The US plays a not quite but pretty much must-win game against Honduras in San Jose, California on Friday night and I have concerns. I really don’t want to wake up on Saturday morning and read another insufferable Deadspin article with a hyperbolic headline and hackneyed digs at MLS that points out the obvious mistakes that the team made while acting like it’s written by Johan Cruyff doing a tactical breakdown and owning some poor doofus on Dutch television.
But more than that, this is an important three points and will solidify the Stars and Stripes’ standing in the Hex. Maybe it’s just a hangover from the games against Mexico and Costa Rica but I think the USMNT might be in trouble here.
Bruce Arena, old is new
This will be Bruce Arena’s third time guiding a US Men’s National Team through World Cup qualification. He is an able manager with two successful qualification campaigns on his resume and was brought in to provide the stability and pragmatism that Jurgen Klinsmann so desperately lacked. So far we’ve seen two games out of Arena since returning to the team and he’s played two different formations with the team scoring one goal.
The January friendlies aren’t always a great barometer for the state of the national team. European based players don’t come to camp and the MLS players who are on the squad have often not played for almost three months. The US didn’t perform badly but they failed to score against Serbia’s ‘B’ team and got one goal against the MLS, USL, and domestic league guys Jamaica brought along. Those performances don’t give me a lot of encouragement.
While Arena is an experienced coach, he doesn’t have a defined playing style and focuses more on trying to get consistent performances out of players as he told MLSSoccer.com. With only a week to work in players who may not be familiar with him as a manager, Arena has a short period of time to find the consistency that he is looking for.
Honduras is pretty decent
Honduras has been known for playing conservatively on defense, even playing five in the back, and trying to strike on the counter. Striking on the counter has been one area that they have not always excelled at but young players coming into their prime may change that.
Look at this.
That’s Romell Quioto nailing a 20 yard strike against Seattle who had one of the best defenses in MLS down the stretch last year.
Now look at this.
That’s Romell Quioto taking a touch and coolly slotting the ball into the net off of a pass from his Honduras National Team and Houston Dynamo teammate Alberth Elis. This has me searching for hiding places in my house to watch the game from on Friday.
Add to it that Andy Najar is back. The last time the US saw him, he was tearing up the right flank of the US defense in the group stage of the 2015 Gold Cup and looked like the best player on the pitch for the first half of the game.
All of this is to say that Honduras is a decent side with some exciting attacking options. They’ll be playing against a team under a new coach under a lot of pressure who is going to be missing some of its best players and for Los Catrachos one point would be an acceptable result.
Injuries and questions around the lineup
Four key players are injured. Bobby Wood is hurt, Fabian Johnson is hurt, Jordan Morris is hurt, DeAndre Yedlin is hurt. Those are starters for the national team who were replaced by Chris Wondolowski, perhaps by Geoff Cameron being played out of position, Sacha Kljestan, and Graham Zusi. Jermaine Jones is also suspended for the first game due to yellow card accumulation and Clint Dempsey is just now coming back from an irregular heartbeat.
Bruce Arena has choices to make.
He could give players without much international experience a chance at some minutes. Darlington Nagbe could be a replacement for Fabian Johnson at left midfield. This sounds exciting because Nagbe can be an exciting and creative player who does things like this.
But this heat map illustrates that the weakest part of his game is his play in and around the opposition 18 yard box (NSFW).
Similar decisions that Arena will have to make include how to replace Jermaine Jones in midfield. Possibilities include young and talented players like Sebastian Lletget or Kellyn Acosta with the more experienced Sacha Kljestan, who has struggled with New York Red Bulls to start the year, as another option.
In defense Arena may start both Jorge Villafana, who has not been getting first team minutes with Santos Lagunas, and Graham Zusi who for some reason is being converted to right back like he’s the American Dirk Kuyt. The connection that Elis and Quioto have along with the skill and pace of Andy Najar could give US defenders fits, and if he starts at right back they will come at Graham Zusi to try to exploit his inexperience in the position.
Going into this round four points would put the US back in good standing to qualify for the World Cup next year. A loss or tie against Honduras would make the job of qualifying that much more difficult and would turn a trip to Panama from a chance to steal a point to a must win game. I’m worried.