Five things Bruce Arena’s US team needs to do in the World Cup qualifiers

Graham Parker
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">If the US fails to beat Honduras, the Americans would be winless in the final round of World Cup qualifying with seven games left. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP</span>
If the US fails to beat Honduras, the Americans would be winless in the final round of World Cup qualifying with seven games left. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Beat Honduras…

Let’s start with the obvious — Honduras is a must win game. Concacaf qualifying may appear to present a ridiculously forgiving format, but there’s only so far that forgiveness stretches when you’ve lost your first two games and dropped points in the third. And no team has ever secured an automatic qualifying spot after losing its first three games, so unless the US team fancy playing in a wild card game after the Hex (and that’s a best case scenario…), they need to win on Friday.

More to the point, a bad result on Friday sends the US to Panama on Tuesday with the stakes doubled. And if there’s any drop in confidence that trip could get ugly. Heat, long grass, a hostile crowd, and the added motivation for Panama of remembering the manner they were denied a spot in the last World Cup (clue: Graham Zusi’s Mexican “sainthood” does not extend to Panama City) was always likely to make the USA’s fourth game a potential banana skin, and under normal circumstances a draw would be a perfectly fine result to come away with there. But if there’s any anxiety owing to what happens in California on Friday, a rough start could become a crisis.

On the plus side, the fact that one or both of Costa Rica and Mexico will either share or drop points when they meet on Friday, could mean that a win over Honduras swiftly stabilizes the US back in the pack. And with a home game against a far-from-vintage Trinidad to follow this duo of fixtures, the US could yet be going to Mexico in June tucked in nicely for automatic qualification. But heaven help them if they’re trying to save their campaign by the time they get to Mexico City — they’ll need more than prayers to St Zusi.

Build round Pulisic

There’s a long and ignoble tradition of hyping up young American players passing through the unforgiving and somewhat unscientific filter of European youth systems, and when Christian Pulisic showed up on the radar at Borussia Dortmund the chatter started again.

Naturally that also started up an equally familiar counter-hype routine — trying to dampen expectations around Pulisic and to not put too much pressure on a young player finding his way.

But Pulisic keeps clearing every hurdle set in his path, from starting for Dortmund, to scoring in Champions League play, to starting and scoring for the US. Trying to look discreetly the other way is getting harder and harder when he has kept announcing his presence in the weeks and months since the last World Cup qualifiers.

And with Clint Dempsey still recovering his full fitness, Darlington Nagbe still trying to translate his mercurial promise into a reliable international presence, and Sacha Kljestan both out of form and not looking an exact fit for most of Arena’s preferred configurations, the US need all the creative help they can get in linking the midfield and forwards. And that means throwing away the last of the cotton wool Pulisic has been wrapped in and building around him for 2018.

Arena’s had a mixed record with young players. He of course brought through one Landon Donovan during his last stint as national team coach, and more recently Gyasi Zardes graduated from the LA academy system to the first team and then the USMNT. But Arena has always been a hardheaded pragmatist rather than a speculator. He’s not set great stock in the fearlessness of youth as an X factor. If a young player gets a start it’s because he’s sure they’re ready, rather than hopeful they might be.

And looking at his roster selection for these two games, Arena has firmly ended the tinkering of the Klinsmann era in favor of a rather more battle-tested line up.

But Pulisic is there, and there on merit. It’s OK to talk of him as exceptional (if more problematic when you start talking excitedly about just how exceptional). But when his form, potential and the other options available are taken into consideration, he should not just be a World Cup project, he should be the advance player to build the midfield’s balance around.

Pick the right full-backs

The triage mode the US are in after the opening two games, has been emphasized by the number of injuries Bruce Arena has to deal with coming into these qualifiers.

A potential crisis in goal has been averted with Tim Howard’s return to league play with Colorado Rapids, and also with Brad Guzan’s uncertain future on the Middlesbrough bench being resolved once his summer move to Atlanta was agreed. But the full-backs are a potential issue.

The late withdrawal of Fabian Johnson — the player who has arguably enjoyed the best club form of any US player in this World Cup cycle — is a big blow. Zusi, he of the January camp right-back experiments, has been called in, but surely not as a straight replacement as starter, even with DeAndre Yedlin also out of the roster.

Instead it’s likely that Michael Orozco will start. Orozco was a somewhat maligned option when he appeared as a right-back under Klinsmann, but there may be rather more sympathy for him as the solid, if unspectacular option for Arena under present circumstances. Especially if the option is to gamble on Zusi’s steep learning curve continuing.

And at left-back — always a problem spot for the US — there are no easy answers either. It’s pretty damning when DaMarcus Beasley has to continually postpone international retirement to fill a hole on the left, though in the upcoming games he’s probably in the roster more as a been-there-done-that mentor to help stabilize the players around him.

But with all the other absences and shortage of cover Arena has to deal with, he has had one welcome piece of news with the fact that Jorge Villafaña has been playing more regularly for Santos Laguna and is emerging as a credible option in that left-back slot. And down the line the possibility that Greg Garza may continue his excellent start in Atlanta could mean that while Arena won’t exactly have an embarrassment of riches, he will at least be able to finally let Beasley enjoy an international retirement.

Know your Dynamo

There’s one aspect of the US preparations for Friday where Beasley may yet be vital — briefing his countrymen on the threat of his Houston Dynamo team-mates.

Romell Quioto, Alberth Elis and Boniek Garcia may all play a significant part for Los Catrachos’ attack on Friday night, with the recent arrivals Quioto and Elis having already announced themselves in spectacular fashion in Houston in the opening games of the MLS season.

Boniek Garcia has been playmaking with intermittent brilliance for Houston for a few seasons now and should be a familiar quantity for an MLS-heavy United States roster, but it’s intriguing to see one club side so dominate the attacking line up for the US opponents as Houston’s attackers do for this game — perhaps saying as much about the shifting dynamics of MLS player acquisition as anything.

Anyway, even without an in-house scouting report from Beasley, the US should know what to expect. Honduras will try to bunker in and counter at speed, and without the suspended Jermaine Jones to break up play, the US need to be aware of that danger as they try to open up the Honduras defense.

Regardless of the angst in the US camp, this is still a match the US should win, and the pattern of the game will be played out with them searching for ways to do so. But patience is a virtue: Honduras have the Dynamism (I’ll get my coat…) to hurt them if they over-commit.

Trust the match ups

Of course it’s one thing to respect opponents, while it’s another to second-guess your way into believing a limited adversary is a world beater.

Roger Espinoza, for example, can expect a busy evening breaking up plays in front of the Honduras backline, and should do so efficiently. But the former Wigan player, now back in his second stint at Sporting Kansas City, is reliable and hard-working rather than an immovable object who must be played around.

So if Dempsey is played up front alongside Jozy Altidore (as looks likely with Jordan Morris an injury doubt), there’ll be opportunities for him to drop a little deeper, or for Pulisic to step forward in ways that might force the hard-tackling Espinoza into costly errors around the box — opening up set-piece opportunities for the US.

And Arena will be preparing his team for those sort of match-ups all over the field, as he tries to rebuild collective belief within the team. Such confidence as the US have, or start to develop during the game, is likely to be somewhat brittle for a while, even under the best case Arena-inspired revival. But even a non-vintage US generation, as this one is, still has the individual players to beat most Hex opponents on most occasions and that should be a source of confidence.

Somewhere in the second Klinsmann World Cup cycle of tinkering and mixed messages, that basic principle got lost sight of, and if anything the 2015 Gold Cup debacle saw it become a hindrance, as complacency turned to panic.

But if Arena is going back to first principles to ensure passage through the Hex, it should mean that the US trust that in most scenarios, even conceding the first goal, they should have the players and the collective ability to play their way through and out of trouble. Going back to our opening claim, they need to win – and frankly they should win.

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