Heading into this week’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Honduras, the United States men’s national team find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. In the history of the Hex, they’ve never lost their first two matches and with only eight remaining, the margin for error and slip-ups is dangerously small.
Most are saying that the match on Friday night is a must-win scenario. Without a deep dive into the statistics of Hex results and qualifying points totals, it’s probably safe to assume that’s a correct statement.
Bruce Arena’s task of steering the USMNT ship back on course to Russia encountered a small iceberg last week in the form of injuries to Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood, two of the team’s most important and most in-form players. Couple that with the fact that Jermaine Jones is suspended for this match due to yellow card accumulation and there are many questions to be answered. So, how will Arena anwer them in his lineup for a match he must get three points in?
Here’s who I predict Bruce Arena will start:
Goalkeeper: There’s no point in explaining this. Tim Howard is healthy, Tim Howard is the starter. Nick Rimando will be there in case something happens to him.
Defense: While Zusi wasn’t named to the initial roster, I see him starting on the right side with a dependable midfielder in front of him like Alejandro Bedoya to protect his defensive deficiencies.
There’s always the chance that the spirit of 2002 is too strong for Arena to overcome and he gives DaMarcus Beasley a chance. However, in my heart of hearts, I believe he’s just here for leadership in the locker room and as an emergency option, so Villafana gets the nod.
With so many new faces along the backline, having the familiar center back pairing of Brooks and Cameron will be a necessity. Going into a crucial match with a brand new back four who’s never played together isn’t the most pragmatic of moves. I think Arena will rely on the foundation laid last summer with Brooks and Cameron and build around it.
Midfield: As leader of ‘The Cult of Nagbe’ it pains me to admit that he probably won’t start when all the cards are laid out on the table. Christian Pulisic is just too good to ignore and he’ll without a doubt be starting, but Nagbe will fall victim to pragmatism and Bedoya will be the safe option.
Bad news for all the Michael Bradley haters out there. Arena has confirmed that MB90 will indeed remain the team’s captain, which means he’s all but guaranteed to start this match. So, the huge question is, who do you start next to him? I don’t think Nagbe fits the empty bucket as the lone partner so I’m not considering him. That leaves four options: Dax McCarty, Sebastian Lletget, Sacha Kljestan, and Kellyn Acosta.
Kljestan is the most attacking option, while McCarty and Acosta are more defensive. Lletget will be a nice change of pace from the same old boring Beckerman or Jones pairing. He’ll offer sound defensive capabilities while also adding an attacking threat. While he may not have the high ceiling or the current ‘flavor of the month’ taste that Acosta does, he’ll be a nice addition to the lineup.
Attack: We’ve seen it a million times. It’s worked before in a CONCACAF setting. Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are the second and third all-time leading goal getters for the USMNT, but their partnership has left a lot to be desired in the past. With Wood unavailable, desperate times call for the familiar. It’s a safe bet we’ll see this partnership once again in a big match.
Now, just for fun, because I never get theses things right. Here’s who I, manager expert Rob Usry, would start:
Take a picture of it. Put it on your wall. We’ll never see it, but we can all dream.
Who do you think Arena will rely on in this important match? Who do you hope starts?