32817_isi_jonesjermaine_usmntjd032817172 John Dorton/isiphotos.com

Pulisic and Dempsey Thrive, But That Midfield Was Poor

Now that Bruce Arena has earned the four points he was hoping to secure from these two World Cup qualifiers, it's time to focus on fine-tuning the squad and putting all of the pieces together. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
March 29, 2017
12:20 AM

THAT WAS AN UGLY GAME. But it was also successful and important because a shorthanded U.S. men's national team gained a point on the road and significantly improved its standing in World Cup qualifying after November’s disastrous start.

How shorthanded was Bruce Arena's team? If you took the players Arena would have called up to this camp if not for injury or personal/family reasons, you could have built a better starting lineup than the one he trotted out Tuesday night in Panama.

Consider a starting lineup in a 4-1-3-2 formation with these players: Brad Guzan: DeAndre Yedlin, Michael Orozco, John Brooks, Eric Lichaj; Geoff Cameron; Fabian Johnson, Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes; Jordan Morris, and Bobby Wood.

None of those players were able to play tonight.

In the past, missing that many key players would have sunk the Yanks. But in a sign of how much the depth has improved, the U.S. managed to walk out of Panama with a point. It’s also worth noting that Panama is a much better team than it has been in recent years.

This contest was never about playing beautiful soccer. If that happened, great. This was always about getting a result—pure and simple. That's what Arena was hired to do and he is slowly getting this team out of a terrible World Cup qualifying spot. The defense made one big mistake on a throw-in but other than that, the Americans bent but did not break.

Along with a little magic from Christian Pulisic, that was enough.

Pulisic and Dempsey stole the show

Clint Dempsey, 34, scored four goals over these two games and that is all due to his blossoming chemistry with Christian Pulisic—who is 16 years his junior. With these two on the field, the U.S. is capable of a lot and can cover up for a lot of mistakes.

Pulisic was once again the best player on the field and not just because of his offense. His defensive aggresson, and ability to win balls, also imressed. Right now everything on offense is flowing through him and it is working. It's safe to say that he won’t always play this well and dips in form happen to everyone. A “Plan B” and “Plan C”  will have to emerge but that's a problem for another day.

It is going to be very interesting to see how it all comes back together when Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson return to the starting lineup, along with other potential changes.

Bradley and Jones continue to lag

As Bruce Arena rebuilds and reshapes the U.S. national team heading toward Russia, one thing he will have to do is improve the central midfield. Starting in 2010 under Bob Bradley, the central midfield duo has featured Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley. The problem? Aside from a handful of games, they have played well below the sum of their parts.

When Bradley plays well, Jones is often poor. Other times Jones plays well and Bradley struggles. Far too often both are off and only on limited occasions are both playing well together.

Against Panama, it was one of the occasions where both were off and the rest of the team seemed to suffer. Panama was much better in the middle of the field and the shape of U.S. was often disjointed.

Between Jones and Bradley, the 35-year-old Jones seems most likely to see his minutes reduced. It was not rsurprising that after Kellyn Acosta replaced Jones in the final 15 minutes, Bradley actually played better.

But Arena has said that if the U.S. stabilizes its standing in World Cup qualifying, he could use the Gold Cup to explore and experiment to implement his ideas in the team. With Acosta and other promising central midfielders like Emerson Hyndman (and perhaps even Sebastian Lletget if he can recover from a serious injury) looking to break in, exploring options to improve the central midfield should be a priority.

Jorge Villafana impresses

Jorge Villafana put in another solid shift at left back Tuesday night and his emergence could finally push Fabian Johnson into the midfield. Johnson is one of the best U.S. players and getting him into the attacking midfield, where he is most comfortable, will only bring out the best in him. Then, imagine Johnson playing with Pulisic, Dempsey, Wood, Altidore, and Nagbe. That combination has yet to be really tried and it is a very exciting prospect.

Arena Now Has Wiggle Room

Tuesday's draw was important because it solidified the United States' position in World Cup qualifying. And as that position improves, Arena will be empowered to put his stamp on the team.

When he first took over the club, Arena had to do whatever was necessary to earn immediate points. Now he can take a somewhat longer view.

Case in point: Two of the substitutes he used Tuesday, Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola, are on the upside of their young careers. In his first tenure as the national team coach, Arena was aggressive in breaking in young players and it seems likely that he will do the same this time around too.

As ugly as this game was, it was not nearly as ugly as the games last November. This team fought for a result—unlike the squad that seemed confused and shellshocked in Costa Rica.

Now the team is in better shape for booking a ticket to Russia, injured players will soon return to health, and some talented young players could make their way onto the field. The point earned against Panama was an important one, and U.S. fans are right to be optimistic.

Better days certainly appear to be on the horizon.

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