New depth, attacking focus: USMNT must master the basics in a high-risk summer

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Years of upheaval mean Bruce Arena must tend to the national team's foundation throughout qualifying and the coming Gold Cup.

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By this time next year, we’ll know the United States men’s national team’s World Cup roster.

Yes, it’s already that close – all of this assuming there is such a thing as a U.S. World Cup team in 2018. After all, we can’t have a World Cup team unless Bruce Arena and his guys actually get there, which is hardly a fait accompli.

So the summer ahead is meaningful, stacked with matches to improve positioning in the final round of qualifying first and foremost, but it will also help sort out a few other matters. Between the friendlies, these high-wire act qualifiers and the Gold Cup, Arena will have seven matches minimum (probably more like 8-10) to stuff his files with greater knowledge.

What, then, are the targets for this consequential summer ahead? Beyond the obvious of adding points in final-round qualifying, what else will make a successful summer for the U.S. men’s national team?

Choices that need making

It’s all quite tricky, because a successful summer means walking a perilously narrow balance beam; Arena & Co. certainly need points, which makes the June 8 match outside Denver against Trinidad & Tobago a must-win. The Yanks certainly don’t want to slink humbly into Azteca three nights later desperate to win.

So while elements of building and developing still need to be part of the long game, points are priority No. 1. And those targets will be increasingly at odds if things go wrong next week.

The United States is surely as deep as it has ever been, but all those options are only as good as the choices Arena makes – or the choices he’s allowed to make, based on next week’s result.

Arena must continue to fasten down the goalkeeping situation. Tim Howard is still The Man, retaining his longtime No. 1 status. The question for Arena as the summer moves forward: Does he trust Howard to remain on top of things another year, as the veteran ‘keeper tiptoes closer to 40?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The answer is likely to be self-evident: stick with Trusty Tim until a wobble or bobble raises a concerned brow. At that point, Arena could make the tough call to start building back-line chemistry with Brad Guzan. As the manager himself says, this one is the least of his problems.

A real conundrum is untangling this gaggle of center backs. It’s the deepest position for the U.S. by a long way. The top choices are John Brooks, Omar Gonzalez and probably Geoff Cameron, unless Arena is tempted to use him as Stoke City has lately, as a screening midfielder.

From there, Arena’s choices include Matt Besler, Matt Hedges, Michael Orozco and Tim Ream, all of whom have been in a recent camp or match. He could even summon a newer name, someone like Ike Opara or Matt Miazga, or one of the promising Under-20s, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown or Justen Glad. Even without counting those U-20s, that is 10 center backs potentially worth looking at. That’s a huge summer job.

Further up the field, Arena must identify his best defensive midfielder not named Michael Bradley. Dax McCarty, Kellyn Acosta and Danny Williams are candidates. McCarty looks the most like a true holding midfielder – Williams and Acosta are better suited for box-to-box roles – but the Chicago Fire ace may be a little exposed for pace at the international level. We don’t know because Jurgen Klinsmann’s ongoing reliance on Jermaine Jones’ stripped McCarty (and perhaps others) of the chance to test themselves over the past two years.

As for what happens in the attack, the summer is about one thing: make a smooth transition into the Christian Pulisic era. And that probably means moving away from the national team’s Clint Dempsey dependence. Dempsey can still deliver at the international level, but doing so at home against Honduras is one thing; doing it next year in Russia will be a different jar of pickles. Arena certainly knows that.

At some point, it will be more prudent to let Pulisic run the show and build the best, complementary supporting cast around the young Dortmund man. That’s probably with Pulisic creating behind Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore. Along the way, Arena can assess how Dempsey responds to a role off the bench. There’s no reason to think the Seattle Sounders veteran won’t respond well, but you never know until you do. This summer could provide Arena with the opportunity to find out. 

What the United States doesn’t need

Resist the temptation to proclaim that the United States needs to develop a “style” or a set system. No, the U.S. doesn’t.

The summer is all about qualifying and then settling some personnel decisions. The time under Klinsmann may have pushed the U.S. athletes out of comfort zones and nudged them toward higher levels of performance through next-level sports science, but Klinsmann’s second cycle did something else, too: It left the next boss with a murkier picture of the what the talent pool looks like when properly applied. In other words, how do a few more of the younger players fit when put into suitable roles?

Arena’s tactics may run a little vanilla, but U.S. players will understand their basic roles and responsibilities, with and without the ball. That should provide more answers come July.

The obvious solution to all of this starts with those three points next week at DSG Park, where the previous World Cup qualifying effort was course corrected, just before it nearly fell off the ledge.

Three points against T&T gives Arena the Gold Cup freedom he needs to play the kids, which helps answer all those other questions. On the other hand, a loss or draw outside Denver, and Arena may need to spend the summer sharpening the edges on his “A” team – which would look like a less successful summer all the way around.

But let’s not even think such things. Boost the trust in Howard, arrange the depth chart at center backs, look for backups in a few other positions and start to build the best attack around Pulisic. Those are the targets to hit over 7-9 summer matches.

Well, that and the business of scooping up three points on the Road to Russia. Four points, and all this other stuff takes on bigger meaning still, because qualifying would look more and more assured at that point.

Read more U.S. men's national team breakdown here

Steve Davis’ column, America’s Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.