U.S. has depth issues as Bruce Arena preps for Serbia, World Cup qualifiers
SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- At the beginning of his five-year tenure as coach of the U.S. national team, Jurgen Klinsmann often attempted (with little success) to deploy the Americans in an attack-minded 4-3-3 formation.
On Sunday against Serbia (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) and five days later in another friendly against Jamaica, Bruce Arena, who replaced Klinsmann after the Yanks lost the first two games of the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia last year, could give the system another look.
If he does, and if it's successful, he might even line the U.S. up that way for two crucial late-March qualifiers against Honduras and Panama.
"I think what you see in these next two games [formation-wise] is likely what you'll see in March," Arena said on Saturday during his prematch news conference.
Arena mostly went with a traditional 4-4-2 set during his first stint as the American manager from 1998 to 2006. Bob Bradley used it when he succeeded Arena; even Klinsmann reverted to it often over the last few years, including in his final match, a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica in November that ultimately cost him his job.
Arena has often said that fans and the media make more of how teams line up than they should, and he's right. But he has also identified the need for more creativity in center midfield, and moving to the 4-3-3 would allow him to deploy a string-puller like Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber behind central striker Jozy Altidore, while also providing Altidore support on either side. And given the personnel at his disposal -- Arena also has to figure out how to keep veteran center midfielders and lineup mainstays Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones on the field -- the switch makes a lot of sense.
If nothing else, it will provide Arena some badly needed information ahead of the matches that count.
"The game [on Sunday] will provide a good test for us," Arena said. "We need to answer some questions we have with our roster."
For example: Who will play in Jones' spot against Honduras? The 35-year-old is suspended for that match because of yellow card accumulation. Among the candidates to replace Jones is Sebastian Lletget, who spent the past two MLS seasons playing for Arena with the LA Galaxy. Lletget could even make his international debut on Sunday, likely as a second-half substitute.
"We've used him primarily as a No. 8 in this camp," Arena said of Lletget, who also earned minutes on the outside with Arena's Galaxy squads. "He's played well over the last couple of weeks and he's going to see some time."
Arena desperately needs to assess his depth at the two full-back spots, too.
First-choice left back Fabian Johnson just returned from injury with German club Borussia Monchengladbach, playing the final minutes of Saturday's 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen. Greg Garza is competing with DaMarcus Beasley and Jorge Villafana for the role. On the right, Arena needs cover for DeAndre Yedlin, as presumed backup Timmy Chandler is also suspended -- one reason why 2014 alum Graham Zusi has been converted from a winger to a defender this month. Expect Zusi to get a long look on Sunday.
"Our biggest question marks in this camp and as we move forward," Arena said, "is to try to address our thinness in the outside-back positions."
There are other concerns in defense too. Starting central defender Geoff Cameron (knee) hasn't played for Premier League team Stoke City since October, while his usual partner, John Brooks, has missed games because of back and leg problems this season with Hertha Berlin. If either can't play in March, MLS players such as Steve Birnbaum and Chad Marshall will need to be ready to step in.
Up top, Darlington Nagbe -- who never made a start under Klinsmann -- could be in line to replace the Galaxy's Gyasi Zardes on the wing. Zardes left camp on Friday with a bruised knee.
"We need to look at these games and consider all these players as possibilities for our roster in March," Arena said.
He'll also get to try out the 4-3-3 in a relatively forgiving setting. Altidore cautioned that there will be some growing pains even though the team trained in this system earlier this week.
"It's a tough part of the year to really evaluate those type of things but the signs are encouraging," said Altidore, who will win his 100th cap when the whistle blows against Serbia. Altidore played in the 4-3-3 during the two years he spent with Dutch club AZ Alkmaar.
"It's a great formation when it works well," he added. "Hopefully we can make it work."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.