Lineup options are many for match with Italy
HAMBURG, Germany -- In the aftermath of the United States' 3-0 thumping at the hands of the Czech Republic, coach Bruce Arena said, "Obviously, we need to make a couple of changes [to the lineup]."
Of course, this is akin to Gen. George Custer -- had he lived -- promising adjustments after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Fortunately, Arena is still around, but in looking at his options, some of the potential alterations aren't as cut and dried as one might think.
Defensively, it seems Arena won't make too many modifications. At Tuesday's news conference, Arena pronounced himself satisfied with the play of his back line despite its well-documented breakdowns.
"I think defensively we played quite well," Arena said. "Especially in the first half, oddly enough, because we ended up being down two goals. I think our two center backs played quite well."
Out wide might be another issue. Sliding Carlos Bocanegra in at left back remains an option, but the Fulham defender's limitations, as well as Arena's comments, would seem to preclude such a change.
When it came to his offense, however, Arena wasn't as forgiving.
"Technically, it was the worst I've seen our team play in a long time," Arena said. "We didn't pass well. We weren't good at serving crosses or on set pieces."
Given the feebleness of the U.S. attack, it seems clear the likes of Eddie Johnson, John O'Brien and Clint Dempsey are candidates for the starting 11 Saturday against Italy. In the case of Johnson, his obvious lack of fear when he took the field against the Czechs, and his willingness to strike at goal, would seem sufficient proof he deserves a spot up top alongside Brian McBride.
O'Brien, even if he's only good for 60 minutes or so, also would seem a prime candidate to take the field. Pablo Mastroeni gave scant support to Claudio Reyna on Monday, forcing the U.S. captain to drop so deep to get the ball that it limited his ability to contribute in the attacking half of the field. Including O'Brien would distribute the creative burden more evenly without sacrificing much in defense.
The inclusion of Dempsey has its share of risk. The Texan's mediocre defense is the primary reason he isn't already in the lineup, and in a game where conceding even one goal would have dire consequences, Arena might decide it's a risk not worth taking. But this is a game the Americans need to win, and the kind of swashbuckling attitude Dempsey brings to the field could prove inspirational to his teammates.
Throwing a wrench into these plans is the problem of how to arrive at a lineup that includes not only those three players but also Landon Donovan and Reyna. The issue of how to accommodate the latter two players is one Arena often has been able to avoid. Reyna's numerous injuries, as well as his self-imposed exile from the national team one year ago, meant Donovan could line up as an attacking midfielder, a position that seems to better suit him at the international level. But when both are available, it has the effect of limiting Arena's other lineup choices.
If Arena plays four in the back, it forces Donovan to play underneath a central striker, namely McBride. A central midfield pairing of Donovan and Reyna is too frail defensively to work. At a minimum, Reyna needs a player beside him who is his defensive equal, a requirement O'Brien fills to a tee. But if Arena pushes Donovan up top, Johnson or Dempsey has to sit.
Another option is to play a 3-5-2. That would let Johnson partner McBride and allow Donovan, Reyna, and O'Brien to occupy the middle. But this would condemn not only Dempsey but also Bobby Convey to the bench. Neither player's defensive shortcomings can be risked playing a wingback position.
One compromise is to play Reyna or Donovan at right mid in a 4-4-2. Given Reyna's better form at the moment, Donovan is the more likely candidate to be pushed wide. Because less would be demanded of him from a creative standpoint, it's a role that might agree with him. However, Donovan hasn't suited up there once this year, and that scenario contains the added detriment of forcing Dempsey to sit. And so it goes. Square peg, meet round hole.
Granted, another answer is to do the heretofore unthinkable and sit Donovan. Given that Donovan has struggled since the early part of the year, there is compelling evidence for such a move. But benching the Golden Boy of American soccer smacks of panic, and the U.S. coach's comments Tuesday seem to indicate he's going to give Donovan another chance.
"[Donovan] could have played better, and he knows he could have played better," Arena said. "I'm sure he'll pick it up on Saturday."
It seems unlikely DaMarcus Beasley will get the same opportunity. Arena will not have taken kindly to Beasley's postgame suggestion that the U.S. coach should have played him in a 4-3-3 to start the second half, thus freeing him of his defensive responsibilities, especially given that Beasley's offensive game was MIA.
At Thursday's news conference, Arena claimed all was well when he told reporters, "There are no problems with [Beasley], and there never have been." That might be so, but I still don't see the PSV Eindhoven attacker making the starting lineup.
If I were picking the team, I'd put Reyna and O'Brien in the middle and Johnson up top with McBride, with Convey on the left. Donovan would line up on the right with the understanding that he's on a very short leash. Another half of nondescript play Saturday, and Arena will find it very difficult to keep him on the field.
Regardless what direction the U.S. coach goes in, the hope is that even if Arena's moves don't pay off, the Yanks will possess more of a fighting spirit than they showed Monday.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org