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Five questions for USMNT ahead of World Cup qualifiers

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The USMNT’s next two World Cup qualifiers will be pivotal in deciding whether or not they’ll qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Cameron eager for return

With plenty of injuries restricting Bruce Arena, the upcoming games against Honduras on Friday and Panama next Tuesday are massive for the U.S. national team.

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Here’s a closer look at some lingering questions heading into the next seven days.


Who will play at full back?

With DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson out injured, the USMNT is without their top two full backs for these games. That’s a big, big problem. Arena may have to put some square pegs in round holes when it comes to playing Geoff Cameron at right back or even Matt Besler or Tim Ream at left back, while DaMarcus Beasley can also slot in at full back if needed but Jorge Villafana will likely start on the left. Simply put: the U.S. defense is weaker without Johnson and Yedlin at full back. They’ll be missing two of the four defenders from the unit which looked so strong at the Copa America Centenario last summer and the Cameron-Brooks partnership may be broken up in central defense. Far from ideal.

Can Pulisic deliver?

There’s been plenty of talk from Arena about Pulisic being ready to start and contribute regularly for the USMNT.

“He has the potential to be a great player and I think he’s going to be a big part of our team, he’s not going to be a role player. He’s going to be an important part,” Arena told Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd earlier this month.

Pulisic, just 18 years old, is having a fine first full season for Borussia Dortmund (four goals and seven assists and a new contract is pretty decent…) and he may be used centrally for the U.S. in the next two games. He has the ability to control the tempo of games but often he’s played out wide for Dortmund and the USMNT. It would be a big call for Arena to hand the keys to the U.S. offense to Pulisic but he clearly has the talent to handle that pressure. Now, can he deliver on the international stage? The USMNT has a new star and they need him to deliver sooner than many would have expected.

Will Arena go for experience in central midfield?

With Jermaine Jones suspended for the Honduras game, there’s a big hole alongside Michael Bradley in central midfield to fill. Arena may well go for experience in this kind of situation. Sacha Kjestan and Dax McCarty are the obvious choices with Sebastian Lletget and Darlington Nagbe perhaps too inexperienced for these must-win games. Alejandro Bedoya could slot in alongside Bradley and he’d offer plenty of industry but his best position is out on the right and tucking inside to help build attacks. If I had to choose I’d go with Kljestan. His poise on the ball and his form for the New York Red Bulls over the last 12 months prove that he deserves the chance to step up and dovetail with Bradley in midfield.

Is USMNT capable of setting the tempo?

Having Kljestan start in midfield would be a big part of this as it’s likely that the U.S., especially against Honduras, will set the tempo of these games. Both Honduras and Panama will likely sit back and then look to hit the USMNT on the counter and without recognized full backs that could be very dangerous for the U.S.

This is all about game management. Arena’s men know that at times down in Panama they will be up against it and there will be severe pressure on their goal the longer the game remains scoreless. That said, they will be expected to create chances and they can’t just sit back, defend and hope to score goals from set pieces like they did at times in the Copa America last summer and for most of the 2014 World Cup.

Can Altidore carry the team?

Jozy Altidore will need to carry the U.S. to victory in these games. With Clint Dempsey still battling back to full fitness following his four months out, plus Pulisic still a teenager, the fact that Bobby Wood is out and Jordan Morris is extremely doubtful puts a lot of pressure on Altidore’s shoulders.

It may not have been the case during his time in the Premier League, but for Toronto and the U.S. national team he has been the go-to man in key moments. Altidore usually delivers and he has 37 goals in 100 appearances for the Stars and Stripes. If the USMNT can get Dempsey and Pulisic on the ball, then Altidore will get service in the final third. He always adds power and presence up top but not having Wood alongside him may mean he’s isolated for large spells of these games. The U.S. needs to stop that happening to not only get the best out of Altidore but also give themselves the best chance of grabbing the two wins they desperately need to get back on track in the Hex.

At 0-2, Americans understand stakes in World Cup qualifying

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Michael Bradley sees no reason to keep harping on that 4-0 loss at Costa Rica four months ago.

Yes, it’s still fresh in the Americans’ minds, a night every mistake snowballed into another.

“There is zero point in continuing to look back on that at the moment,” Bradley said. “We are where we are. Now it’s about on Friday night beginning this process of moving ourselves back up the table and stepping on the field from the first minute and playing a really aggressive way that ultimately leaves no doubt as to who’s stepping off the field, win or lose.”

Bruce Arena’s U.S. squad gets a fresh start in World Cup qualifying Friday against Honduras, and the pressure is on following the home country’s first 0-2 start in the North and Central American and Caribbean region’s final round.

“We understand the position we’re in,” Bradley said. “There’s no need for anybody on the outside to put any more pressure on us than we’ve already put on ourselves, because we didn’t start the hex in the right way. We put ourselves behind the eight ball. We’re honest and real enough with ourselves to understand that. Friday night is the beginning of our chance to put things right and get ourselves back in a good position. … We need guys to step on the field and understand the moment, not be fazed by it, go for it in a fearless way and have a big group of guys play really well.”

Forward Jordan Morris’ status for Friday appears in question after he missed a third straight day of practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury sustained Sunday with the Seattle Sounders. Morris rehabbed in the gym, the U.S. Soccer Federation said.

“Have you followed our team at all the last month? You think that’s going to be something that’s going to bother me?” Arena said at the start of the week when asked about health concerns. “We’re fine. We’re going to have 11 good players on the field on Friday.”

For those who do play, Bradley said it is paramount everybody brings his best game. Same goes for the Americans’ next match in Panama on Tuesday.

While the man in charge has changed – Arena replaced the fired Jurgen Klinsmann in November for a second stint as U.S. coach – and more Major League Soccer players were called upon this time than in November, Bradley insists the approach remains simple: Find a way to win.

“We stepped on the field in Costa Rica wanting to win. That desire to win is obviously still there, so in terms of the basic idea of stepping on the field and trying to play well and go for it in the right way and come away with a positive result, that part’s still the same obviously,” the longtime captain said. “There’s no two ways about it, we let ourselves down in Costa Rica. We didn’t play well enough. Mistakes turned into bigger mistakes, which turned into bigger mistakes, and so it all comes together in a way that you can lose a game in a bad way.”

And, there are many faces who have been on the big stage – Bradley, included.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard started the past two World Cups. Howard, four-time World Cup participant defender DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey played for Arena leading into the coach’s last World Cup qualifying, in 2005. Jozy Altidore brings experience up front.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Howard said. “It’s helpful that we have guys who have been through the hex before, who understand what that takes and the pressures that are on us. Yeah, it’s a big game.”

Bradley isn’t getting fancy when it comes to what the U.S. group must do.

“Winning. Three points,” Bradley said. “That’s it.”

“For us the reality is simple: We let ourselves down in the first two games,” he said. “It means that our margin for error is very, very small, but nothing’s changed in that we still feel good about the team that we have, the group that we are. I think that Bruce has come in and done an excellent job in terms of re-establishing certain things, getting at a few things. The mentality, the spirit in training and around the group both in January and now this week has been excellent, so we’re getting a little excited about the chance to step on the field in a big-time qualifier.”

How will USMNT line up vs. Honduras?

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The U.S. men’s national team host Honduras in a crucial World Cup qualifiers in San Jose, Calif. and Bruce Arena has so many options to choose from.

[ MORE: Bobby Wood to the PL?

However, with key men Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin all out injured, the USMNT will have to plug some gaps and get creative with their lineup choices.

[ MORE: Cameron eager for USMNT return

Not ideal when you need two wins or at least four points to get yourself back on track in the Hexagonal.

Below is a look at the most likely options for Arena’s men on Friday.


USMNT line up options vs. Honduras

JPW’s pick

—– Howard —–

— Zusi — Cameron — Brooks — Villafana —

—– Bedoya —- Bradley —- Kljestan —- Pulisic —-

—– Dempsey —–

—– Altidore —–

Experience in defense

—- Howard —–

— Cameron — Brooks — Gonzalez — Ream —

—- Bradley —- Lletget —-

—- Bedoya —– Dempsey —– Pulisic —–

—– Altidore —–

All-out attack

—- Howard —–

— Zusi — Cameron — Brooks — Villafana —

—- Bradley —- Acosta —-

—– Bedoya —–

 —- Dempsey —- Altidore —- Pulisic —-

Conclusion

With both full backs out of this squad, it seems likely that Geoff Cameron may be used at right back, with Jorge Villafana at left back. There’s a bit of risk in that as breaking up the Cameron-Brooks central defensive partnership which worked so well last summer could impact the entire defensive unit.

In midfield the trio of Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradly and Jermaine Jones not only has experience in these big game occasions but also has a good blend of power, pace and poise. Yet, with Jones suspended for this game, one of Sebastian Lletget, Sacha Kljestan or Dax McCarty could slot in alongside Bradley. The latter options are more experienced and may be the safe bet.

Then, up top Jozy Altidore will obviously lead the line and then it’s all about getting Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic in the correct positions underneath him. Pulisic could well play centrally to get the best out of his undoubted talents.

Look for MLSers Kellyn Acosta and Darlington Nagbe to feature but they may not start in these crucial qualifiers. Experience seems to be the key for these games as the U.S. aims to get back on track.

USMNT: Howard always stayed optimistic he’d be healthy for WCQs

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) As his U.S. teammates trained under cloudy skies on a brisk Bay Area morning, Tim Howard sat on the sidelines and stretched out his shoulders. He balanced on his left leg and warmed up his hips.

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This is the new normal for Howard, fresh off his 38th birthday and a November surgery on his right thigh to repair the adductor muscle.

“I’m old,” chuckled Howard, the Americans’ top goalkeeper the past two World Cups. “That’s every day for me now, between now and the next three years that’s what every day looks like. It’s a process, but hopefully it’ll pay off.”

Howard is expected to start for coach Bruce Arena in Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras at Avaya Stadium, home of the MLS San Jose Earthquakes, before the Americans play at Panama four days later.

“It’s good to have him back,” said defender DaMarcus Beasley. “He’s been a big part of this team for a long time now. Big games, World Cups, qualifiers. To have him back with the team and the group is a big plus for us and for everybody to see him back, especially after the injury he had at the end of last season.”

[ MORE: Arena names 24 to senior roster ahead of WCQs next week ]

Brad Guzan, who was in net for two losses in World Cup qualifying last November, was replaced last week and he and his wife welcomed a baby girl Sunday night — “9 pounds, I’m told, and 22 inches long,” Arena announced, though he didn’t know the baby’s name except that she arrived a little early.

“In these situations, I think family comes first, despite what we’d all like to think otherwise around the sporting side,” Arena said. “He needs to be with his family this week, so the decision for him to stay makes sense.”

Howard is confident kicking with his right foot again but he notes, “Thankfully I have half a decent left foot” when he needs to use it.

The U.S. is 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time, and Arena returned to coach the team 10 years after his firing when he was hired in November to replace Jurgen Klinsmann. That month, the Americans lost to Mexico 2-1 at home and 4-0 at Costa Rica.

Arena will be cautious with Howard as well as Clint Dempsey , who is back playing after dealing with an irregular heartbeat.

Leading into his first MLS season with Colorado, Howard had hoped his body would allow him to return to the Americans’ roster for qualifying, but didn’t want to put anything in stone without knowing for sure he would be healthy. Now, he never expects to be fully 100 percent.

[ MORE: U.S. U-20s learn group-stage opponents at World Cup in May ]

“I kind of felt that I’d be ready but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. It was a long rehab,” he said. “A lot could happen between whenever that was, January, and now. We have setbacks all the time. I was on the right path, I was always going to be March 11 or there about, but I didn’t want to put a timeframe on it and have a setback, so for me it was just personal. I’m 38, I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent again. But I’ve played through everything in my career, so it’s not an issue for me.”

Fellow goalkeepers Nick Rimando and David Bingham worked through drills Monday with position coach Matt Reis. Arena wouldn’t say whether he had decided to promote Howard to No. 1 keeper before Guzan’s availability became a question.

“We haven’t decided our starting lineup yet. We’re playing Friday, it’s Monday,” he told The AP.

Sounders stars Dempsey and Jordan Morris didn’t train Monday, though Dempsey came to the field. Morris stayed at the team hotel Tuesday for treatment on the right ankle he injured during the first half of Seattle’s 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls on Sunday.

While Howard said the “unknown” concerned him in regards to his comeback and trying to simulate game action, he considers himself fortunate his timing and instincts are still intact at this stage of his career.

“I’m thankful that my reflexes and my reactions haven’t slowed,” he said. “So that’s been a good thing. I probably take less risks and I think that’s helpful.”

VIDEO: Feilhaber’s bomb puts SKC up days after USMNT omission

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We’ve been down this road with Benny Feilhaber.

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The story goes something like this: the U.S. national team head coach — previously Jurgen Klinsmann, now Bruce Arena — leaves the 32-year-old Sporting Kansas City midfielder off his latest USMNT roster, and Feilhaber proceeds to turn in dominant, nearly unplayable performances in the weeks that follow.

[ MORE: MLS (afternoon) roundup — NYCFC dominate, disappoint; ATL roll ]

On Wednesday, Arena named his first (second) squad for a competitive fixture. Absent from the 24-man list? You guessed it: Feilhaber. Three days later, Feilhaber’s response?

There’s more from Feilhaber than just a stunning strike to appreciate. Take a look below at the build-up, which sees Feilhaber present himself Matt Besler who’s about to be in trouble on the ball; there’s the controlled first touch, and the instinctive spin away from the pressure; there’s the 40-yard diagonal ball to Graham Zusi’s chest; there’s, of course, the strike which is a violent lashing through the ball. David Bingham never had a chance from more than 25 yards out.