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As has been written about here, there and everywhere, the USMNT got the job done in their latest batch of World Cup qualifiers. A win at home against Trinidad & Tobago followed by a convincing road draw at Mexico is about the best that could've realistically been asked for, and Bruce Arena's men delivered.
But that doesn't mean the work is done. The US still need to win their final two home games of the Hexagonal as well as get at least one road point in order to make it to next summer's World Cup, and Arena still needs to fine tune his group's tactical approach while paring down the roster itself.
So in that spirit, here are a few takeaways from the last 180 minutes of soccer, as well as a couple of lingering questions:
Takeaway No. 1: Kellyn Acosta is ready for the starting job
The FC Dallas central midfielder should've fouled the hell out of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez on the break-out that led to Carlos Vela's goal. It didn't have to be a vicious foul that actually prevented Chicharito's pass, but simply wiping him out behind the play – "The Davy Arnaud Foul," as Ben Baer and I call it – would've done the trick.
If you look at Vela's goal, he cuts into the gap that Chicharito has just dragged Acosta and Geoff Cameron through. If, instead, Chicharito's out at the midfield stripe picking himself up off that ground, the US would've had a better shape to stop the goal and Vela would've run into help defenders rather than empty space.
That's a learning experience for Acosta. Given the way he played in every other phase of the game, from defense to set pieces to passing to off-the-ball movement, I've little doubt that he'll pick up the off-the-ball dark arts sometimes required at he highest levels.
Acosta was very good against Mexico, and not overawed even once. He's also a snug fit as a No. 8, complementing No. 6Michael Bradley. The two worked well together defensively, combined well together the few times the US got on the ball, and should be the go-to choice in central midfield from here on out in this cycle.
Question No. 1: Does this mean the US are going to start playing three-man central midfields?
Historically the US have played better in a 4-4-2, so there's always been a little bit of reluctance to move away from that formation. But that's probably going to change, because a three-man central midfield trio of Bradley, Acosta and Christian Pulisic is balanced defensively and dangerous going forward – Pulisic is obviously a genius at both finding and finishing chances out of that free-roaming No. 10 position, while both Acosta and Bradley are good at spreading the ball early and accurately.
That means the US will be able to flood central midfield defensively and in possession, but still be able to send numbers forward in support of the lone center forward, whether it's Jozy Altidore or Bobby Wood. A 4-2-3-1 is officially viable in a way that it hadn't really been in the past, as is a 3-5-2.
Takeaway No. 2: Central defense is the strength of this team
The US have played 10-and-a-half hours under Arena and conceded exactly one goal from open play. That's happened despite having to juggle the lineups significantly for two away qualifiers, and despite some more-than-usual tinkering in the three friendlies the US have played to this point.
Should this be surprising? Not really. Cameron's been one of the best central defenders in CONCACAF for a half-decade, Omar Gonzalez starts for the CCL champions and John Brooks just got sold for $20 million. Go further down the depth chart and you'll get guys like veterans Tim Ream – who just had his finest USMNT performance – and Matt Besler, or relatively untested 20-somethings Matt Hedges, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman and Matt Miazga.
If things go bad on the backline, it's not for lack of talent.
Question No. 2: Who's the organizer if Cameron's out?
Over the last several years it's become clear that the US backline struggles to keep its spacing when Cameron's not available via injury. Brooks, Gonzalez, Ream etc. all have their plusses as defenders, but none seems to bring Cameron's level of organizational chops to the field, and it's not clear who does.
Best guess from me? Hedges. He's been the best center back in MLS for the last three years, and everyone in and around FC Dallas raves about his ability to lead that backline (plus it's kind of telling that they fall apart when he's gone).
This summer's Gold Cup is a huge opportunity for a number of players, but none more than Hedges. If he grab the chance as Acosta did in Mexico, or as Jorge Villafaña did this winter in Arena's first camp, it could go a long way toward answering one of the big questions remaining for this team.
Takeaway No. 3: A generational shift is happening
Villafaña has displaced DaMarcus Beasley as the starting left back. Kyle Beckerman's race has been completely run. It feels safe to assume that Jermaine Jones's time as a significant piece of the player pool has come to an end. Alejandro Bedoya is no longer a starter. Tim Howard gracefully accepted Sunday night's temporary demotion to back-up 'keeper. Clint Dempsey...
Ok, maybe Deuce is still working on it. He wasn't happy about being subbed off after 60 minutes against the Soca Warriors, and doubtless he wasn't pleased about not playing at all in Mexico. The circumstances for those games were unusual, but here's the truth: If Dempsey is going to make it to Russia next summer, it's going to be as a semi-regular, goalscoring super-sub.
Of course, the US still have to get there first. Dempsey still has a role to play in completing that job, though it may not be the one he and everyone else is used to. (That said, I totally think he'll start for the US against Costa Rica in September).