It’s never easy to select a national team roster, especially one prepared for a must-win situation. That’s the task Bruce Arena faces as he calls in a full U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the first time for a pair of vital World Cup qualifiers.
There’s little time to experiment as the U.S. returns to action on March 24 against Honduras before traveling to Panama four days later. After falling to Mexico and Costa Rica, the U.S. currently sits at the bottom of the Hexagonal table, making the upcoming slate of matches must-win for a team pushing for Russia 2018. Four points are all but necessary while anything less than six will do little to ease concerns following a difficult start to Hexagonal play.
After taking charge of the MLS-based January camp, Arena is now able to call in a full complement of European and Mexican-based stars. However, it’s unlikely the USMNT boss will be looking to integrate many fresh, young faces to a group that faces a pair of difficult tests.
Luckily for Arena, several familiar faces have recently returned to the fold. Tim Howard appears to be healthy, giving Arena an answer at goalkeeper. Geoff Cameron has recently returned from injury and will likely earn a starting spot now that he’s back in action. Bobby Wood enters camp as hot as can be, giving the USMNT an in-form forward to lead the way.
With that in mind, Arena faces plenty of difficult decisions as he looks to finalize a roster for qualifying.
Here’s a look at a group of players that could join the U.S. squad:
David Bingham, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando
OUTLOOK: The goalkeeping position remains a point of contention, but little doubt remains over who is at the top. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan remain one and two at the position, with the former’s recent spectacular return to the Colorado Rapids making him the likely starter against Honduras.
During last week’s Facebook chat, Arena said Nick Rimando “had a little bit of an edge” on his January camp teammates, making him a likely call in. Prior to Howard’s return, Rimando was a legitimate candidate to start for the U.S., especially given Guzan’s lack of game action outside of cup play. One thing that could be against Rimando is the fact that his club has a match during the break against Luis Robles and the Red Bulls, which could rule one of or both of the veteran goalkeepers out for the U.S.
As for young options, Arena has several, but David Bingham and William Yarbrough remain the most likely candidates for a fourth spot in camp.
MISSED THE CUT: Bill Hamid, Ethan Horvath, Luis Robles, William Yarbrough
Steve Birnbaum, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Greg Garza, Omar Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson, Eric Lichaj, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi
OUTLOOK: The first-choice defensive pairing of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron is back in the mix, a welcome sight for Arena. The two have had their ups-and-downs since commanding the U.S. backline in the Copa America but, when healthy, there’s little doubt that a Brooks-Cameron duo is the best pairing for the U.S.
As for fullbacks, DeAndre Yedlin is all but certain to start on the right if he is healthy enough to return from a recent injury. Graham Zusi will likely be called in to provide depth at both right back and in the midfield if necessary.
Left back, though, is a bit of a mystery. Arena said the goal is to push Johnson into the midfield, although, for the time being, a spot at fullback may very much be in play for the Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder. The U.S. needs to settle on a consistent left back before throwing them into World Cup qualifying so, for now, Johnson should get the nod.
There are other options, though. Arena trusts DaMarcus Beasley, but his days are obviously numbered with the national team. The USMNT boss mentioned Eric Lichaj by name, although the Nottingham Forest defender has been away from the national team for quite some time. Timmy Chandler, meanwhile, remains an option on either side, although his one-game suspension could see him left at home.
MISSED THE CUT: DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Matt Hedges, Tim Ream, Keegan Rosenberry, Jorge Villafana, Walker Zimmerman
Paul Arriola, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Sebastian Lletget, Dax McCarty, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic
OUTLOOK: The midfield picture is a bit clearer, even if Arena has a variety of options for handling the central midfield. With Jermaine Jones suspended, Arena could certainly turn to a familiar face in Sebastian Lletget, who looked very good in the role during January camp. Geoff Cameron is a player that could be pushed up the field to plug a hole as a defensive midfielder, although the U.S. is likely better served with the Stoke City star at centerback.
Regardless of who is next to him, Michael Bradley will start as the No. 6. Christian Pulisic will certainly start on one of the wings, and the thought of him sharing a side with Fabian Johnson is certainly an enticing one.
The question is how Arena balances the depth. There are younger options, players like Paul Arriola and Kellyn Acosta who have more than earned a look with their club form. There are also players like Dax McCarty and Danny Williams, who appear to be back in the picture under Arena. McCarty, in particular, could certainly earn a call-up after Arena revealed that the Fire midfielder will receive “strong consideration” going forward.
MISSED THE CUT – Kellyn Acosta, Benny Feilhaber, Emerson Hyndman, Danny Williams
Jozy Altidore, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood, Chris Wondolowski
OUTLOOK: All things considered, the forward position is likely the most clear-cut. Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood are almost certain to start while Jordan Morris provides a valuable depth option. Wood’s recent form at Hamburg has been spectacular, and it makes too much sense for Arena to reunite Wood and Altidore in a two-striker set atop the field.
In a 4-3-3, Wood could be shifted to the wing, creating a dangerous front three of Wood, Altidore and Pulisic, even if the Hamburg star is more effective down the middle. His recent upswing in defensive work is a welcome sign, regardless of where he starts.
As for the fourth spot, it’s unlikely Clint Dempsey gets called in as the U.S. program looks to take things slowly with the Seattle Sounders star. Terrence Boyd, Julian Green and Juan Agudelo remain options, while someone like Aron Johannsson is likely out due to his lack of game action with Werder Bremen.
MISSED THE CUT: Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, Julian Green, Aron Johannsson