Arena faces lineup decisions and must inspire U.S. bounce-back vs. Honduras
HARRISON, N.J. -- The infrequency with which World Cup qualifying games are held often turns the journey into an emotional roller-coaster ride. Losses, in particular, can leave those involved looking for the Dramamine.
That also goes for assessing individual performances; there's precious little time to experiment, and every personnel decision has to be weighed carefully. Is a poor game from one player reason to drop him from the lineup, or should the manager give him a chance to recover? How much does team chemistry factor into things?
Maintaining equilibrium is a constant process, and as U.S. manager Bruce Arena addressed the media following Friday's 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, one could almost see him wrestling with this very issue.
"You hate to look at one game and not look at the whole," he said.
Yet the challenges relating to personnel remain ahead of Tuesday's qualifier against Honduras, who trail the U.S. on goal difference for the last automatic qualifying place. Without question there were plenty of subpar individual performances against the Ticos. Add in Jozy Altidore's suspension for yellow card accumulation, plus the usual four days between games, and Arena is almost certain to ring at least a few changes. But how many?
The previous fixture period in June involved matches against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico and saw Arena make a whopping seven alterations from one game to the next. Granted, in that instance there were exceptional circumstances, notably a scheduling quirk due to Mexico's Confederation Cup commitments, which meant there was one fewer day to prepare. Recovery, especially given that both games were held at altitude, was more of a consideration than usual.
In March, Arena's first qualifiers since he took over in November 2016, had proved to be much different. For the trip to Panama, there was also the inclination for Arena to keep faith with players coming off a 6-0 win over Honduras. In the end, he made just three changes, because of injuries suffered by Geoff Cameron and Sebastian Lletget and John Brooks' sinus infection. Jermaine Jones was also coming back from suspension.
Friday's performance means Arena need not dole out any such rewards. In goal, Tim Howard had nothing close to his best performance and was especially culpable on Marco Urena's first goal. But he also delivered some sharp displays in the Gold Cup, so can he bounce back? Arena didn't hesitate in turning to Brad Guzan for the Mexico match and would be well within his rights to do the same again.
In the back, there were complaints that full-backs Jorge Villafana and Graham Zusi didn't get forward enough, but defensively they held up well, so it makes sense to continue with those two. The big question is in the middle, where Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron did not distinguish themselves.
Cameron has been a hugely influential figure this cycle, especially in terms of his organizational abilities, so it was something of a surprise to see him and Ream not always on the same page. The Stoke defender's distribution was hugely inconsistent as well, most notably when his giveaway led to Urena's second goal.
But Cameron does have previous experience playing in Honduras in a World Cup qualifier. That could be enough for Arena to keep faith in him and have him remain in the lineup. Meanwhile, given there was mild surprise that the steadying presence of Matt Besler wasn't preferred vs. Costa Rica, his inclusion on Tuesday would seem to make sense.
In midfield, Arena has tended to go with a more defensive-minded quartet for road qualifiers. Given Fabian Johnson's lack of sharpness against Costa Rica, as well as the fact that he's just coming off a back injury, it makes sense for Darlington Nagbe to take his place on the left wing, with Christian Pulisic on the other flank.
That leaves a question as to who partners Michael Bradley in the middle. Kellyn Acosta did the job against Mexico at the Azteca, but he has endured uneven performances at the club level as well as at the Gold Cup, and for that reason, another option is Alejandro Bedoya.
The 30-year-old has plenty of experience and provides the kind of two-way presence that the U.S. will need against the Catrachos. The decision comes down to whether Arena values youth or experience, and how much concern he has about Acosta's current form.
Up top, Altidore's suspension leaves an opening. There is a strong inclination to go with an all-Seattle duo of Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris, except that Dempsey and Bobby Wood have teamed up well together in the past for the national team, especially at the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
Wood's mobility -- not only north-south, but also east-west -- has the effect of pulling defenders with him, and that helps create more space for Dempsey to drop in between the lines, which he prefers. That leaves Morris to fill the impact sub role.
Another approach would be to put Pulisic in a more central role in a 4-2-3-1, where he excelled in home games vs. Honduras and T&T. It would also mean he had sufficient defensive cover behind him; the only problem is that, historically, the U.S. has rarely excelled in a single-striker alignment, with the forward often left isolated.
Arena also could go with three center backs as he did in Mexico, but that seemed a one-off for a day on which the U.S. was going to do a ton of defending at altitude on short rest. All told, some variant of the 4-4-2 appears to be Arena's most likely approach.
The psychological aspect can't be ignored, either. On the one hand, this is a veteran group that likely won't be fazed by the challenge of playing in Honduras. On the other, this team has shown lots of inconsistency in this cycle, backing itself into corners. It has managed to survive in one piece, albeit with a few scars.
This is an area that has long been a strength for Arena. He'll need to be at his man-management best, and most importantly, his players will need to respond in order for the U.S. to come out of Tuesday's match with its Russia 2018 qualifying hopes intact.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.