2017 Gold Cup
5 Reasons Why the National Team is Better Under Bruce
July 07, 2017
ON SATURDAY NIGHT the U.S. men's national team will open its Gold Cup campaign against Panama in Nashville, Tenn., with a large crowd expected. While these games aren’t as critical as World Cup qualifiers, they do allow Bruce Arena a chance to continue to build his team.
Arena inherited a mess left by Jurgen Klinsmann and while Arena has kept a bulk of the team’s core together, the former LA Galaxy boss' version of the team is beginning to take shape. After the Gold Cup, there is a chance several of the players will make strong cases to be part of the team moving forward—and that could push some established regulars off the squad.
Looking back on the first half 2017, there is a lot to like about some of the changes that are taking place. Some of this is due to Arena’s oversight and some is a result of new players emerging and introducing their distinct skillsets.
Here are five positive changes to the U.S. team which should be on display at the Gold Cup.
1. A faster American squad
As Bob Bradley’s tenure as U.S. coach drew to a close, he took a noticeably slower U.S. team to the 2011 Gold Cup and it was one of the reasons for the team’s poor showing.
Under Klinsmann, the U.S. never really had that much speed. Klinsmann introduced DeAndre Yedlin but the Newcastle United player never completely took ownership of the right back job. Klinsmann also tried to bring in speedsters like Josh Gatt, Brek Shea, Joe Gyau, and Julian Green but injuries and form prevented them from ever becoming part of the team.
Under Arena, all signs point to a faster U.S. team—a welcome development for American fans. Paul Arriola is starting important games and Yedlin now has the right back position to himself. Christian Pulisic is also a speedseter, and he is a central component of the squad where he is playing as a No. 10 or out wide. Under Klinsmann, Darlington Nagbe was pushed aside toward the end; Arena brought him back into the mix.
Arena is quietly building one of the fastest U.S. teams in years. Kelyn Rowe is quick and the Ghana game was a promising first step toward his inclusion. Kellyn Acosta can also cover lots of ground in central midfield. Dom Dwyer also could bring pace to the forward position and he will be joined by fleet-footed Jordan Morris. Later in the tournament, it's likely that Nagbe will join this group.
This speed element is very important and if the wingers, fullbacks, and forwards are all able to make dangerous runs, it will lead to much better opportunities. Add a few skilled passers to the mix and the U.S. attack could pose a significant threat in the weeks and months ahead.
2. Youth in central midfield
It has been said before but it bears repeating: The Jermaine Jones-Michael Bradley central defense pairing has never really clicked. Bob Bradley introduced this combo and underperformed at the 2011 Gold Cup that led to his dismissal. Jurgen Klinsmann kept Jones and the younger Bradley together and they never really combined well—although the addition of Kyle Beckerman as a true No. 6 did help before age caught up with Beckerman.
Six years later, Bruce Arena is turning the page. He paired Jones and Bradley in a road qualifier against Panama in March and they once again underwhelmed. Now Arena is doing something about it. Before his tenure there were only limited options. Now there are many.
After a strong performance in his first three caps, Sebastian Lletget will re-enter the equation once healthy. Kellyn Acosta is one of the most promising young players in the U.S. pool and looks poised to take a more expanded role with the team after Klinsmann insisted on misusing him at fullback. Dax McCarty could very well end up as a breakout player at the Gold Cup and Joe Corona will also likely find more success in a faster U.S. team. Cristian Roldan also is set to take his first international steps this summer.
Many expected Arena to turn to Klinsmann outcasts like Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, and Alfredo Morales in central midfield. But he has forged his own path with mostly new players.
3. Offense out of the fullbacks
Left back has historically been a huge problem for the U.S. and ever since Steve Cherundolo stepped away from the international stage in 2012, right back hasn’t been great either. Klinsmann never seemed to trust Yedlin and publicly expressed his disappointment when Yedlin moved to Newcastle in the English Championship, adding that Timothy Chandler overtook him on the depth chart. But the gap between Chandler’s club performances and national team performances has always been huge and the Eintracht Frankfurt man's commitment to the team came under question by Klinsmann.
At the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann turned to Fabian Johnson at right back and DaMarcus Beasley at left back. Johnson performed well but it is pretty obvious that he is most comfortable and best used as a midfielder.
Arena has addressed this problem right off the bat. He began searching for left backs—first with Greg Garza and then with Jorge Villafana. So far, he is continuing to stick with Villafana and despite a mixed outing last Saturday against Ghana, Villafana has performed well. To his credit, Beasley still remains in the picture (and Johnson or Kenny Saief might also see time at the position later this year) but this Gold Cup will be an important step for Villafana to prove that he still belongs.
Right back belongs to Yedlin and Arena demanded a lot from the Seattle native earlier this month. giving him three starts and 270 minutes of action in eight days. Beyond Yedlin, Arena has more options to consider: Graham Zusi and Eric Lichaj appear to be next in line.
One things remains true, however, for both right and left back right now on the U.S. national team: These positions are generating more offense than in the past. Yedlin was able to get forward effectively in the June qualifiers and even Villafana was a key factor in the opening goal against Ghana.
Zusi is still adjusting and he might never become a viable right back option against high-level competition but there is little doubt about his crossing ability. Even without Yedlin at the Gold Cup, expect the fullbacks to produce offense. And at the Gold Cup, Eric Lichaj will also be given a fair shot at entering the mix to claim a starting or backup spot at either fullback position.
4. Success Beyond the 4-4-2
Klinsmann tried a wide range of formations during his time managing the United States. The team, however, always seemed to be at its best when in a 4-4-2. In one infamous example, Klinsmann started the game in a 3-5-2 formation against Mexico last November in an World Cup qualifier. After a dreadful start, the U.S. team abruptly switched to a 4-4-2 midway through the first half and looked much better.
So far in 2017, Arena is getting other formations to work. The 4-4-2 will continue to be used but the team looks more prepared to play a variety of formations. Arena went with a 3-4-3 formation against Mexico last month and the team held strong defensively and created more chances than it typically does at Estadio Azteca.
At the Gold Cup, it will be interesting to see if Arena settles in with one formation or if he continues to mix it up.
5. Better Personnel Management
Last month, Arena said that Klinsmann’s call-ups lacked “rhyme and reason.” He was right. There were often call-ups that were complete head-scratchers or seemed focused on proving a point rather than identifying players who could help the team win.
Klinsmann once called Caleb Stanko over Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta. Miguel Ibarra received a call-up over a whole slew of wingers. Ventura Alvarado got the nod over Matt Miazga, Matt Hedges, and Walker Zimmerman. Eric Lichaj was given only token appearances despite struggles at right and left back. Then of course, Klinsmann cut Landon Donovan’s from the 2014 World Cup team.
Arena’s call-ups so far make far more sense and players are actually playing their best positions now. Acosta isn’t being deployed as a fullback anymore, Yedlin isn’t a winger, Bradley isn’t a No. 10, etc.
Of course there are players Arena has not called-up who have a very good argument to be on the team. Danny Williams is a prime example. But at least a few questionable roster decisions are going to happen with any coach.
Happily, the number of head-scratching call-ups and cuts is way down. The introduction of blatantly overlooked players like Lichaj, Hedges, Nagbe, Lletget, and McCarty is healthy and provides clarity. Plus, the recruiting of highly talented players like Kenny Saief (and the continued inclusion of John Brooks and Fabian Johnson) is also important because it shows Arena will continue to include American players who grew up and developed almost entirely outside the United States.
Under Arena, the U.S. player pool just seems to make sense. Not surprisingly, the results on the field reflect a team heading in the right direction.
What do you think of Brian's assessment? Share your take below, soccer people.