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Who Should the USMNT Start vs. Costa Rica?

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

The U.S. Men’s National Team is back for World Cup qualifiers, and the big guns are back to help continue the push to Russia 2018.

Following this summer’s Gold Cup triumph, the European-based group including Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron return to the USMNT squad for Friday’s match against Costa Rica. An MLS-based squad took care of business over the summer and many regular starters are plying their trade stateside, but the addition of the Euro-based players supplements and adds valuable pieces at a number of spots for the USMNT.

That said, Bruce Arena doesn’t quite have his full team to work with. DeAndre Yedlin is out of action, depriving the USMNT of the consensus first-choice right back. John Brooks isn’t involved either due to a long-term injury that will keep him out of the picture for several months at least.

Knowing that, Arena has some decisions to make, especially when it comes to getting points against a tough Ticos team. Here’s a closer look at how the USMNT could lineup on Friday:

Some thoughts:

Obviously, right back and centerback are the big decisions, and it’ll be interesting to see how Arena opts to address them. One man that’s almost guaranteed to figure if Geoff Cameron, and his versatility means he could play at either spot. He played right back earlier in the year, but that was before Graham Zusi showed any sort of comfort at the position. Since, the Sporting KC star has become a better defender, and Arena could certainly put his trust in Zusi on Friday.

If he does do that, Cameron slides over to centerback, but it remains to be seen who replaces him. Omar Gonzalez brings the size the U.S. lacks without Brooks, but Arena could be tempted to place a lefty on the left side. If so, Matt Besler and Tim Ream provide options, and the latter is in very good form with Fulham. Gonzalez should get the nod, though, even if he is coming off an injury.

However, if Arena does place Cameron at right back to better match up against Costa Rica’s wings, the U.S. could reunite the Gonzalez-Besler pairing while placing the right-footed Gonzalez on the right. A Gonzalez-Ream duo is also intriguing, but the chemistry isn’t there like the 2014 World Cup duo of Gonzalez and Besler.

The next big question is what to do with Fabian Johnson, and everything indicates that the Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder will be played on the wing. If he does, that thrusts Jorge Villafana or DaMarcus Beasley into the lineup. Villafana has had his ups and downs and Beasley brings experience but, at this point, the job is Villafana’s to lose.

With Johnson on one wing, Darlington Nagbe can go on the other with Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley stationed in between. At this point, the Nagbe, Pulisic, Bradley trio should be all but locked in marching towards Russia.

At forward, you look at Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, both of whom are in good form. That leaves Clint Dempsey as the super-sub, a role he looked great in at the Gold Cup.

Does the U.S. lose a bit with Yedlin and Brooks out? Yes. Does the backline feature a few question marks? Certainly. But the lineup above should be able to frustrate Costa Rica with possession and creativity. There are playmakers and difference makers spread throughout the field. The key will be getting them in rhythm and involved throughout Friday’s match.


  1. With the available personnel, what about playing a 3-5-2?

    Wood – Altidore

    Nagbe – Pulisic – Johnson

    Bradley – Acosta

    Besler/Ream – Gonzales – Cameron

    Johnson and Nagbe pushed out wide with Bradley and Acosta laying deeper and Pulisic playing right underneath the forwards?

    In this scenario Johnson and Nagbe transform into wingbacks when defending and attacking flankers when going forward.

  2. <—– Oh look this sweet ad on the left side of the screen takes up 33-50% of my iPad screen. This is horrible, can we not just have a responsive website and place the ads in the middle of the article or anything but this crap.

  3. Start Deuce, preferably with Bobby..
    I doubt Arena starts with a lone forward- other than our forwards & Pulisic we don’t have enough guys who can bury it in the net, and we’re playing against the best keeper in concacaf.
    I doubt we get many scoring opportunities, gotta be able to finish….
    Wood will stretch CR and run all night..the guy is relentless, and makes for a better partner for Deuce.
    Bring him off the bench next week

  4. I can’t recall a time where I think the formation he chooses will dictate the players as much as now. Really a pretty big tactical decision. If one fwd, I like wood over altidore because jozy isn’t very good at pressing but it would be tough decison to make. Do you think three in the back gets more of tje best players on the field. I do, but I’m not sure that would be the best tactical decision. Tough to figure out how to get best players on field togethor.

  5. Gonzalez will not be played as a LCB. If Zusi plays right back, Cameron will play RCB and i suspect alongside Ream. If Cameron plays RB then we will see the Gonzalez and Beslar pairing and i wouldnt be surprised if we see both those combos in the next 2 games.
    Johnson is not playing on the right. If his comments are true, hes starting at left mid although im still not convinced. IMO Jobnson could be a world class left back or right back. Hes pretty unimpressive as an attacking winger/left mid for club and country. I think Nagbe is definitely in the starting 11 but im not sure where. Perhaps alongside Bradley in a 4-4_2 with Pulisic on the right with freedom to cut inside or do whatever he wants. Or in more of a 4-2-3-1 with Pulisic as the 10. I honestly think Nagbe is our best 6. Strong in possession, creative, hes no destroyer but hes a better defender than Bradley and is all about maintaining possession. And how else to explain his lack of goals and assists. He doesnt score many goals…yes ive seen the highlights, but they are rare.
    As for whos up top? I do think Dempsey comes off the bench. In a single striker system i would play Altidore even though he doesnt like it. His hold up and passing is better than Woods at this point and if you want to utilize Pulisic as much as possible we wont be sending many long balls over the top for Wood to chase. Wood and Altidore start if we go with a 4-4-2.

  6. I’m not sure it is a given that he will play a 4-4-2. I don’t think Arena consider Bradley to be a destroyer (I don’t either) so he may play with two defensive midfielders. If he does, he has to decide whether to go with one forward or 3 fullbacks. If he goes with one forward, I think it will be Wood because he presses well and is a threat to get behind the defense, with Pulisic underneath (means Altidore and Dempsey would both be on the bench …). His roster may be better suited for 3 in the back with Ream/Besler-Gonzalez-Cameron since the biggest questions are outside fullbacks (especially without Yedlin). Tough decisions. Pretty sure no matter what, Bradley, Pulisic, Wood, Nagbe, and Cameron will be starting – not sure about anyone else other than Howard (if Johnson wasn’t coming off injury I would think he would definitely be on the field also, but …).

    • Still too many adds and Ives remains AWOL! I check this site less and less with every passing day and better sites come along…. Too bad. Was my go to site for so many years and I would love to continue supporting it. But the adds and lack of Ives are doing me in.

      ps: I realize Ives has a family to support and don’t blame him for making business decisions. Wish him all the best.

  7. With all the talent at midfield I prefer a 4-2-3-1 With the option of putting Wood or Altidore up top. Altidore does not like being alone up there but too bad. He will get service and can hold the ball loooong for Pulisic runs off of him. Also, Altidore has pretty good vision for unlocking passes. Booby Wood is great pressing the ball and attacking on the counter or in the box.

    Dempsey, is a sub. Mainly because he requires too many touches to be effective when you have guys who play higher percentage balls in Nagbe and Pulisic. Dempsey is great in a counter but best just on the secondary break when he gets the ball outside the box and looks for quick combos. The thing is with Dempsey is all he needs is that one time and he gets it done with a goal

    The weak spot in the 4-2-3-1 is who plays next to Bradley? Bedoya, Acosta, Nagbe, D.Williams( I know he was not called up but he fits here)? Nagbe is the lesser options because if the game turns gritty and a ball winner is needed he is not the guy in the 6 spot.

    Everyone is piling on Zusi at RB. I’m no fan because he is not a great defender nor clean on the ball. I suspect the Ticos will focus on attacking his side

  8. “Obviously, right back and centerback are the big decisions.” Why are we acting like Villafana has closed the book on the LB position? Why are we not playing a guy who has played LB in an actual world cup? I know that Bruce stated that he’s going to play them in their club position and, while that is a worthy goal, there are always exceptions. We are fairly stacked in midfield, but very weak at outside backs. While we may have to accept Zusi, we have a perfectly valid option at LB in Fabian Johnson.

    So I would slide in Arriola at RM, move Johnson to LB, swallow hard on Zusi and hope he can man the RB spot. The rest of the lineup looks good.

    • well, it looks like my memory ain’t as sharp as it once was. Beasley started all 4 games in Brazil at left back, while Johnson manned the RB spot. So much for that. I do know that FJ has played for us in that LB position in a number of occasions.

      I guess my point still stands that (1) we have options at midfield, but (2) both of outside back positions are our weak points and we have Johnson who could cover either. Why bump Arriola (who performed very well at the GC) when we could bump either Zusi or Villafana?

    • Why go desperation mode and switch everything that has been working pretty smoothly the last 7 months since Arenas return?? Has Villafana given up any goals, better yet i haven’t seen him get beat enough to warrant such a change. Arena has come in and simplified everything, keeping players in the positions they play with their clubs week in and out, and the results have been a testiment to that. So whether you believe Villafana has locked down the LB spot or not, Bruce has clearly put trust in him and fans should too until he proves otherwise. Saying Fabian is our best LB is unfair and presumptive, can he do the job, sure, but this constant bickering to change what doesn’t need to be changed is what unhinged the Klinsmann regime!

  9. FabJo stated in an interview that Bruce is going to play him at Left Mid. There is an article on THIS SITE that cover it. I realize this is just a blog site, but maybe do your due diligence and check the interviews/reports/facts before you post something like this.

  10. It all depends if Arena want to keep the Besler-Gonzales CB pairing intact. Those two have worked very well together and Arena likes that cohesive and working pairing. But you almost have to have Cameron in the mix. Fortunately Cameron can play right back and as Defensive mid.
    So take out Zusi for Cameron
    Otherwise have Cameron in the spot Bradley would have, move Bradley up to a more central role and Johnson and Pulisic out wide. This does leave out Nagbe though.

    It is a more solid defensive lineup

    • “Otherwise have Cameron in the spot Bradley would have”.. I doubt that will happen in my opinion.

      Cameron can play many places, but so far this season he is a LCB in a 3 man back-line. He hasn’t played midfield for both club and country for a while now.

      This article is spot on, simply because this time around it is an easy decision to pick the roster, and the roster pretty much picks itself. Like the writer said, its just the right back situation that is debatable, and since Cameron is the logical right back replacement than that makes the CB situation debatable.


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