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Tactical Analysis

Will Arena Try a Five-Man Backline Against Mexico?

ASN Contributing Editor Brian Sciaretta previews Sunday's World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, and tosses out a few tactical ideas that just might work for Bruce Arena and his men. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 10, 2017
9:30 AM

WHILE IT'S TRUE that the United States men's national team greatly reduced the pressure for Sunday's match by defeating Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday, games against Mexico are always intense. The rivalry transcends the game of soccer as political, social, and geographic issues all factor into the clashes. Also, these games have always served as a measuring stick for the American soccer program.

The U.S. has never defeated Mexico at Azteca Stadium in a World Cup qualifier. It has come close, securing scoreless draws in 1997 and 2013, but it has never left Mexico City with three points in a qualifier. Azteca is one of soccer’s greatest stadiums and has hosted two World Cup finals featuring Pele and Diego Maradona. It has been a fortress for the Mexican national team and on Sunday the United States national team will attempt to do what it has never done before.

A victory for the United States would serve as a complete turning point for Bruce Arena, who inherited a team that had lost its first two games in the Hexagonal—including a loss to Mexico in the team’s Columbus, Ohio, fortress. If the Yanks win, it will be on cruise control heading towar the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Here's what Arena's men need to do to win. 

The formation

It's hard to imagine Arena going with a diamond midfield the way he has for home World Cup qualifiers. Mexico just has too much firepower, and will be on its front foot at home. U.S. fullbacks DeAndre Yedlin and Jorge Villafana like to push forward into the attack and the backline could get exposed. Also, the Geoff Cameron and John Brooks central defense tandem looked lost on crosses against Trinidad & Tobago Thursday night. Without significant improvement in that area, the U.S. will get punished by Mexico.

A 5-3-2 formation might make sense in this game as the team’s personnel plays into it. Jurgen Klinsmann tried this in Columbus and it backfired. But the team’s fullbacks are now different, the team is playing away from home and at altitude on short rest, the pressure is slightly off, and the central defense is struggling at the moment.

In a more traditional 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, the team will need a big defensive performance from Michael Bradley on the defensive end. He is going to have to break up plays before they get to the backline and stop counterattacks. The fullbacks will have to track back defensively and limit crosses into the box. Finally, the world-class version of John Brooks will have to make a comeback. It has been a while since he showed up for the U.S. 

The Defense

The backline was dicey against Trinidad & Tobago. Brooks had a terrible mental error which should have gifted Kenwyn Jones the opening goal. Now on two days of rest, will Arena have to make changes to the Cameron-Brooks pairing? It could happen.

In a 5-3-2, the backline could see Cameron on the right side of a three-man centerback set with Brooks on the left. Omar Gonzalez would be ideal between the two. His lack of footspeed would not be as much of an issue and he would help on set pieces, both offensively and defensively.

In a 4-4-2, it is hard to see Arena staying with Brooks and Cameron. Cameron cannot not afford a yellow card, which would see him suspended him for next qualifier. At his age, a game on such a quick turnaround is difficult. Matt Hedges and Tim Ream would seem to be in the mix if Brooks or Cameron are tired.

Yedlin and Villafana are likely to start at the fullback positions regardless of formation. In this game, their defense will be greatly tested, even with a five-man backline. Yedlin will be one of the fastest players on the field and offensively he will have to get forward at least a few times to stretch the game.

The midfield

We know Bradley and Christian Pulisic will start regardless of the formation. Bradley had one of his best games in a long time for the national team against T&T. Pulisic continues to be a wonder.

A player to watch here is Darlington Nagbe. The Portland Timbers midfielder is sometimes too passive but when he plays with aggression, as he did on Friday, he is one of the best players in the U.S. talent pool. Getting that kind of performance regularly out of Nagbe is major priority for Arena.

Fabian Johnson has come off two mostly disappointing performances for the United States this month. If Arena does go to a three-man midfield, Johnson seems most likely to move to the bench. Johnson did do a good job on Friday of containing Kevin Molino, arguably Trinidad & Tobago’s best player, but a third start in eight days seems unlikely.

It may come down to fatigue for both Nagbe and Johnson, both of whom started the Venezuela friendly and Thursday's qualifier. The player most likely to start in place of these two would be Alejando Bedoya, who brings both fresh legs and big-game experience. Bedoya covers a lot of ground and is solid defensively. If Arena wants to go younger, Kellyn Acosta could also be an intriguing option as he has been rising steadily in 2017.

The Forwards

Against T&T Arena chose Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore at the forward position. Dempsey, in particular, looks less likely to start again on Sunday. He was yanked early into the second half after struggling most of the game against Trinidad & Tobago. The Seattle Sounder striker has been out of form the past two months but could prove valuable off the bench.

Bobby Wood made a cameo Thursday and fired a shot off the post in limited minutes. He seems like a logical addition to the starting lineup alongside Altidore. Jordan Morris is another viable alternative as speed will be needed in the counterattack. 

The Outlook

Try as it might, it's hard to see the U.S. walking out of Azteca with three points. It’s not impossible but there are too many questions along the backline and the short rest hurts the U.S. far more than Mexico.

A 5-3-2 formation seems intriguing given the situation, the circumstances, and the roster at hand. It would allow the fullbacks to press forward to provide width in the attack while providing cover in case they fail to track back in time. Yedlin, in particular, could be one of the keys to this game thanks to his world-class speed.

Going out on a limb, I predict this starting lineup from Arena.

I went back and forth with Cameron and  Hedges at the right central defense position; Brooks and Ream at left central defense; and Nagbe and Bedoya in the midfield.

Arena has made some bold decisions in his first tenure as the head coach for the U.S. team. He is not afraid to give the keys to younger players. If the U.S prevails at Azteca, maybe it will be on the backs of the next generation. Pulisic obviously stands out, but maybe it is Morris, Acosta, or Hedges.

Either way, every chapter of this rivalry is always fascinating and Sunday should be no different.

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