From the moment Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey finished combining with Christian Pulisic to demolish Honduras in last month's World Cup qualifying romp over Honduras, a question loomed over Bruce Arena's squad. Who would be the odd man out once Bobby Wood returned from injury?
We are still six weeks away from Arena having to make that choice, and as we have learned through the years, the injury bug has a way of making such decisions for coaches. But what if all of Arena's best attacking options are available? Who will he put on the bench?
The better question: Why not start all three?
As much as some Altidore critics might suggest he's the expendable one of the three, the reality is his hold-up play and significantly improved passing make him too valuable a presence up top to leave out when healthy. Wood's speed, tireless work rate and excellent finishing make him a player worth keeping on the field, even in a wing role. Dempsey is far too dangerous, creative and experienced to leave out.
That leaves Arena with the task of figuring out a system that can best maximize those three along with Pulisic, who has established himself as a must-start.
The good thing for Arena is that, with the exception of Altidore, all of his top attacking options are versatile enough to play multiple positions, which gives him several approaches to take if everyone is healthy for the June qualifiers. Here are the lineup variations Arena could deploy:
Dempsey has shown this season with the Seattle Sounders that he's capable of playing underneath the striker in a playmaking role, so why not deploy him underneath an Altidore-Wood tandem, with Pulisic working on one of the wings in a diamond midfield? The U.S. has used the diamond midfield before, so it isn't completely foreign.
The big issue with deploying Dempsey as the playmaker is it means not having Pulisic in the role, and based on what we saw against Honduras, the 18-year-old is ready for that position. That will be Arena's dilemma.
Does he ensure getting his four best attackers in the lineup, or does he sit one of them in order to deploy Pulisic as the playmaker? It really does come down to one or the other because Dempsey can no longer handle the workload of a winger and Wood is best as a forward, and his effectiveness on the flank in a 4-4-2 is limited.
We could very well see this setup against Trinidad and Tobago in June, though Arena might prefer a system he can use in both qualifiers, and it's tough to imagine a 4-4-2 diamond against Mexico.
One of the big issues with the 4-4-2 diamond is the limited defensive support the midfield provides the back line. It requires Michael Bradley to do some seriously heavy lifting, which is fine against weaker opponents but probably unrealistic versus tougher competition.
Enter the 4-3-3, which would give the midfield more defensive strength and bring Wood and Pulisic closer to goal. Wood showed some effectiveness as a winger in a 4-3-3 at the Copa America, and while he's better in a two-forward setup, he can still be a force in this lineup.
A 4-3-3 could be effective even without a fully healthy attacking force. You will note that Fabian Johnson is listed as a fullback here, even though Arena has stated he plans to play Johnson in midfield. If Altidore, Dempsey and Wood are all healthy, Arena will have to reconsider that position. But if any of them are missing, then it would be a good time to slide Johnson into a winger role — with Pulisic serving as the attacking midfielder — and the 4-3-3 would probably be the best setup for that.
When Jurgen Klinsmann trotted out a 3-5-2 against Mexico in November it seemed like a bit of a crazy stunt given the opposition, but there was a method to the madness. Perhaps Klinsmann was looking to the future, and seeing the same inevitable dilemma Arena could have this summer in trying to get all his best attacking pieces on the field together.
The 3-5-2 makes sense for a few reasons. The U.S. is light on strong fullback options but, at the moment, has a healthier number of central defenders. This setup would allow the U.S. to have a defensive foundation in midfield while also providing an attacking spark from five players capable of creating chances in abundance.
The big knock against any formation with a three-man defense has been the player pool's relative lack of experience in the system. That has changed in recent years. Gonzalez, Brooks, Bradley, Pulisic and Altidore are just some of the top options who have seen time in 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 setups with their club teams, so it isn't nearly as foreign a concept for American players as it used to be.
That said, the group needs time to work together in the system, something the U.S. will have in the weeks before the June friendly. With a training camp and friendly against Venezuela before facing Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico in the June qualifiers, it may be a perfect time to start incorporating a 3-5-2 into the U.S. team's repertoire. And before you go assuming Arena wouldn't try such a system, the U.S. coach stated very early on in his newest tenure that he was open to the idea of playing with three in the back.
The aforementioned options aren't just ones that can help Arena address how to get Altidore, Wood and Dempsey on the field together. They also give Arena systems he can use to deploy a more attack-minded U.S. team, no matter which attacking options are available.