Is 3 the answer? Formation options for USMNT in key October battles

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The United States men’s national team controls its own destiny when it comes to World Cup qualifying, a fact that has been in its corner since the beginning of the Hex and even its 0-2 start.

Matches remain at home against Panama, the team currently occupying the final automatic spot in Russia, and on the road against Trinidad and Tobago. The Yanks drew Panama on the road and waxed T&T at home, but that was before this week’s setbacks put the U.S. under World Cup qualifying pressure it hasn’t faced in years.

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Even worse? A draw against stingy Panama, which has only allowed five goals in eight Hex matches, would leave the Yanks requiring a win and help in order to slide into third.

The United States has picked up just two points from its five matches against the teams ahead of it on the table, a home draw with Panama and a road point at Mexico. The Yanks have also kept just two clean sheets, and those came in 6-0 and 2-0 home wins over Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.

The biggest problem, by far, is defense. Whether set pieces, counterattacking, or even the run of play, the U.S. has allowed 11 goals in the Hex. And clean sheets against Panama have been hard to come by, with 1-1 draws in the last four competitive matches between the two.

So is the answer three at the back?

It’s a small sample size, but the U.S. looked bright in recent matches against Mexico and late in the Honduras draw when it moved to three defenders at the back. Arena used Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Geoff Cameron in the 1-1 draw at Mexico, flanking them with DaMarcus Beasley and DeAndre Yedlin. Against Honduras, there was Cameron, Gonzalez, and Matt Besler in the middle.

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A 3-5-2 or even a 3-6-1 with Jozy Altidore or Bobby Wood up top would give the Yanks a plethora of midfielders, a position which has been lonely if not awful over the last two qualifiers (Alejandro Bedoya, Danny Williams, or even — gasping while ducking — Jermaine Jones would be welcome respites from the soft play of the middle section).

John Brooks’ thigh injury will keep him out of October’s qualifiers, but Yedlin should return to return Graham Zusi to backup status. Timmy Chandler continues to perform very well for Eintracht Frankfurt, but Arena has said he doesn’t want to call up players who haven’t been involved with the team. That’s problematic because he’s the one who hasn’t taken a look at the right-sided Bundesliga player, who’s had struggles in the U.S. shirt but played the third-most minutes for a mid-table German side (Might wanna look, Bruce).

Also, I believe that Arena should be forced to watch Zusi and Gonzalez on Honduras’ goal every morning when his alarm goes off and then during the final two hours before he announces his lineups for Panama and T&T.

Alas, that’s digression.

Arena loves the 4-4-2, so it seems likely three at the back remains a break glass in case of emergency tactic. But humoring the idea, would you rather have Fabian Johnson at left back — if we see Jorge Villafana again, oh my — left mid, or left wing back? To me that’s the question.

Here’s a 3-5-2:

Wood — Altidore

Johnson — Pulisic — Bradley — Bedoya — Yedlin

Besler — Cameron — Ream

Howard

And a 4-4-2:

Wood — Altidore

Pulisic
Nagbe — Arriola
Bradley

Johnson — Besler — Cameron — Yedlin

Howard

And, for fun, a 4-4-2 if Arena breaks from his routine of only using guys who’ve been in his call-ups:

Wood — Altidore

Pulisic
Chandler — Arriola
Bradley

Johnson — Besler — Cameron — Yedlin

Howard