Arena must get U.S. balance right for crucial WC qualifiers vs. T&T, Mexico
When Bruce Arena took the job as head coach of the United States men's national team again, he had a pressing problem. The squad, languishing in last place after the first two Hexagonal round qualifiers, desperately needed points in their games against Honduras and Panama. A win and a draw later, the panic about reaching the 2018 World Cup has decreased if not entirely subsided.
Arena, however, finds himself with a new problem: Who should start in the midfield and forward spots?
The manager has more than a dozen players -- forwards Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Clint Dempsey, and Jordan Morris, along with midfielders Fabian Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya, Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta -- who can make a legitimate claim that they belong in the front six. (That list doesn't even include the injured Sebastian Lletget and Jermaine Jones or skilled players a bit further on the fringe such as Emerson Hyndman, Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan.) These are effective pieces. Arena's challenge is to complete the puzzle in the most efficient manner.
After the past two World Cup qualifiers, one observation is obvious: Pulisic needs to start and play a key role. The 18-year-old phenom scored a goal and had three assists against Honduras and Panama, looking dangerous almost every time he had the ball. He was the most dangerous player in Saturday's 1-1 friendly draw with Venezuela, scoring the lone goal. In a year, he's gone from his first appearance for the Stars and Stripes to arguably the best attacking player on the roster.
Arena has had Pulisic play two separate positions. At home against Honduras, he started at the top of the midfield diamond under the two forwards, focusing on going forward and spurring the attack. In the match with Panama, the Americans played a more defensive formation with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones partnering in the center. Pulisic and found some space on the wing, although his impact was limited because he had less time on the ball. (Yet he still created the U.S.'s only goal with a stellar individual effort.)
The key is to move the teenager around the field to find the spot where he can be the most effective facilitator.
"As the opposition is stronger centrally, the way Pulisic can affect the game will be different. It won't be underneath the two-forward pairing. It will be out wide like you saw against Panama. Bruce will be trying to isolate him out wide at the expense of a full-back or center-back," former U.S. forward Herculez Gomez said. "If he's in the center, he's going to get the brunt of that impact. He's going to attract a lot more attention. The space is going to be out wide anyway, so you should take advantage of that.
"Against Panama, I thought Bruce was genius because he knew that you don't want to keep Pulisic in the middle if his impact is going to be decreased. He found ways to get him on the ball. He found ways for him to be impactful."
Similarly, the shape of the midfield will determine where Pulisic starts. This is perhaps the biggest decision Arena faces: whether to line up like the U.S. did against Honduras, or the version of the 4-4-2 it brought out against Panama. Is the solution to be aggressive at home, starting three attack-minded midfielders such as Pulisic, Nagbe and Johnson, but more defensive on the road with Nagbe, Bradley, Acosta and Pulisic? Former American national team left-back Heath Pearce, who played a fair number of CONCACAF road qualifiers, believes it is.
"I don't think it's realistic that the U.S. is going to go down and really, really play anyone off the pitch in the foreseeable future," said Pearce. "[On the road], it's about having those pieces on the field who can create that X factor, create that goal and create that something out of nothing but still make sure you still have the cover at the back."
Eric Wynalda disagrees. He wants the U.S. to take it to the opposition regardless of the location because it simultaneously bolsters the attack while creating clear roles for everyone on the field.
"I am in the mindset that the more dynamic our team is, the better off we will be," he said, spoken like a true forward. "When we play a diamond and we play with one central midfielder -- not Michael and Jermaine, just one of them -- we are much more dynamic team. We are a team that puts the opposition on the back foot."
He continued: "Michael is a lot better when he's put in a simpler role. To sit. To chase what he needs to chase. He can cover a lot of ground, and he doesn't have to share it with someone in a defensive role."
Something else we've learned in 2017: In Dempsey we trust.
"The one constant is that when it's clutch, when it's go time and the lights are on, the one guy who really takes to the moment has always been Clint," Gomez said. "That's the difference. When you expect something and need something, Clint is always there. You can say whatever you want about him -- anything you want about him -- but you can't deny that." Dempsey showed that ability with his hat trick against Honduras and more so when scoring against Panama, making a difficult finish look almost effortless.
In my mind, four players must start: Pulisic, Dempsey, Bradley -- yes, still, because while he struggles when asked to be the best player, he still makes everyone on the field better -- and Nagbe. (Wynalda's observation about the silky-smooth Portland Timbers midfielder: "The greatest plays he makes in games are when nobody is moving for him. That's an indication of his talent.")
The final two spots in a front six depend on fitness and form. In a vacuum, I'd go with Johnson and Altidore, although Acosta, Bedoya, Wood and Morris could get spot starts depending on the situation. In terms of shape, an attacking diamond midfield is the way to go at home. I suspect we'll start to see it more on the road, as well, assuming the U.S.'s place in the Hexagonal continues to improve.
Ultimately, a dynamic attack helps the back line. The truth about the American squad is that it isn't good enough to make things complicated; therefore, the worst possible coaching decision is the one that's overthought. Jurgen Klinsmann did this on a regular basis. Arena knows what he has and deploys his charges in places where they can succeed. That's the difference between zero points and four from a week of difficult game.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.