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Who Should the USMNT start vs. El Salvador?

Photo by David Richard/USA Today Sports

With several U.S. Men’s National Team stars now at his disposal, Bruce Arena has plenty of options to mix and match his lineup heading into the first match of the knockout stage.

The USMNT successfully navigated the group stage with Arena’s experimental roster, and that roster blends with a crop of USMNT veterans beginning with Wednesday’s quarterfinal against El Salvador. It’s match the USMNT is favored to win, but margins are always slim when you get this far in the tournament.

With that in mind, Arena has some decisions to make. Does he deploy stars like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley in an effort to seal a semifinal place, or does he look to ease past El Salvador with one eye on a potential semifinal clash with Costa Rica?

Here’s a look at how we could see the USMNT line up on Wednesday:

Some thoughts:

Bruce Arena took the opportunity to bring in some of the USMNT’s big guns, and he’ll get the chance to use them immediately against El Salvador.

First-team regulars Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Darlington Nagbe, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore have been in camp for several extra days and each should now be fully integrated to the group remaining from the group stage. One would expect Arena to field a strong lineup on Wednesday featuring many if not all of the names listed above.

Starting Bradley in the midfield seems the most important as it would allow Arena to get another look at the Kellyn Acosta/Bradley dynamic. The two have looked good together in their limited minutes so far and all signs point to the pairing as a potential foundation block for Russia 2018. Acosta has struggled a bit through his opening Gold Cup performances, but pairing him with Bradley could get him back on track.

Atop the field, it’ll be time to unleash the heavy artillery with Altidore and Dempsey in the fold. It would be wise to limit Dempsey’s minutes with a potential match against Costa Rica looming, making Jordan Morris an option to start up top as well. With the USMNT career goal-scoring record in sight, though, Dempsey will be ready to go throughout this Gold Cup run.

Howard is all but guaranteed to start per Arena. The defense in front of him, meanwhile, could certainly feature the first team group. Jorge Villafana is in need of a bounce-back performance while Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler remain the USMNT’s most sturdy centerback pairing within this current squad. Graham Zusi, meanwhile, could always use further seasoning at right back if he’s expected to compete for a roster spot next summer.

With all of this in mind, could the U.S. beat El Salvador with a weakened lineup? Yes. Are they the better team on paper? Absolutely. Would it be nice to save some of the big guns for Costa Rica? You bet. However, now isn’t the time for messing around or getting too cute, and Arena knows that. You have to win to keep going, and expect Arena to play to win with his lineup choice on Wednesday.


  1. I don’t get this from Bruce Arena. WHy in the hell you call Miazga and Lichaj and if you dont want to play them.. Especially Miazga, Bruce is going to kill his career if he doesn’t used him. Conte probably thinking hey if Bruce Arena doesn’t use him playing with lesser team why do I need him at Chealse.. That is the problem with the coaches that USA team always hire. They don’t think that they are doing harm to this players career. And Lichaj is way better than Suzi why in the hell not used him. Why not used new kids like Canada doing with this kid who is only 17yrs. Look a Pulisic only 18 or 19yrs of age and he play way better than most of the Senior on this team. or give Boyd, ArJo, Wright, Junios Flores, Perez, or other kids.

  2. Why didn’t Boyd get called in? He’s played well when given minutes in Bundesliga…though he currently wouldn’t be considered in our 23. Boyd deserves a chance in a tournament like this to see what he can offer now.

    • Boyd actually earned his first Bundesliga minutes last spring 378 of them in fact, with one goal. By the end of the season, he was relegated to the did not play portion of the bench. He is with Darmstadt attempting to earn a starting place, he is where he needs to be. Since they were relegated to 2.Bundesliga Darmstadt’s season actually begins July 29th so to be with the national team for the GC would have severely hampered his chances of seeing minutes early in the season.

      • I must have seen his only goal, I’ve seen other posts claiming he was playing well though. I mostly meant by my point that I’d rather see ‘new’ players who can possibly earn a WC squad spot rather than those who have already penciled one in (ie Altidore).

      • He’s been playing with the first team side so far in preseason, Gaines played with second team this week when Darmstadt played two matches on the same day. With 2.Bundesliga starting earlier there is just no way Boyd could have been brought in.

  3. It seems we should be evaluating newer players to complete the WC roster. I don’t see a need to start Altidore, Bradley, Dempsey or Howard against El Salvador…

    • yeah i agree with this mentality…..i’m good with Bruce bringing in the big guns but i also think we can afford to play more of the “B teamers” for this match to see how they respond in a quarterfinal, and then bring in the top dogs for the Costa Rica game

  4. I think Zardes will be on the field. I would like to see Lichaj and Miazga as well. I am not as down on Villafana as most here seem to be and think he will start. Dempsey, Altidore, Bradley, Nagbe and Howard will all start. I fully expect Morris and or Agudelo to replace Altidore and Dempsey at around 60 minutes if the US has a lead. The remaining sub will be held in case of injury or to simply defend to protect a lead late in the game.

  5. I’ll say we need a CAM so I’d go with







    I would say Agudelo instead of Morris but the Morris / Dempsey partnership with be better, as would the Bradley / Altidore partnership.
    Gonzo instead of Hedges as Villafana and Gonzo should be use to the “south of the Boarder” style of play

    USMNT 2 vs EL Salvador 1

    • Ok, who highjacked Bizzy’s account, starting both Bradley and Altidore this can’t really be you Bizzy. DLOA did you sign in as Bizzy?

      • hahahahaha….very funny Johnnyrazor. The midfield is all over the place right now and Acosta’s athletic abilities is not giving us the advantage we thought. As much as I hate to admit it I think the TFC (Altidore / Bradley…..yes Altidore lol) and Sounders (Morris / Dempsey) partnerships will bring a little more stability and fluidity between midfield and forwards.

  6. I’m good with the midfield and forwards (although I’d prefer to save Dempsey for the last 20-30 minutes). But the outside backs give me heartburn. Neither Villafana or Zusi have done anything to merit continued consideration. Lichag should start ahead of GZ. Morrow didn’t impress, but let’s give him another shot. Can’t be much worse than JV.

    • Villafana hasn’t given up any goals, has at least 3 assist and should have more if our finishing was better, so i really don’t get the consternation with him??!! Has he had some struggles defensively, sure, but he is more of an attacking wingback and hopefully he gets that aspect of his game more solidified with repetition.

    • We think alike.

      Definitely would prefer even a kinda gimpy, heavier-footed-than-usual Zardes over Arriola. Yes, he bangs bad touches around and often seems to have wooden paddles for feet. Zardes still brings something even at his current 75% form and Arriola has not been good anyway.

      I personally like Zusi, I like his grit and intensity and drive, especially in key moments, but I am not a fan of his defending, yet. I think Lichaj is less likable and far more workmanlike in his approach and probably a step slower, but he’s exceptionally clean technically and very sound defensively. With almost a year left until Russia I could see either – or neither – being on the plane to Russia at the moment. So let’s make it an open competition and see equal amounts of both.

      • I like Zusi, but feel he is a step below the national team level. He has been a split second late in his decision making several times over that makes me think he is not suited to this position.
        Maybe Arena’s thinking is that on the WC roster he can be the utility knife player who can play across the midfield and backup RB in a pinch. A player like that could be incredibly useful with the limited roster capacity but, I just don’t see it right now.

  7. I can’t believe we are still so reliant on these old retreads. Altidore can’t cut it against better than average squads, Dempsey is too old, Bradley hasn’t been good in years, Howard is an average MLS keeper. This team heading into the World Cup is no better than 4 years ago, and probably worse, as we continue to rely on the same players who are 4 years older and 4 years slower.

    That said, after how this team looked the first 3 games, what other options are there? I would start bringing McKennie, Wright, Sargeant, EPB, CCV into the mix, but that ain’t happening.

    I have resigned myself to the fact we will have zero progress until after WC18. It’ll be pretty much the same team we’ve seen for 5-10 years, and we will have the same results. The only new, exciting player really is Pulisic (and Nagbe, to a lesser extent).

    The bigger question is how long after WC18 do we rely on the “big guns” who aren’t even good? Do they get removed from the squad immediately, or do we have to suffer through another cycle/half cycle? I’m not even sure what the media will do without the CAPTAIN, Guzan/Howard “competition”, and Jozy scoring a bit against weak Concacaf teams followed by disappearing in any game of importance?

    It’d be one thing if these guys were at high levels in Europe, but they are basically guaranteed spots in the team despite being generally average MLS players. Just a real boring past year/next few years to be following USMNT.

    • OMG, the cause is hopeless, we should just all give up. Since you haven’t been paying attention, Brooks and Yedlin are young, Nagbe is relatively new and youthful, Morris is only 21 or so and shows promise and Wood is only about 24. Altidore is 27 and, since you seem to forget, was the second leading scorer in the Dutch league before going to sunderland. He’s not that bad. And the US performance in the 2014 World Cup was actually pretty good. Better than that of England or Italy, for example.

      • Jozy leading scorer in the Dutch league? How many years ago was that? If he’s the “big gun”, I assume he’s leading MLS in scoring most years? And since all those Dutch goals somehow apply to current performance, I assume all his Sunderland/Hull goals can be referenced too? Jozy stinks.

        Not really saying to give up, just pretty bad the state of the squad, and how we keep running through, again, our “big guns” even though these guys aren’t even good. Bradley has parlayed success 6 years ago in Italy (like your previously referenced Jozy in the Dutch league) into unquestioned spots on the team even though they are avg/above avg MLS guys now.

        If McKennie gets ANY time in the Bundesliga the start of this season, he needs to be on the team. Same with Wright, Gooch, Hyndman, Williams. Agreed they can’t be brought in just for youth team success, but any time in these leagues is more impressive than average MLS player like MB.

        Nagbe new and youthful??? LOLLLLLL. He’s what, 27? Hedges is new and youthful too! Woohoo!

        I’ll give you Yedlin and Brooks. Both good/very good players.

      • Swy 19, Jozy (68 matches) is second among Americans in MLS scoring the last three seasons one goal behind Wondo(80 matches), and ahead of Dwyer, Dempsey, Agudelo, Sapong, and Morris (only 2 years of play). He also has 12 International goals over that time only Dempsey has more with 17. You are correct that if all of those players you named are seeing significant time they should be considered, but as of now none of them are, in real games.

    • Reality check: look at old US rosters from U-20 world cups and see how many pan out. From 2015 there are 3 players so far who have emerged, Miazga, Acosta, and Arriola. 2013, Yedlin and Acosta. 2011 didn’t make it. 2009, Diskerud, Shea, Johnson. 2007, Altidore, Bradley, Rogers, McCarty. 2005, Spector, Feilhaber, Kljestan, Evans. 2003, E. Johnson, Convey, Clark, Dempsey. 2001, Gooch, Donovan, Beasley, Casey.

      Usually a chunk of the teams, which seemed like our best and brightest, can’t even cut it as senior professionals, some become journeymen pros, maybe 10-20% keep going in the pipeline to USMNT. It’s kind of like talking up draft picks. Talk to me in 5 years about who has panned out.

      Particularly with how Adu flamed out I want to see them elevated on their own merits from club ball production and not jumped all the way to MNT on youth play.

      • I feel like this should be a disclaimer in the fine print of every soccer website…Most great youth national team players do not turn into great senior national team players. There are a million reasons that factor into this, but it just has not hit home for some people…Half the guys from the most recent U-20 probably will not even be MLS starters in 5 years.

        You mentioned Adu as an example of a flame out and I would like to add Agudelo as a cautionary tale. Giving young impressionable players too many accolades before they have earned anything can be detrimental to their long term success. The jump from great youth player to even decent senior player is still a big one that requires grit and determination. Giving Agudelo 15 or so senior caps as a 17-19 year old probably turned out to be a major mistake. He was a very talented young player, but was not really producing in MLS yet. By all accounts he had a big attitude problem and his development plateaued. This isn’t to say its the sole reason for his lack of success so far, but I think it is worth remembering. These young players need to prove they are worthy of a roster spot on the national team with their clubs.
        Wright, Mckennie, Sargent, EPB etc…None are ready yet, and I would be surprised if even 2 of these guys has more than 20 caps 5 years from now.

    • Only exceptions I would make are heavily-in-demand players to cap-tie. Otherwise, yeah it’s nice you were on U-20 but you didn’t win the tournament and the odds tend to show only so many of you can make the jump to club professionalism much less national team.

    • Agree 100% swy19. The fact we’re still relying on Dempsey, Bradley, Howard, Zusi, Bedoya, and Altidore to save the day is disturbing. Altidore was good when he played in Europe, but he’s not the same player now. Neither is Bradley. or Howard. or Dempsey. Yes, these MLS heroes should be the likes of Nicaragua and El Salvador. However, they’re not the answer and will get torched against better competition. Give me Morales and Williams over Bradley and Dax (or Acosta), CCV over Scared Bunny Besler, Lichaj over Zusi, Horvath over Howard, Saif over Bedoya, Green over Morris, Zelalem and over Nagbe…

    • The only bored one here will be you. I’m sure everyone else will enjoy following the team over the next few years. Trollers gotta troll. I thought I raised you better than this.

    • Do you really think the USMNT is the only team around the world that will use several of the same players in Russia this summer that alos played in Brazil?? It’s all fine to say that we need to infuse some more young talent into the team but the truth is that not a lot of the these youngsters are ready to fully contribute to the full team. I think the US is doing an adequate job of intergrating the ones that are playing consistently with their club teams, the ones who aren’t shouldn’t be in the team, period, the USMNT is not a springboard for getting players better!

  8. F Gonzalez and F Zusi. Those clowns have been crap and will almost definitely be responsible for a cheap goal (maybe one apiece).

  9. About the only change I would make from this projected line-up is, depending on how they look at practice, putting Zardes ahead of Arriola. 2 reasons, Zardes has a little more speed and experience and is better at stretching the defense and, more importantly, he is good at help defense and Zusi will probably need help from the winger.

    • If he needs help on defense then that’s why arriola should start, he plays as a wing back for club and he helped plenty defensively against Mexico. If arriola would have scored that goal on Saturday know body would probably question him starting.

      • *not Saturday sorry, the goal he missed last week when sliding in and sent it over the net

  10. Yes, the empty bucket returns to provide few scoring opportunities for the US and plenty of turnovers deep in our own end for El Salvador. It does keep posters “happy” because Jozy and Clint will look ineffectual and lazy because their only service will be fifty yard hopeful balls from Bradley, Bradley will be criticized because he will have no one to link to and likely turn the ball over. Zusi and Villafana will find themselves in one on one situations as well so, everyone will have something to complain about.

    • Villafana and Zusi have, with rare exceptions, generally been poor at wingback, so I don’t buy blaming others for their lack of foot speed.

      Who is the magic missing playmaker? I know Pulisic is one but the problem is central mid depth in general, whether churning the DMs or finding other playmakers. Quite a few players with more attacking or defensive mindsets just got weeks of training and chances to shine and few if any did. So I anticipate Bradley Nagbe Acosta by default.

      I am more concerned at the lack of quality players on the wings with foot speed. Part of what emphasizes the plodding playmaking is the lack of burner speed on the wings. Every buildup is a little too direct, slow, and predictable.

      I’m also concerned a leaky defense was untouched.

      • Who are our options for foot speed on the wing? Who on the roster can improve the back line? Options are limited…

        Bradley will help shore up the middle of the field. Nagbe will be a much more disruptive force than everyone we have played on the left so far and I expect Zardes to man the right wing. We know he will work hard all night and can get in the box when needed. Expect this to look like a 4-3-3 at times and we will walk from El Salvador easy winners. Lets not get too worried about a home game vs this team…

        That said, if we see continued struggle from any of the back 4 or Acosta in this game they need to see the bench for the semis. All of 5 of those guys have been average at best against significantly inferior opposition. With the “reinforcements” in place there are no more excuses for a sub par game. Perform or get replaced.

      • i’m miffed by this infatuation with so called “speedy” wingers for this team. If you look around the world of football there are plnty of teams that don’t have these speed guys on the outside and Germany comes to mind as one of them. Speed, while it helps, is not the end all be all and i think the guys for Team USA can be very productive out there without having blazing speed. Nagbe is not slow, by any margin, and Pulisic or Arriola are pacy as well. We just need to play better as a team and the rest will sort itself out.

        I’m more interested to know why Bruce continues to trot Zusi out there at RB when we have Lichaj, who has played the position at a high level for going on 10 years in europe. I can deal with Villafana on the other side getting caught upfield from time to time because he provides something getting forward that none of our other outside backs can, and becoming a true lockdown defender is typically the last thing a attacking type wingback masters.

      • Ronniet, two theories on the speedy wingers, one they are a huge advantage in FIFA video games so they must be in real life, two in the past the US used to be able to hit it deep down the wings and let Landon or Beasley run onto it when they couldn’t build through the middle. Since we don’t have great build up players at this point a solution is to get faster wings. I’m not saying either of those is correct thinking just that might be why people think that way.

        Zusi vs Lichaj: If we see Zusi out there again tonight, then you have to assume the coaching staff rate him better. I’ve only seen the Martinique match in the GC, but have seen quite a few SKC matches and Zusi has played very well in MLS at RB. Lichaj is just beginning his preseason whereas, Zusi is in season so that could be some of it as well. If Arena is the second manager to not rate Lichaj then we have to just assume he isn’t better than Zusi and he doesn’t want to or can’t play LB at this point in his career. That being said it wouldn’t surprise me if he started tonight.

    • It wouldn’t surprise me to see the lineup Ryan suggested as I think Bruce will still be in close to the vest mode since El Salvador is not great. Nagbe will likely tuck in some with Villafana filling down the line, but that still leaves the right side of the field disconnected forcing all the build up to one side. I would as Gary suggested slide Zardes then into the right side and balance it out. This formation worked for us when we had LD and Bease on the wings and we could just dump it and run, but that isn’t where our best players are now.


      Think US vs Guatemala in Colombus. Not the best position for Altidore, but why bring in him and Deuce if not to start both. Not tied to Omar or Zusi, having only seen the Martinique game, could go with Miazga and Lichaj. Still unsure as to why Kljestan, Feilhaber, and Nguyen were all left off Bruce had to see this squad was missing a CAM which limits our formations available.


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