There are many questions that won't be answered during this month's USMNT camp out in Carson, California. Among them are "who will be in the starting XI during qualifiers?" and "is this the team we'll see when the US next take the field in a meaningful competition?"
We can get some hints along the path to those answers, but we won't get them answered in full simply because of the make-up of the camp. There are 31 players, all told, under the tutelage of Bruce Arena, and the majority will not be on the roster when the US play Honduras and Panama in a pair of World Cup qualifiers later this winter. Many won't make an impact in the Hexagonal, some at the camp will never actually play a game for the US, and there's a chance that others still will never be called into another camp regardless of who the coach is this year, next, or in the years to come.
This is the nature of January camps, and this is the nature of a growing player pool. That is an unquestionable Good Thing even if it means a fan favorite here or a potential-laden youngster there gets overlooked in perpetuity.
With that in mind, here are the three big questions I'm looking at for the US this month:
1. Will Bruce settle on a formation?
The most infuriating thing about Arena's predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann, was his habitual need to tinker with lineups and formations on a game-by-game basis. It was, in large part, his undoing.
It was also a flagrant violation of the hippocratic oath all coaches need to take: "First do no harm." By putting new players in new positions with new partners every time out, Klinsmann forced the US into almost purely reactive soccer and was never able to build upon the progress of one camp and thus carry it into the next.
I think that's the first thing Arena has to reverse, and I think he should do so by simplifying as much as possible. Unlike his first spin as US head coach he doesn't have to make this team greater than the sum of its parts. Given the talent he has this time, simply making this group equal to the sum of its parts should suffice.
Another way of putting it: I'm glad the team doesn't have to win in spite of its coach anymore, but we're also at a point where they don't have to win because of their coach.
With that in mind, I'd love to see the US trot out in a version of the old "Y" midfield that Arena's LA Galaxy used to such great effect in 2014:
Here's a good breakdown of how the Y works. And the short version of why I think it'll work for the US is that the central pair of Sacha Kljestan and Michael Bradley are complementary pieces, while the wide midfielders – I have Chris Pontius starting inverted on the left and Darlington Nagbe pinched in on the right – provide balance but not symmetry.
The great struggle of any 4-4-2 in the modern game is the ability to generation possession through midfield simply because you're playing with one less man in the center, which is why it's important to have one of your wide players be a Nagbe-type who pinches inside to get on the ball and provide extra outlets. He becomes an ad hoc third central midfield with a ton of east-west positional responsibility off the ball, while the other side should be and usually is balanced by a more attack-minded, goal-dangerous winger. In most versions of the Y, that more attack-minded winger is the catalyst for chance generation.
In this case, Pontius is the best choice. Long-term, though, this is Christian Pulisic's spot. For the Galaxy back in 2014, and often under Bob Bradley as well (his US teams played versions of the Y quite often), a guy by the name of Landon Donovan played that role. I like the idea of working on a tactical schema now that allows Pulisic to simply slide into his best role once he's available for selection in February – no muss, no fuss.
The Y provides those clearly defined roles as well as genuine tactical flexibility. It also brings the great advantage of any 4-4-2 to bear, namely the "banks of four" defense.
No matter what accoutrements you add to any version of a 4-4-2, there will be times when you get pushed down into a back-foot, defend-from-deep-and-don't-break stance. When that happens, both the backline and midfield will flatten out and give you the best field coverage possible. This happened to Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan teams and Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid teams and literally every other team that's toyed with a 4-4-2 over the quarter century in between.
It is simple, effective risk reduction. If you have two heady, athletic and hard-working forwards up top help cut the field in half and force the opposition into sideline gutters, that's even better.
Arena can play around with personnel here, for what it's worth. Dax McCarty can slot in as a d-mid with Bradley pushed up into Kljestan's role as a No. 8, and Kljestan can play inverted on the left – all three of those guys have excelled in those spots. Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones will surely figure into the calculus somehow, and let's not forget Benny Feilhaber. He's been brilliant as a No. 10 over the past half-decade, but his best moments in the 2010 World Cup came when he was pinched on the right side of Bob Bradley's 4-4-2. He could be in the mix in that spot where I've penciled Nagbe in, for certain.
"With all these great midfielders," you're saying, "wouldn't it make sense to play in a 4-3-3?" To that I'd say "Kinda, except we've always been butt when we played in a 4-3-3 so let's just keep it simple shall we?" And then with a little less snark I'd point out that every single one of our center forwards is better in a a two-man frontline than a three-man front line, and I'd like us to play to that reality.
I do hope we look at a 4-3-3, and a 3-5-2, and a 3-4-3 eventually. But with qualification very much on the line, the time for experimentation is not now.
2. Is Matt Hedges ready?
January 23 EDIT: Welp, the below blurb no longer applies since Hedges had to leave camp on Monday with an injury. I am bummed, but now the door's open for Chad Marshall or Steve Birnbaum. We shall see how it goes.
Are you nervous about Geoff Cameron's injury? Because I'm nervous about Geoff Cameron's injury. I think we should all be nervous about Geoff Cameron's injury.
It's not just that he's still pretty clearly one of the two best center backs in the player pool, though that's a big part of it. It's because he has a reputation as a loud and concise organizer from the heart of the defense, and that is something the US don't seem to have in abundance. John Brooks, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez aren't at this camp, and while all three have worn the organizer hat to one extent or another, none has really made it his own. Chad Marshall has never really worn that hat, either.
Hedges has. The 2016 MLS Defender of the Year is a constant talker who thinks the game like a coach and is an underrated reason why the league's youngest central midfield (21-year-olds Carlos Gruezo and Kellyn Acosta) were also one of the league's best and most structurally sound, while also being the guiding hand for his uber-talented backline compatriot, Walker Zimmerman. Dallas win trophies because of Hedges, and that means quite a bit.
I have real concerns about his speed on the turn, and there's a chance the jump from MLS to international soccer is too much for him. Hopefully not, though, because a Hedges who's comfortable and confident in his role scratches a real itch in this player pool.
3. The Jozy we've always wanted
I made no secret of the fact that Jozy Altidore's form over the second half of the season blew me away. I thought – with all due respect to Nicolas Lodeiro – he was the best player in the league from the end of July onward, as in 1639 minutes across all competitions he had 15 goals and 7 assists, as well as a couple of drawn PKs. At age 26, after a decade as a pro, his production finally started to match his potential.
Maybe that's harsh to say about a guy with 39 international goals already, but no one else in the pool can do this:
He also picked up an assist vs. Mexico, and could've had one against Trinidad & Tobago if the US weren't entirely cursed in 2016:
He was awesome for four months, and only the greatest save in MLS history kept him from being the hero of the MLS Cup on top of everything else. But Jozy has, in the past, struggled to translate good runs of form into year-long, game-in and game-out consistency.
That has to happen in 2017. The US need him to be great for the next 18 months, starting now.
A few other issues...
4. I have DaMarcus Beasley starting at LB because I suspect he's the likeliest of the three LBs in camp to play a role vs. Honduras and/or Panama. Given how scared the US looked playing in Central America for the past five years, I think it's worth it to have a veteran on the backline and ready to go for the trip south.
3. Hedges, Nagbe and Kljestan all have the most to win/lose at this camp. Next tier down? Juan Agudelo. He's the best hold-up forward and playmaking No. 9 in the pool after Altidore, and if we're going to play a 4-4-2 he should be part of the solution when Jozy needs a rest. Watch how easily he holds off Costa Rican international Ronald Matarrita to start this play, and then his run to clear space for Lee Nguyen's goal:
He even stayed onside in case there was a rebound. The version of Agudelo that took the field from August onward was wonderful.
The questions around him are the same as the ones around Altidore, though: Can he be consistent from year to year?
2. None of the above is meant to slight Bobby Wood, who's a fulltime starter when available and who does yeoman's work stretching the field and getting on the ball as an outlet. But he's less of a playmaker than Altidore or Agudelo, and if we're trotting out a two-man frontline, I like the idea of having him play off the back shoulder and look directly to goal.
It has to be a partnership, and I think it can be.