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USA vs. Honduras, 2018 World Cup Qualifying: What to watch for

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Crunch time in San Jose. Can a depleted U.S. side take out Honduras and get back on track in the Hex?

Trinidad & Tobago v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Everyone’s saying it, but it bears repeating: the USMNT need points, and they need them right now. All three will be the goal for Bruce Arena and his men in San Jose on Friday night, and anything less than that might not be a complete disaster, but will certainly be a failure.

Unfortunately for the U.S., the roster of available players for the next two games already looks very different from the one Arena originally called a week ago. Injuries have taken their toll, with Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson bowing out and joining DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj on the shelf of players who would have been here if healthy. Jordan Morris has also yet to train on the field with his teammates after sustaining a knock to his ankle while playing with the Sounders on Sunday, and John Brooks has been showing off an ice-pack on his knee after training sessions as of late.

So the U.S. will have to rely on their depth to get them through these games. Goody.

Recent Form

USA

W (1-0) - Jamaica - Friendly

D (0-0) - Serbia - Friendly

L (0-4) - Costa Rica - WCQ

L (1-2) - Mexico - WCQ

D (1-1) - New Zealand - Friendly

Honduras

W (2-0) - Nicaragua - Friendly

L (1-3) - Ecuador - Friendly

L (0-1) - Jamaica - Friendly

W (1-0) - Belize - Copa Centroamericana

D (1-1) - Costa Rica - Copa Centroamericana

What to Watch for:

Left Side, Strong Side - The left side of the American defense has seemed like it’s weak point for what seems like forever, but coming into these games it seems like it might be more stable than the right. John Brooks, despite his injury scare, will almost certainly start at left center back, and either Jorge Villafaña or Damarcus Beasley will line up next to him on the outside.

The right side, however, is far more questionable. Will Arena try to keep the Cameron-Brooks partnership together and start Michael Orozco or Graham Zusi on the outside? Or will he push Geoff Cameron to the right as a safer defensive option and slot Omar Gonzalez or even Walker Zimmerman in the middle? The defense will be tricky, and I highly doubt Bruce Arena will run a 3- or 5-back formation, so look out for a surprise or two in that starting defense.

Forward Progress - Bobby Wood is gone, and with him goes perhaps the most adaptable forward in this group of forwards. Altidore and Dempsey both play best in two-forward sets, and will most likely pair together on Friday, but neither are incredible lone strikers, which limits Arena a little bit. Morris showed siginifcant progress in his ability as a lone striker last season, but looks doubtful for this first game, and Chris Wondolowski...is here. Dempsey could possibly be dropped back into an attacking #10-type position, but my gut tells me Arena gives in to the pressure of needing a W (and also the probability that Honduras will be playing a heavily defensive game) and run out two forwards from the get go.

Positioning Pulisic - The U.S. attack will almost certainly run through Christian Pulisic. It’s just a matter of where he actually plays. Arena has dropped a few hints that he’s toyed around with the idea of Pulisic as a #10, but playing him in the middle pretty much necessitates playing a lone striker with either two holding midfielders (in this case, Michael Bradley and Dax McCarty) or a holding midfielder and a more box-to-box type (Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, etc). With our forward situation what it is, I doubt we see Pulisic in the middle just yet. Look for him to start from the wing.

Lineup Prediction:

At the end of the day, the strikers determine this lineup. With Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood here, I think Arena’s 4-2-3-1 (the lineup I think he really wants to run) gets more play. But Altidore and Dempsey both just aren’t great in that look. They are, however, very good with strike partners. Arena will hope to see what could have been at the 2014 World Cup. The hardest part of this lineup to predict is actually Michael Bradley’s midfield partner. Pulisic is pushed wide because a more responsible defender and bigger engine is needed from the two central midfielders.

Kellyn Acosta is the hot hand at the moment, and I don’t think any other USMNTer in MLS has started the season better than him. Dax McCarty is the guy you pick if you want to make sure you don’t lose the game. But Sebastian Lletget is someone who Bruce Arena is very familiar and comfortable with, and he also name-checked Lletget three separate times, unprompted, in his Facebook Q&A with fans asking questions about central midfield. Kellyn Acosta will most likely see game time on Friday, while I think McCarty goes from the start against Panama, but I’m more than willing to roll the dice on Arena starting Lletget against Honduras. In the back, Geoff Cameron shifts to right back and Omar Gonzalez moves to the center, a look they’ve been practicing this week in camp, per Jeff Carlisle. The only way John Brooks doesn’t start is if his leg falls off. Nagbe and Villafaña team up on the left side once again, and Howard backs them all up.