With two matches left in World Cup qualifying, Bruce Arena and the U.S. Men’s National Team cannot afford to get it wrong. The margin for error is all but gone. It disappeared last month.
Now, that means Arena has some decisions to make, and those decisions could be vital when it comes to securing a World Cup spot. Without several regulars in the squad, Arena will need to mix and match some things while assembling a team equipped to take down a tough Panama team on Friday in Orlando.
For years, Panama has played the U.S. tough, showing a strong defensive posture and the ability to find the one or two goals needed to make the difference. Friday’s match won’t be easy by any means, but it is a virtual must-win for the USMNT.
With that in mind, here’s a look at one possible lineup we could see on Friday:
Bruce Arena clearly has several tactical choices to make, but the group as assembled is one that should shine in a three-at-the-back set. There’s a wealth of solid centerback options, and the U.S. should rely on that relative strength to offer a bit more tactical flexibility throughout Friday’s match. The formation worked well against Mexico and Honduras. It can shift from a three to a five back to a three depending on the scenario, but one would expect to see the U.S. pushing forward with a bulk of possession.
With the formation, DeAndre Yedlin is free to create mismatches out wide, using his speed to cause trouble down the line. On the other side, the U.S. can go with a more conservative option like Jorge Villafana or even DaMarcus Beasley, but Paul Arriola is faster and more creative than the two. He has experience in this role from Club Tijuana and, even if he’s probably better on the right side, he fits just fine in a left wingback spot.
Centrally, you can rely on Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream, even if all three looked pretty bad in September. Cameron and Gonzalez have too many good USMNT performances between them to think that September issues were just a blip. Ream, meanwhile, hasn’t always been solid, but he’s been more than good enough in the Championship to justify his spot ahead of someone like Matt Besler.
With Yedlin more or less patrolling the right, Christian Pulisic is free to tuck in. His best position is still up for debate, and he’s probably not a pure No. 10, but, in a match like this, you want Pulisic taking as many touches as possible. Centrally, he should get on the ball plenty, which is good news for a U.S. team that saw its best playmaker isolated on the wing against Costa Rica last month.
Up top, the duo of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood return with Clint Dempsey waiting in the wings as a super-sub option. Altidore and Michael Bradley have experience in a three-at-the-back set dating back to the 2016 season, making both more than comfortable with the tactics. Wood can play the role of Sebastian Giovinco to some degree, drifting out a little bit more and using his speed and workrate to cause problems.
Overall, you look at the squad and the formation should be a bit more familiar than it was even a year ago. There should be a level of comfort, and that comfort is vital against Panama. If the U.S. can attack in numbers and frustrate a somewhat slow Panama defense, they should create chances. Burying those chances will be key and, if the U.S. can, a World Cup ticket will rapidly look a bit more clear.