The next round of World Cup qualifiers is almost upon us. The US will host Trinidad & Tobago in Denver on June 8 (8 pm ET; FS1, UniMás, UDN), then head down to Mexico City to play El Tri at the Azteca on June 11 (8:30 pm ET; FS1, Univision, UDN).
There's also a friendly against Venezuela scheduled for June 3 (10 pm ET; FS1) – a tune-up game that will feature most, if not all of the players invited to US camp for the qualifiers. The home game against T&T is just as much of a must-win event as the March qualifier against Honduras, while the trip to Azteca remains the most daunting journey in CONCACAF. A point there would be house money, and three would pretty much assure the US of qualification.
Bruce Arena has a pretty straight-forward task, then: Pick the best team available to him. This is not going to be an "experimental" roster in the slightest.
Still, there are some questions because of injuries long-nursed, and form that's fallen off. There are also real and lingering questions about players that fit together and those that don't, as well as familiarity wth the group as a whole. It's a fair bet that Arena weights that last group pretty heavily, so guys who were part of the team in January and March probably have a leg up on those who weren't.
With that preamble, here's my best guess at the 23-man US roster:
The first two names on the list are self-explanatory, and the order is self-explanatory as well. Horvath began the month with a remarkable gaffe in his first Club Brugge start, but nonetheless locked down the No. 1 kit in the following weeks. He's here as the No. 3, which is almost purely ceremonial, but has long-range effects in terms of grooming him for the next cycle as this is surely Howard's last.
Timmy's still the man, by the way:
There's no need for a third veteran, which is why Rimando and Robles miss out. As for Hamid... I maintain he's the most talented 'keeper in the pool, but also the least consistent. He needs to get that on lock in the weeks and months to come, or he'll be on the outside looking in this cycle.
LEFT BACK: Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Greg Garza (Atlanta United)
Villafaña pretty emphatically won the starting job for the USMNT this winter, and followed that up by winning the starting job with Santos Laguna by mid-march. Garza's lack of footspeed still scares me (we all remember the Ireland game, right?), but he reads the game quickly and has probably been the best American left back in MLS this year.
I won't believe Beasley's US career is done until he gets a testimonial, and even then I won't be entirely convinced. Vincent had a somewhat disappointing rookie year relative to the hype he entered the league with, but he's been excellent for the Fire as as sophomore. He should get a Gold Cup look. Morrow probably should as well, though based upon his age his upside is limited. I wish he'd been integrated five years ago.
Another note I want to make here: Arena has been steadfast about Fabian Johnson being a midfielder, and... fine. Villafaña's emergence and Garza's strong play make left back less of a traditional sore spot than it had been. But I'm not entirely convinced Bruce is telling the truth here.
CENTER BACK: Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
Cameron's a lock. Brooks should be, too, but his end to the season was miserable: He picked up a hip injury in late April which caused him to miss a game, missed another with a yellow card accumulation suspension, and then was yanked at the half in the season-closing 6-2 loss to Bayer Leverkusen. Hertha went just 3-7-0 in their final 10 Bundesliga games.
My guess is that he starts the home match against T&T, and then Omar starts down in the Azteca. Zimmerman, meanwhile, has done nothing to make me believe that he'll be omitted from this squad.
Besler's a veteran presence who's played well this year, and Ream was the fill-in down in Panama when the US backline was destroyed by injuries. He was fine, but I have a feeling that if Arena picks him it'll be over Garza, since Ream can function as both LB and CB depth.
Hedges should get a look at the Gold Cup. Same could arguably be said for Matt Miazga (Vitesse Arnhem) and maybe even Ike Opara (Sporting KC). Orozco could figure as either a CB or a RB, and his familiarity with the Azteca makes him intriguing. He's had some good moments there, remember:
If it was any other game, I'd consider Orozco to be outside the realm of consideration. But playing in Mexico City is a special circumstance.
RIGHT BACK: DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest)
Yedlin is electrifying for both club and country, and is a much better defender now than he was 18 months ago (just ask Magpies fans). Lichaj is rock solid and can play either RB or LB at a high level.
The US have a losing record (9-10-6) all-time when Chandler starts, and are 0-3-0 in his three World Cup qualifying starts. Eintracht went 1-10-4 in their final 15 Bundesliga games. I don't see any reason to call him over Yedlin or Lichaj.
Zusi has been very good for Sporting this year and – like Ream – was a gamer vs. Panama, while Evans has experience in these types of games and is healthy again. But there's not even a debate here, really. The top two pick themselves.
Bradley's strengths as a defensive midfielder (distribution & reading of the game) outweigh his weaknesses (not great digging the ball out of 1v1 duels), though he'll obviously need to play better than he did against Panama. If he doesn't he'll be in some danger of losing his job to McCarty, who's been excellent for Chicago this year after five excellent years in New York. Remind me why he has just six caps again?
Just Missed: Danny Williams (Reading)
Williams, like Lichaj and Yedlin, was iced out by the previous regime once he switched to the Championship (three USMNT starts in three years after the move to Reading; 10 starts in 15 months prior to the switch). He'll get back into the squad regardless of whether or not Reading go up (they're playing Huddersfield Town in the promotion playoffs) to the Premiership, and my guess is it'll happen starting with the Gold Cup.
I won't be utterly shocked to see him on the roster for these qualifiers, though. He's played well enough, certainly, and is a couple years younger than either Bradley or McCarty.
These are guys who can function as shuttlers – the nominally "wide" midfielders in a 4-3-1-2 – or as central midfielders in a flatter 4-4-2 next to a more defensive-minded player like Bradley or McCarty. Those are the two formations Arena's most likely to use, and those are the parameters I've used to pick these guys.
Bedoya has been excellent since moving back to that role for the Union, and Acosta has been the best US central midfielder in MLS this year. Nagbe is more of a winger than the other two guys, but looked very comfortable in that shuttler's role for the US in March.
Corona was essential for Xolos this year as they made it all the way to the Liguilla semifinals before bowing out to the Tigres buzzsaw. Hopefully we'll see him at the Gold Cup.
As for Jones, I've been pretty clear about my feeling that the US need to move on from him, and his current injury situation probably precludes a call-up regardless. There's also the fact that he doesn't fit next to Bradley, and struggles to connect with attackers who play a free role a la Clint Dempsey (spoiler alert, Deuce is on this roster). We're seeing some of that with the form Giovani dos Santos is now showing for the Galaxy (volume up for analysis):
Armchair Analyst: Gio Dos Santos finally has a free role, and the Galaxy are finally winning again. Here's why: pic.twitter.com/ZeQ0v5Ls4U— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 21, 2017
This is an issue dating all the way back to his days playing behind Raul with Schalke.
Morales is another guy who could get a look during the Gold Cup, though Arena has not exactly lavished him with praise when asked about him.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls)
If it's a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-2-3-1, Pulisic or Kljestan can play the No. 10 and Johnson can play as a more attack-minded shuttler. If it's a 4-4-2, Pulisic and Johnson can play at wide midfield, and Kljestan can drop back into the old metronome role he played with Anderlecht.
Finding a formation that gets both Pulisic and Johnson on the field should be on Arena's mind more than just a little bit, as should Johnson's health and stamina. He only just returned from injury, playing 24 minutes in the second-to-last weekend, and then starting and going 74 minutes in the season finale (and of course he played left midfield in the first game, then right back in the second. FabJo will never get a fulltime position, I swear it). Expect him to start against T&T then be a bench option at Mexico.
Arriola played during the last set of qualifiers, but is a victim here of Johnson's return to fitness and his own, indifferent form during the second half of the Clausura. Feilhaber and Nguyen are – I'm guessing, obviously – behind Kljestan in the pecking order as back-up playmakers. Any/all of these three could play a role during the Gold Cup.
Sebastian Lletget would be on this list (or maybe the central midfield list) if he wasn't injured.
I'm absolutely certain of the first two on this list. Dempsey is the all-time leading US scorer in World Cup qualifiers, and Altidore is second.
Because of injuries, I'm less certain about the next two. Wood has played through injuries over the last several months, and had just one goal and two assists in his last 15 Bundesliga games (stretching back to January). He could be rested:
Morris is also hurt – it's obvious he hasn't worked through the ankle injury he picked up before the last set of qualifiers, and he has just two goals this season. It's a concern since these are the two direct, speed options in the forward pool, as well as guys who can play on the wing in a pinch. Any potential replacements would pretty much only be target forwards.
I'm guessing, though, that they'll both be available and both be selected. Just don't be upset when they're used sparingly.
I have to admit I'd call up Sapong in a second, especially against a team that will play packed in like T&T. Dwyer, though he missed this past weekend with a knee injury, is probably ahead of him on the depth chart, as is Zardes (who's yet to score this year but has history with both the USMNT and Arena, and the flexibility to play out wide on the wing).
Wondo is Wondo. He has 5g/5a and while he won't be in this roster, you bet your sweet bippy Arena will have thought about him once or twice. As for Ramirez, if he keeps up his current form he should get a Gold Cup call. His final third movement is relentless and wonderful, and his hold-up play is better than advertised.
Fire away in the comments section below. I'll be around most of the day to take your abuse.