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The U.S. national team found its footing in March as it claimed four vital points across two World Cup qualifiers. Now, with the European and Mexican seasons concluding and MLS in full swing, the player pool is at its healthiest and deepest in some time—just in time for the Americans’ toughest trip of the Hexagonal.
Coach Bruce Arena will need that quality and depth as the USA looks to solidify its World Cup position after last fall’s brutal beginning. At 1-2-1, the Americans remain a single point outside of the CONCACAF’s three automatic berths to the 2018 tournament. Their June 8 qualifier against visiting Trinidad & Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park outside Denver is a must-win. Then just three days later, the USA will visit Mexico City and the Estadio Azteca, where its only victory in 50 years came in a 2012 friendly. The conditions will be challenging, but it could be worse. That game against Mexico will kick off in the evening rather than in the heat of mid-day, and Arena has almost a full complement of players from which to choose.
“I think we have a good group,” Arena said Sunday as his qualifying roster of 27 players was unveiled. “The issue with the players from Europe is they’re completing a long season that started last July or August. ... They’re at the end and they’re probably a little bit beat up. But I know they have another two weeks left in them. It’s no secret that we won’t be using many of them during [July’s] Gold Cup because they need to have some rest before they start for the new season. The MLS players are at a point where they’re getting pretty fit and sharp, so I think it’s a good time. We have a roster that has good balance all over, we have good young players and hopefully it’s a team we can put together to get us points in both games.”
The only regular out with an injury is LA Galaxy midfielder Jermaine Jones (knee), whose effectiveness and fit in the USA midfield has been the subject of some recent debate. Meanwhile, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin—two near-certain starters—are back after missing the March qualifiers with their own injuries. Forward Bobby Wood, who is expected to contribute off the bench if not start, also has returned to the fold.
Arena said the short turn-around between games, which was necessitated by Mexico’s participation in the upcoming Confederations Cup is “certainly going to be challenge.” Hence the 27-man squad.
“As difficult as it is, I think it’s a level playing field for both teams. As part of the agreement to switch the day [from June 13], we have the opportunity to play at night as opposed to the afternoon, so I think that’s a plus for us,” Arena continued. “But it will require that we have a number of players ready to play. I can guarantee we will not be playing the same team from game one to game two. There will be a number of changes for the game in Mexico, so we’ve built a strong roster to allow us to do that.”
The team was scheduled to begin arriving in Sunday in Denver for training. On June 3, the USA will face Venezuela in a friendly at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium. Arena said it was a valuable opportunity to “get a little bit of a taste of playing a game in altitude.” The qualifier against Trinidad is five days later, followed by the trip to Mexico.
Here’s a closer look at the American team that will look to get back into the top half of the standings as the Hexagonal reaches and passes its mid-point.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
There are no surprises here. Howard, who started the March qualifiers, likely will remain Arena’s first choice as long as he remains healthy. Guzan finally got some regular playing time at relegated Middlesbrough in April and May, so is in a better position to challenge Howard than he would’ve been in March. He missed those qualifiers, however, as he and his wife welcomed a daughter.
“Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando are certainly very experienced goalkeepers and have proven that they can play well for the U.S. team,” Arena said. “Brad had an opportunity to play a number of games at the end of the season with Middlesbrough. Playing on a team that got relegated, it’s not surprising to see that his goalkeeping statistics might not be that impressive. I thought in those games he played well and it’s good experience for him. Rimando is back from an injury and played well over the last week, and Tim Howard has had a good start in MLS. ... I think we’re going to camp with three good, experienced goalkeepers.”
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
The return of Yedlin, who was instrumental in Newcastle’s run to the EFL Championship title, will be a boost to a back four that had a bit of a patchwork feel in March. He’s the heavy favorite to start on the right as he returns to the national team for the first time since November. Chandler—another option who missed the past two qualifiers—and Zusi provide experienced depth.
Villafaña appears to have emerged as the starting left back after months of uncertainty at that position. He was a regular for Santos Laguna down the stretch before failing to make the game-day roster for its Liga MX quarterfinal decider against Toluca. That omission shouldn’t have too much of an impact on his US prospects, however, as he did well against Honduras and Panama in March. The ageless Beasley will become the first American to appear in five World Cup qualifying cycles if he sees time.
The USA remains loaded in the middle. Cameron, who just signed a contract extension at Stoke, probably will start alongside either Gonzalez, Brooks or Besler.
Steve Birnbaum, Michael Orozco, Greg Garza, Edgar Castillo and Eric Lichaj are among the players who didn’t make the cut. None of them is a shocking omission. Meanwhile, Hedges will get a look after suffering an injury during the January national team camp.
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fresh off helping Dortmund win the German Cup on Saturday, Pulisic highlights a strong, experienced midfield with plenty of versatility. Bradley, the U.S. captain who's scored four of his 16 international goals against Mexico, likely will play a central, holding role while Pulisic and Johnson jumpstart the attack from wider positions. Depending on the nature of the game in question, Nagbe, Acosta, Bedoya and McCarty all are good options either alongside or in front of Bradley. Nagbe is stronger in the attack, McCarty offers more bite defensively, and Acosta and Bedoya each excel box to box.
Jones and Sacha Kljestan are the big names missing, but Arena is in good shape with the midfielders available. There may not be a ton of options on the flanks, but Nagbe and Bedoya also can play wide if necessary and Arena almost certainly expects his outside backs to take some attacking initiative.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)
These are clearly the top four forwards available, so the only questions are who starts and how Arena deploys his front six.
Dempsey has enjoyed a renaissance since returning from the irregular heartbeat that sidelined him for the second half of 2016. He had four goals in the March qualifiers and has struck four times in 11 starts for Seattle. He's also just one behind Landon Donovan's U.S. record of 57 international goals.
Altidore, who’s more of a target forward, already has six goals in 11 starts for TFC while Wood, a faster striker who can stretch a defense, has scored just twice since the beginning of March with HSV. Morris (two goals) began the season slower than Dempsey and Altidore and is less likely to start next month.
Absences of note are Chris Wondolowski, who has six goals in 14 games for the San Jose Earthquakes, and the Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, who’s scoreless since returning from injury last month.
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