Why USMNT needs to play a 4-4-2 – and what it should look like

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

A must-win World Cup qualifier vs. Honduras looms, and this setup gives the U.S. its best chance to win.

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The month-long January camp is over, a nice soft landing for Bruce Arena to begin his second tenure as U.S. men’s national team coach.

Now things get real.

The U.S. is in a hole after two games of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Games in March at home against Honduras and on the road in Panama are now seen as do-or-die. Arena doesn’t have any margin for error. He has to get this team right, and he has to get results.

“Win,” he deadpanned when asked what improvement he wants to see this spring. “We have to win games right now. That’s the biggest improvement.”

Arena said he needs to narrow a 40-man pool down to 25 for the qualifiers. Only 23 will be allowed on the game-day roster. I think he will bring 28 players into camp. Arena name-checked a number of obvious candidates for the roster and said he will strongly consider both Eric Lichaj and Paul Arriola for a spot. There is plenty of depth in this pool, and it won’t be easy for Arena to narrow down.

Here is our projection of the U.S. roster for camp ahead of those all-important qualifiers.


  1. Tim Howard
  2. Brad Guzan
  3. Nick Rimando
  4. Bill Hamid

Arena has said he is likely to call in more than 23 players for camp. During a call with reporters on Thursday, Arena said Howard could be ready to play by the Colorado Rapids’ home opener in March. He also expressed faith in Brad Guzan’s ability to step into the No. 1 role even without playing time at Middlesbrough.

With question marks around those two top players, though, it makes sense to bring in an extra goalkeeper. Hamid is also coming off of an offseason surgery that caused him to miss January camp, but he is expected to be ready for D.C. United’s opener and this would be a chance for Arena to get Hamid into camp to see him up close.


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Cameron's return will be a boon.

  1. John Brooks
  2. Geoff Cameron
  3. Jorge Villafaña
  4. DeAndre Yedlin
  5. Steve Birnbaum
  6. Omar Gonzalez
  7. Eric Lichaj
  8. DaMarcus Beasley
  9. Matt Hedges
  10. Matt Besler

If Cameron is healthy, he’s a starting center back in this team and the first name you put into the lineup in the back four. Brooks has also been very good in Germany. Yedlin has been fantastic for Newcastle and should start on the right side, while Villafaña did enough to impress and earn the starting nod on the left.

Lichaj is depth for both fullback spots, while Arena will bring Beasley as insurance for Villafaña. Timmy Chandler is left off only because he’s suspended for the first game and it’s up in the air whether Arena would choose to make him travel if he’s not going to start against Panama. Birnbaum and Besler make the most sense for the squad as back-ups, but I think Arena will bring Gonzalez and Hedges into camp, too.


Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Pulisic continues to get better.

  1. Michael Bradley
  2. Jermaine Jones
  3. Fabian Johnson
  4. Christian Pulisic
  5. Sebastian Lletget
  6. Sacha Kljestan
  7. Dax McCarty
  8. Darlington Nagbe
  9. Alejandro Bedoya
  10. Paul Arriola

The U.S. is better right now in a 4-4-2 than any version of a five-man midfield. That throws the lineup into some flux. Essentially, Arena needs somebody to play the No. 8 role for the first game with Jones out. That should be Lletget.

I think the four-man midfield will look like this: Pulisic – Bradley – Lletget – Johnson. Pulisic cutting into his right foot, Johnson cutting into a very strong left foot.

On the bench, Kljestan is available for more attacking bite. Both are options if the U.S. goes to a one-striker formation. McCarty is the best substitute in the pool for Bradley, while Bedoya and Nagbe are deserving of roles on the team and Nagbe is the best option to sub in for Pulisic or Johnson.

Arriola has been playing too well for Tijuana not to earn an invitation, and though he plays wing back in Liga MX, he’s more of a wide midfielder for the United States. Benny Feilhaber was the toughest cut here, only because he doesn’t fit as well into the 4-4-2 the U.S. will likely deploy in these games.


Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Wood is on fire right now.

  1. Jozy Altidore
  2. Bobby Wood
  3. Jordan Morris
  4. Gyasi Zardes

A 4-4-2 is most likely against Honduras, with Altidore and Wood wreaking havoc on the Catrachos. Wood is playing too well right now to be on the bench or pushed out to the wing, where he has said he’s not as comfortable. The U.S. also has two solid options to bring in for both strikers – Morris and Zardes both have the pace, and Zardes is capable of sliding out onto a wing if needed.

Projected starting lineup

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