Chronic concern: Why there's no easy fix for the USMNT's defensive woes
The good news following Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Honduras is that the United States, even after these last stumbles, controls its own destiny as it careens along this road to Russia. A victory next month over Panama in Orlando followed by another a few days later in Trinidad, and CONCACAF's third World Cup berth will be safely secured.
Mess that up, and no promises. The Yanks haven't missed soccer's big show since Paul Caligiuri's strike at Port of Spain nearly 28 years ago sent them to Italy, but Panama and Honduras will do what they can to make it happen this time. And their best ally might be the U.S. itself.
The U.S. has used 10 center-back pairings in 14 qualifying games.
There's much that ails Bruce Arena's side, most of it repairable, but the problems at the back are chronic. Defense has long been a rather iffy concoction for the U.S., the back line too often holding on for dear life (and a miracle or two from Tim Howard).
And so it is again.
There's a lot behind that. The U.S. hasn't had a center back of Eddie Pope's stature since he retired a decade ago. No tandem has been able to build the connection Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa developed, over two years of residency, that was so crucial to the Yanks' success at the 1994 World Cup. Left back has been an issue since forever, Carlos Bocanegra aside, and more so without Fabian Johnson. The last sure-thing right back was Steve Cherundolo.
Arena, and Jurgen Klinsmann before him, have plenty of defenders to choose from, but not all of them are World Cup-worthy. And those that are -- including John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin, three-quarters of the first-choice quartet -- have missed a lot of time with injuries.
That has prevented the Yanks from fielding a consistent back line through any portion of its qualifying campaign, and only in rare cases otherwise, and it's affecting the group's chemistry. Too often the group looks lost and the skilled and speedy attackers that every foe seems to employ are taking advantage.
The U.S. has conceded 11 goals in eight Hexagonal outings. Mexico has given up just three; Costa Rica and Panama five apiece.
Cameron and Tim Ream endured nightmares in Friday's 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, and it led to two Marco Urena goals. Omar Gonzalez failed to deal appropriately with a through ball from a criminally unperturbed Alex Lopez -- there are defensive problems higher up the field, too -- and Romell Quioto had Honduras ahead until Bobby Wood's late heroics. The U.S.' other two Hexagonal defeats, Mexico's last-minute win and Costa Rica's romp, are similarly stained.
Cameron and Ream had teamed up in the middle just once before, along with Gonzalez when Arena used a three-back alignment in the 1-1 draw with Mexico three months ago. Gonzalez and Matt Besler, who were in the center against Honduras, have a fairly extensive history together. Those were the ninth and 10th center-back pairings the U.S. has used in 14 qualifying games.
It was also like that in 2006, when Arena used 11 center-back pairings during the qualifiers -- and 11 outside backs, too -- but without the turmoil. The U.S. went 7-2-1 in that Hex, the first of three straight first-place finishes, a streak that officially ended Tuesday.
Offensive ineptitude puts spotlight on defensive woes
The problems are more pronounced when nothing's happening farther up the field. The lack of attacking nuance is troubling, especially with a relatively deep and talented core of offensive players. The Yanks have scored 32 goals in the 14 qualifying games this cycle, but 26 of them have come in five routs (four of those in the previous round). They've tallied more than once in just one of the other nine games, the win over Trinidad and Tobago.
The Yanks won't be at full strength for awhile. Brooks, the most heralded of the U.S. defenders, won't be back for the final two CONCACAF qualifiers. He's out until November after tearing tendons in his right thigh in his Bundesliga debut for Wolfsburg.
He and Cameron are the first-choice duo, but they've teamed up only three times since the Copa America Centenario: in June's 2-0 qualifying win over Trinidad & Tobago, in the the Venezuela friendly that preceded it, and in last October's Cuba friendly. Brooks endured one of the worst nights by a U.S. defender in the 4-0 loss in Costa Rica last November.
Other options in the middle lack international experience -- Matt Hedges, Matt Miazga and Walker Zimmerman -- or have fallen away from the picture.
Yedlin, who was left off the recent roster as he returned from a thigh ailment, has been in and out of the lineup at right back. Graham Zusi has improved in his transition from midfield, but he's not strong enough defensively; Honduras' best chances came from his flank. Justin Morrow has gotten a look, and it might be time to give Timmy Chandler another call.
Left back remains the problem position, especially if Johnson is going to be considered a midfielder. That's his natural place, but there's greater need at the back. Jorge Villafana has been up and down, and the other options are 35-year-old DaMarcus Beasley, who was beaten for pace a few times by Honduras, and maybe Greg Garza.
Arena has a lot of individual options at the back, but no definitive answers on a truly cohesive unit. The past week only brought more questions there.