U.S. Men's National Team
Prediction Time: 25 Names for the October Qualifiers
September 13, 2017
BRUCE ARENA NEEDS TO GET IT RIGHT. The two World Cup qualifiers next month—at home against Panama on October 6 and on the road against Trinidad & Tobago four days later—are must-win games and represent the most important matches since Arena re-claimed the reins of the U.S. men's national team.
While disappointment over the last two matches lingers, it's worth noting that Costa Rica is a very good team in the middle of a golden generation. That's why the Ticos advanced to the quarterfinals of the World Cup three years ago. Also, a draw on the road in Honduras has never been considered a poor Hexagonal result either.
Of course the U.S. should expect to win all home qualifiers and failure to do so will always disappoint fans. But a little history lesson is in order. The U.S. has flirted with qualifying disasters multiple times over the past few decades.
In 2000, the United States was almost bounced from 2002 World Cup qualifying in the semifinal round. It needed a win against Barbados on the final day of the group stage, on November 15, and that game remained scoreless until Clint Mathis scored in the 63rd minute—one of the more underrated goals in U.S. Soccer history. The U.S. was remarkably shaky that entire group only managing to win one contest outside of the Barbados games.
The following year in the Hexagonal, the United States suffered through a three-game losing streaking, including a 3-2 loss at home to Honduras. In the second-to-last round, it took an inexplicable home loss by Honduras at the hands of Trinidad & Tobago to make qualifying a reality for the U.S. (American fans should still be thankful for Stern John).
Despite rocky times in both the semifinal and final rounds of qualifying, Bruce Arena built a very solid team for the 2002 World Cup. On the flip side, the U.S. eased into qualifying for the 2006 tournament when it locked up a berth with four games to spare. Along with an inflated top five spot in the FIFA rankings, that created false optimism around the team ahead and led to a poor World Cup.
In the end, there has been extremely little correlation between World Cup qualifying performances and how the squad does in the World Cup. The pessimism surrounding the U.S. men's national team based on its World Cup qualifying campaign is not completely warranted nor is the drive to overhaul the roster. In the end, if the team crosses the finish line, it could very well be fine.
That said, crossing the finish line won’t be easy. What kind of team will Bruce Arena take for the final two games? Here is my predicted 25-man roster.
1. Tim Howard
2. Brad Guzan
3. Nick Rimando
In the mix: Ethan Horvath, Luis Robles, Bill Hamid, Jesse Gonzalez
The only debate here is who Arena takes as the third goalkeeper. There are some interesting young keepers out there like Ethan Horvath and Jesse Gonzalez but Arena seems to prefer experience with his third keeper. That makes sense. If the third keeper actually sees the field, something has gone horribly wrong and a veteran presence can help be a calming force. That is why Arena took Tony Meola to the World Cup in 2002—over a promising youngster named Tim Howard.
4. DeAndre Yedlin
5. Graham Zusi
6. Timothy Chandler
7. Geoff Cameron
8. Matt Besler
9. Matt Miazga
10. Tim Ream
11. Omar Gonzalez
12. Jorge Villafana
13. Fabian Johnson
In the mix: Matt Hedges, DaMarcus Beasley, Eric Lichaj, Walker Zimmerman, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Gregory Garza, Michael Orozco, Justin Morrow. Injured: John Brooks
This is the biggest area of concern for the Americans. BArena needs to find stability here and come up with a combination that works. A healthy DeAndre Yedlin will go a long way toward solidfying the backline and his return is at the top of the team’s wishlist.
As bad as Graham Zusi’s performances were in September, it's hard to see him going from starting the last four meaningful games to getting completely dropped. But that does open the door for Timothy Chandler, however to finally get a look. The backup right back job is open and Eric Lichaj, benched at Nottingham Forest and unable to crack the lineup behind Zusi, hasn’t boosted his case.
Central defense has been poor and there do not appear to be any players ready to step up and claim a spot. Perhaps Cameron Carter-Vickers can prove himself while on loan with Sheffield United, or Walker Zimmerman will crawl back into the mix. But as of right now it seems too early for both.
Matt Besler showed well and Geoff Cameron rebounded nicely against Honduras after a poor Costa Rica game. Those two are the best options to start and Cameron should be back for the October qualifiers after suffering a hamstring injury over the weekend. Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream struggled but both had good games over the summer. While this past month might relegate both to the bench, it shouldn’t bounce them from the team altogether—especially if Arena wants to go with a five-man backline. And if Arena elects to bring a fifth central defender, it will come down to Matt Hedges or Matt Miazga—whicever secures more playing time over the next two weeks.
Left back is also very interesting. The game against Honduras showed that DaMarcus Beasley might not have any international games left in his legs. But it is worth noting that when Beasley appeared injured early against Honduras, both Jorge Villafana and Fabian Johnson began warming up. Johnson has offered very little the past year in the midfield for the U.S.; a return to left back might be on deck.
14. Michael Bradley
15. Danny Williams
16. Kellyn Acosta
17. Darlington Nagbe
18. Christian Pulisic
19. Alejandro Bedoya
20. Paul Arriola
21. Cristian Roldan
In the mix: Dax McCarty, Jermaine Jones, Kelyn Rowe, Alfredo Morales, Joe Corona, Sacha Kljestan, Gyasi Zardes. Injured: Kenny Saief, Sebastien Lletget
It's hard to see many changes in this area of the field despite players struggling the past two games. Fabian Johnson offered nothing against Costa Rica and might be best deployed as a defender. The real test will be finding a way to bring out the best in Darlington Nagbe and putting Christian Pulisic in a position where he can shine (and avoid brutal tackles).
Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Cristian Roldan are works in progress but all three are youngish and could have a nice upside. Arriola brings needed pace on the wings and Acosta has been up and down but still looks talented enough for this level.
The one change right now could be Danny Williams in for Dax McCarty. Arena said over the past week that he is interested in giving Williams a look while McCarty hasn’t been able to see the field despite call-ups throughout the year.
22. Bobby Wood
23. Jozy Altidore
24. Clint Dempsey
25. Juan Agudelo
In the mix: Dom Dwyer, Chris Wondolowski. Injured: Jordan Morris
I envision a tweaked roster for the October games, but not a complete overhaul. The most important addition would be getting Yedlin back, which would bring stability to a backline that needs it. The other additions—Williams and Chandler—make sense because if either or both can fit in with the team, they could see meaningul minutes.
Improved performance for the team will mostly come from players who have been part of the team for most of 2017 and Arena’s task is to put those players in a system that makes sense. It has been a rocky road so far, but the U.S. national team is still favored to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia—and it should.