-back pairing on the field together again. Cameron next to John Brooks is ideal for these games, and for Russia in two years (barring qualification, of course).
The midfield and forward lines present more interesting choices for Arena.
We know Michael Bradley will play in the No. 6 role. Christian Pulisic will start, but it’s a matter of whether he will be on the left or right. It depends on what Arena wants to do regarding a more attacking-minded lineup versus a more balanced, but less threatening approach. Darlington Nagbe feels like the natural choice on the wing opposite Pulisic, but Arena could play it safe and start Alejandro Bedoya on the right wing with Pulisic opposite him. It’s conservative, but it also starts a player with plenty of experience at the World Cup and qualification level.
Arena going with veterans makes sense, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see a more aggressive approach against Honduras before tweaking the lineup in Panama. Ultimately, if Arena starts Zusi at right back, it makes the midfield decision an easy one. Put the more defensive-minded Bedoya on the right wing to help Zusi against a very dynamic Honduran front line. On the left, Pulisic can provide help for Villafaña’s overlapping tendencies. (Or he can stay higher up the field with the trusted Beasley in that corner spot.)
My ideal central midfield partner for Bradley is Kellyn Acosta, who has been playing so well for Dallas, but I think Arena’s relationship with Sebastian Lletget will get him the nod. Maybe Acosta’s Champions League goal and red-hot form will change Arena's mind.
An Altidore-Wood pairing up top is too good to shelve for now. Let’s allow these two to continue growing a partnership and see if it can carry the team to the World Cup.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.