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Who Should the USMNT Start vs. Panama?

The Gold Cup gets underway for the United States on Saturday, giving several new U.S. Men’s National Team players a chance to prove themselves in meaningful games.

A win over Ghana last Saturday gave the USMNT plenty to build off of as the real games begin this Saturday against Panama. Despite the absences of several key veterans, Panama remains the toughest group stage test the USMNT will face in the coming days.

That said, USMNT boss Bruce Arena has plenty of options. His team has had a week to prepare for the Panama match, and pretty much everyone besides the recently-added Chris Pontius should be available. That’s a positive in many ways and it also leaves Arena with some decisions to make in terms of starters.

With that in mind, here’s a look at one possible USMNT lineup:

Some thoughts:

For the USMNT, Saturday’s game is the big one, at least when it comes to the group stage. Panama is far and away the toughest team in the USMNT group. Almost any combination of players should be able to beat Martinique and Nicaragua barring something catastrophic, but Panama presents a legitimate test for this young group of USMNT call-ups. There are some missing veterans, sure, but Panama is still one of the region’s trickier teams, all things considered.

If I know that and you know that, Bruce Arena most certainly knows it. He knows that it’s important to get off to a good start, even if there is plenty of wiggle room. Given that information, it makes sense to deploy as close to a first-choice lineup as possible.

Against Ghana, the front four proved a positive surprise. Individually, you knew the group had talent, but the way they gelled almost instantly was impressive. You could tell that Joe Corona and Dom Dwyer were immediately on the same wavelength, and the two should continue together on Saturday. Kelyn Rowe had a positive performance on the wing and provide danger moments while Paul Arriola has spent the past several months proving himself, even if Saturday wasn’t his most standout performance.

The same can be said of the midfield. Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta linked up instantly. McCarty was content to play the role of deep-lying playmaker, hardly missing a pass all day, while Acosta drove forward and showed off his newfound attacking game. Would it be nice to get someone like Cristian Roldan into the mix? Sure, especially considering he didn’t make his debut on Saturday, but a substitute appearance or a start in the latter two games would make more sense.

In the defense, there are options. Matt Hedges and Matt Besler combined fairly well against Ghana, and it could be tempting to use them again. You could insert Omar Gonzalez in and reunite the Besler-Gonzalez partnership that got the USMNT through the last World Cup qualifying cycle. You could even toss in Matt Miazga, the player with the highest upside, in an effort to see just how much he’s improved since he’s moved to Chelsea.

Left back, meanwhile, is also certainly up for debate. Jorge Villafana struggled in a big way against Ghana, failing to really cope with the physicality of the match. He’s still probably the starter at this point in time but, given his struggles, it might make sense to give Eric Lichaj a run out.

In the end, Arena will have plenty of time to reshape and reshuffle his lineup over the next few weeks. On Saturday, at least, the USMNT can give the Ghana lineup another match while offering another chance to impress for several key players. One solid performance could be an aberration but if players like Dwyer, Rowe and Hedges can play well again, it may be a trend worth watching heading down the stretch.


  1. As a long time Revs fan, I am amazed at all the love Rowe is shown on this board. I did watch the game and thought he did well, made some nice passes and generally did nothing to hurt himself. However that is not the Rowe I see week in and week out. The Rev’s Rowe is constantly getting in the way, turning over the ball, plenty of bad passes but every now and then, some killer move or shot that are very impressive. Some even refer to him as “the place offense goes to die”

    Im glad hes doing well so far but really don’t see him as NAT quality but he’s not alone on Arena’s roster, I also dont see Morris as good enough and Jorge Villafana was beat like a rented mule all night long and should not play against Panama.

    As usual, I think it’s impossible to predict what Arena will do but I suspect he will start the strongest team possible in this game since Panama will be the hardest team we face in the group stage. I think Dwyer is a lock. Morris may come in late and I want to see Juan A get some time. He didnt come in to ride the bench.

  2. ———————–Dwyer—————————




    ———————Brad Guzan———————–




    ———————Brad Guzan———————–

    At this point I really don’t care about the selection…8 games no loses, “IN BRUCE WE TRUST”. I’m kinda excited about this tournament, seeing what we can do without Bradley or Altidore or Dempsey
    GO USMNT!!!!!

  3. When I look at this team it is made up of good but incomplete players. They have strengths but also weaknesses that to this point have kept them off the 1st team as a starter. In Villafana’s case, his weaknesses seem to be around flat out speed and strength. However, he has a very good soccer IQ, has very good feet, combines well with his teammates and can add to the attack. He is a pretty good one on one defender and has good quickness. However, you don’t want him defending in constant sprints in open space.

    • I agree with Nick. I thought Villafana was actually one of the players who made the US the offensive threat it was against Ghana.

  4. I think Villafana should start for this match and every other meaningful match when he is healthy. After that, FabJo should be the backup or perhaps Garza or Ream for WC qualifiers. I think we should dispense with the wishful thinking that Lichaj has a future on the USMNT as a left back. It’s not his best or preferred position. If he can’t beat out Zusi at RB, his best position, then how good could he be at LB? I realize, LB has less depth than desired, but surely there must be better options.

  5. wtf, ryan. if villafaƱa “struggled”, what would you say zusi did? i wasn’t impressed with either fullback against ghana, but if lichaj is going to replace one, it should clearly be zusi.

    • I thought Rowe looked good, and I’ve seen enough of Bedoya to know what he brings. I’d like to see more minutes from Rowe to project any contribution he can make, personally.

  6. I know we did well in creating chances vs. Ghana, but when you’re playing at home, unless it’s a much better team, you should go for the win and play at least 2 strikers.

    • Surely you have caught on by now that we are perfectly capable of playing very defensive with 2 strikers and attacking at will with only 1….. “going for the win” has much more to do with mentality and tactics than formation.
      I do agree that a 4-4-2 may suit us better than 4-2-3-1 though. It seems to showcase Corona and Roldan where I would rather us focus on Accosta handles the midfield or Agudelo/Morris plays up top.

      • Of course I’ve seen us use two strikers, I was simply saying which combos of the people at forward I would prefer.

  7. I could easily see the above as our starting XI. To me the thing that would cause me to question it is the health of Villafana. If his removal against Ghana was due to cramping than he should be given the starting nod at LB Vs. Panama….shifting Lichaj over to RB ahead of Zusi. However if Villafana was removed due to a muscle tweak (hamstring) than rest him and go with the above.

    I could also easily see Bedoya given the start over Rowe and/or Arriola if Bruce decides to go with a move veteran midfield.

    • Yeah, I agree. I am wondering if Villafana is back up to speed or nursing some minimal knock. However, I am less concerned with the back line. I am more interested to see whether we change formation. That is, do we drop McCarty/Acosta for another striker or creative midfielder? Panama is not the strongest team. Although, they have a little bit of pace and can surely surprise you if you let your guard down. On the other hand, we are playing at home and should be more offensive minded against the likes of a young/inexperienced Panama team.

      It would be interesting to see something like the following (certainly could adjust one player here or there – Agudelo, Roldan, Zardes, Villafana if fit):




      • If you want to be more attack mined I’d go with your first formation/line-up with one change. Drop Dax and insert Acosta. One thing that Panama has shown they’re good at is counter attacking, and Acosta provides greater speed and range to cover if/when the outside backs push forward.
        Using your 2nd formation I’d insert Roldan for McCarty….again provides more speed and can play a double pivot with Acosta allowing 1 or the other to venture further forward.

        I’m basically for any formation that doesn’t include McCarty, Zusi, or Gonzalez as I don’t believe any of them would provide anything that one of the younger options couldn’t provide, and IMO none of them should be in contention for a roster spot at the WC.

      • Accosta absolutely needs to start this game. He is the player with the most to play for in this tournament, and this is our only test of the group stage. We have to see this guy as much as possible to see if he is up to the challenge. Gold Cup could be where he really stakes his claim for a starting spot.

    • So much Zusi hate… Makes me laugh, especially when we are talking about a gold cup roster. Find me another national team role player that went from winger to right or left back and picked it up so quickly and efficiently enough to start game in and game out for arguably the top defense in MLS and regularly for the national team…

      • robbie rogers, i guess? and no, he wasn’t good enough, either.

        if zusi had looked good in his fullback appearances for the u.s. (sorry, mls doesn’t cut it), there wouldn’t be so many people criticizing him. i mean, props to him for being ready and willing, but come crunch time, we’re going to want someone competent back there.

      • Compare him to Robbie Rogers if you want. He’s the best RB on the gold cup roster and that’s why he continues to start. Sad but true.

      • what a facile statement. first of all, you were the one comparing him to robbie rogers with your “find me another” challenge, so that’s unfortunate, i guess.

        but to your point: no, just because zusi has been starting, it doesn’t make him the best at the job. there are many reasons—of varying rationality—why a manager may start one player over another, which i’m sure you already know.

        hell, it’s not even like lichaj is some world-class right back; he’s just better than zusi, which shouldn’t be surprising.

  8. I feel decently about our back line. For the most part, they should all rise to the demands for the vast majority of the tournament against minnows, to say. The true test will be against Mexico and CR.

  9. I don’t get the criticism of Jorge Villafana. He had a very good game against some of the fastest wingers you are likely to see. He did not have a perfect game by any stretch but other than a couple of miss-steps he was solid in the back and excellent going forward providing a constant threat from the wings. He possessed the ball confidently and was able to combine well with the players around him. His penetrating play and taking on players around the Ghana penalty area led to a US goal.

    • I think Villafana is continuing to grow still and get settled in at the international level.

      However, I don’t understand the specific critique either, when the same story praises Dax McCarty – someone that I stopped counting on how many lazy balls were given away in the midfield by him. That was a bad Ghana side, and any skilled international side would have pounced and punished him in doing so.

    • Villafana seems like the weak link in out starting 11 still to me. His forward runs are dangerous and he combines fine with the midfield, but he doesn’t always recover in time. His 1v1 defending isn’t his strength either (similar to Yedlin w/o the pace). I think he is 1st choice still, but Chandler and Lichaj are nipping at his heels. little room for error

    • Villafana’s biggest weakness at the international level and club level is he gets targeted on set pieces especially corners.
      He is really effective going forward transitioning the ball into the final third and can hold possession with unlocking passes. However, whenever you have a LB advance in into the final third either the wing or defense midfielder needs to provide shape and cover. This is where Acosta needs to prove himself and become a destroyer and disruptive.


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