The United States marches on towards the final matches of World Cup qualifying in a precarious spot. Sitting in 4th place in the Hex, the USMNT still has an opportunity to qualify directly for the World Cup next summer in Russia. Yesterday, we questioned why the USMNT has struggled this cycle during World Cup qualifying. Today, we continue our staff discussion with the second question:
What does the USMNT need to fix to win next month and qualify outright for the World Cup?
The team has to do three things. First, they have to play with passion. We are the United States of America, the home of the brave. Let’s play with the fire and tenacity that we hung our hat on for so many years. Teams back in the day may have been more talented than us, but they never outworked us. They never had our heart. We need those qualities to come out next month against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. Second, we must play with our heads. We can’t be out of position and the team must play together. Consistency is something we haven’t had in quite a while, so getting back to the consistent soccer that helped us truly own CONCACAF is important. Finally, we must play with a sense of urgency. Our backs are to the wall, but we control our own destiny. Play like it. No doubt, two wins are what we need, so let’s avoid the other scenarios. Forget #Get3. It’s time to #GET6. Leave it all on the field and let’s do what we need to do to qualify for the World Cup.
*Puts on Alexi Lalas mask* I don't think there's a magic lineup that's going to solve our issues. For the last two matches it's going to be half mental and half production. The team's mentality needs to be all-out focused on getting two wins, whatever the cost and by whatever means necessary. We don't need to play beautiful soccer for 180 minutes. We need to score more goals than the other team twice and every player needs to leave it all on the field. Star players need to step up and make plays. Leaders need to step up and lead.
Tell the players right now who will start the next two games barring injuries and what the tactical approach is going to be. Don't wait to inform them. Let them prepare mentally. With Panama at home and Trinidad and Tobago on the road Arena can expect both teams will bunker in and try to get a draw. Whether or not he wants to take the bait, like he did against Costa Rica, is up to him but he should pick players and a formation that suits his approach and get the players aligned now. It's a difficult call because the prevailing thinking will be to "go for it" but I think we all know the risk inherent in that decision given the state of the back line.
Clearly the problem isn’t grass length, U.S. immigration policy, stadiums, or tattoos as has been suggested by some. The USMNT needs an identity, without a solid foundation tactically with heavy lineup rotation, the team can’t adjust when things go wrong. Personnel choices also need to be smarter - if Arena thinks Tim Howard is still recovering from injury, start Brad Guzan until he’s healthy. Graham Zusi is a midfielder playing right back and it shows while Timmy Chandler is more than capable of backing up DeAndre Yedlin. The list goes on, but something needs to change as Bruce Arena’s tactical incoherence and trust in “his guys” put the U.S. in this spot and needs to be addressed to get out of it.
The team needs to get healthy and Arena needs to wise back up. Running DaMarcus Beasley and Graham Zusi in a 5-4-1 may have been sensible thanks to the immense amount of defensive cover the formation provides; expecting him to compete in an empty bucket 4-4-2 with wingers twice their speed is decidedly not. If and when we have the personnel to stand up to strong, fast attacking units (i.e., getting DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks back into the mix), the 4-4-2 is more viable. Otherwise, you need more muscle in the defensive midfield. Michael Bradley can't do it on his own against good teams: this has become painfully obvious to U.S. fans for years. The flat 4-4-2 was exposed against Costa Rica; it was cremated against Honduras, even with a more "defensive" midfielder than Darlington Nagbe like Kellyn Acosta in the lineup. Why bring Dax McCarty along if you refuse to use him at all? For that matter, why not bring in Danny Williams, or Alfredo Morales, or Russel Canouse, or any other player that is actually a defensive midfielder? Because after the last two games, it seems clear that the defensive line needs all the help it can get, but no one on the roster that Arena actually plays seems equipped to provide that cover. Arena was brought in not specifically because of Jurgan Klinsmann's shortcomings (although there were several), but also because of his inability to accept responsibility and condescension towards criticism. Arena was a safe choice, a comfortable choice, a guy who knew how to make the team tick and get them to the World Cup. But Arena's penchant for players he's comfortable and familiar with is hurting the team when anyone among the obvious first-choice lineup is missing.
One thing the USMNT needs to do to qualify for the World Cup is get the best XI on the field. There has been so much rotation and things that the USA plays 20 different guys in a single two game set of qualifiers. That's fine if you are swapping Mesut Özil for Marco Reus, but the USA doesn't have that kind of depth. Realistically, there are guys that are clearly cut above the rest, and they are the ones that should be in the starting lineup. Leave players like Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez on the bench. Getting the best XI on the field every single game is unrealistic with injuries and things, like Yedlin and Brooks being out for the last set of qualifiers, but there does need to be a little more effort on Arena's part to play the best players in both games so we can win both games.
There’s not much new that the USMNT can do at this point to make them a better team. No new left back is walking in that door. All the injuries are simply not going to disappear. The time is now for Bruce Arena to show his coaching acumen. He needs to know how Panama and Trinidad and Tobago will play. Scout them. Analyze them. Thoroughly. Figure out their strengths and weaknesses and combined with the knowledge that he has of his own squad (let’s hope it’s good) and figure out a game-plan for each match.
Nothing else matters right now. Dedicate all your time to this. Making the World Cup is the only priority for Bruce Arena and his staff. It’s all on him now.
As stated before, mindset for me is the number one factor that needs to change. Every team goes through performance swings. But if the US truly wants to be a world soccer power, it must act as such within their own region first. As for some on field switches…can we please get a structured defensive line? Look at any successful International team. What do you see? A defensive unit that controls the team’s system, game in and game out. Italy, Germany, Brazil, Argentina. They all have a strong idea of who starts in the back. The rotations of Zusi, Cameron, Besler, Gonzalez, Villafana and so on just can’t happen any longer. You can see during the matches how jagged their line truly is. Brooks and Yedlin need to stay healthy in order for this to occur, but if the US want to be successful, some familiarity must be cultivated on the back line.
I think players who have not performed need to be dropped and fight for their spot. There are hungry players who would give this team a lot more effort and a lot more heart waiting for their moment. For the most part, this team has had the same core of players for the last two World Cups, in my opinion, it is time to move on. They are not good enough anymore and if it is going to keep going south, I would rather it be with a new group and core. Obviously, you do not want to not qualify for a World Cup, especially with how easy CONCACAF is, but hopefully, these shocking few months is a wake-up call and players will start to either play harder or get dropped from the squad.
Now, let’s hear from you. Hit the comments and let us know what you think the USMNT needs to do to join the field of 32 in Russia next summer.