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.
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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.