Jozy Altidore - US national team USMNT - smiling at Christian Pulisic
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Armchair Analyst: Predicting Arena's USMNT squad for World Cup qualifiers

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Bruce Arena's first camp in his return to the helm of the US national team is in the books. We laughed, we cried, we learned a lot and we scored a very little. These are all things that are to be expected as players shake the rust off every winter, and as I wrote elsewhere, I'm much more pleased about The Process™ than I am discouraged by the lack of goalscoring.

Why's that? Because when the games really matter, Arena will be able to call upon guys like Bobby Wood, Christian Pulisic and Fabian Johnson. Put those guys in a coherent system, and you'll get results more often than not.

With that in mind, here is the 23-man roster I'd expect to see Arena call for the must-win qualifiers against Honduras and at Panama at the end of March. I'm going to include some bonus call-ups as well, since Arena has hinted he'll be calling more than 23 players in next month.

GOALKEEPERS

Guzan would have the No. 1 job sewn up if he was playing at all, but he's not. He's played 180 minutes since August, and unless Victor Valdes strains a muscle that number's not likely to budge.

So I have Rimando at No. 1, with Hamid (please get and stay healthy, Bill) edging out guys like Luis Robles, David Bingham and Ethan Horvath for the No. 3 job. If he's not fit, one of the other guys – let's say Bingham – gets the nod instead.

Bonus: If Tim Howard is close to healthy, he'll get called into the squad.

LEFT BACKS

  • Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
  • Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna... for now)

Johnson eventually became a very good defensive player, highlighted by his performance this past summer in the Copa America.


Prior to that, when Jurgen Klinsmann was playing Johnson at RB or LB, he'd just cut our primary wing playmaker (Landon Donovan) and wasn't calling in our creative central mids (Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen). Our pool has now developed a few wide playmakers (Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe & Paul Arriola), and Arena has committed to getting a playmaking central midfielder on the field as well.

That means Johnson is less crucial as a wide attacker, and in fact resource allocation suggests he'd be best used as a LB.


Villafaña straight up won the job with a great performance at camp, though he could lose it if he doesn't find a club that'll put him on the field. 

Bonus: DaMarcus Beasley forever!

RIGHT BACKS

  • DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
  • Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest)

Yedlin, who's been called "the best fullback in the Championship," is a lock to start if healthy. Lichaj, who's been one of the most consistent fullbacks in the Championship this decade, has plenty of experience playing on either flank and 11 US caps to his name, so there's no real worry that he'll be overwhelmed in the moment or suffer from the same type of adjustment pains that have plagued other Euro-based players.

Plus he's one of the few guys out there who's equally adept at both right and left back, which is handy when making up gameday 18s. His ability to play either spot could make it very easy for Arena to drop down to three fullbacks, and then add a bit of extra depth elsewhere on the roster.

Let's get back to Yedlin for a minute. He's been awesome this year, particularly on the overlap:

We saw against both Serbia and Jamaica that the US can lack both width and penetration if the fullbacks don't push forward, and Yedlin – with his 1.3 key passes per game – brings both. He also has the kind of electric recovery speed that is necessary when pushing the game, which the US will have to do.

Bonus: Graham Zusi will be at this camp as a right back, but I don't think he'll appear.

If you're wondering why Timmy Chandler, who's starting for a top three team in the Bundesliga isn't on this list: The US are 9-10-6 all-time when he starts, and 2-3-2 in official competitions. Enough.

Hat tip to the great Paul Carr for those numbers.

CENTER BACKS

  • John Brooks (Hertha Berlin)
  • Geoff Cameron (Stoke City)
  • Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca)
  • Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United)

Brooks had the single worst performance I can ever remember from a US player in that 4-0 loss at Costa Rica, and was the man who lost Rafa Marquez on the Mexican game-winner in Columbus days earlier. I don't, however, believe that's the real John Brooks. I believe the real John Brooks is the guy we saw in last summer's Copa, and the guy who goes 90 minutes every week for Hertha Berlin.

There's concern on that second part in Cameron's case, as he's been hurt for nearly four months now. But he's supposedly on the verge of returning, and if he gets games over the next six weeks then there's no reason for Arena to go in a different direction.

Gonzalez, who is having another strong year in Liga MX, and Birnbaum round out my group of four. 

Bonus: I expect at least one, and perhaps all three of Matt Besler, Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman to be called in. And it wouldn't shock me to see Arena officially carry five CBs instead of four, at the expense of one of the FBs.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDERS

Here's the part where I start splitting hairs. In short: I think it's important to carry two guys who are specifically, unambiguously defensive midfielders on the roster. Clearly that's Bradley's best spot and it's his job to start, and at this point I think McCarty is the second-best option in the pool.

Bonus: You could talk me into Perry Kitchen or Danny Williams, for sure. But given the roster integration and chemistry issues at play here, I think it's much more likely we see those guys during the Gold Cup in summer.

CENTER MIDFIELDERS

These guys are all technically "central midfielders," but I have a suspicion each is more likely to be used out wide by Arena in what I think will be a 4-1-3-2. If Pulisic is on one side of that "3", then the other can/should be balanced by a more conservative, more defensively robust player who'll tuck inside to help in possession and in maintaining defensive shape.

Jones is suspended for Honduras, but I'll be surprised if he doesn't start vs. Panama. To me it feels like the starting role vs. the Catrachos comes down to the veteran Bedoya, or the relative newcomer in Lletget.

These guys can and do all play the box-to-box role if Arena wants to change from a version of the 4-4-2 to a version of the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.

Bonus: I bet Kellyn Acosta will be in camp.

PLAYMAKERS

  • Kljestan (RBNY)
  • Feilhaber (Sporting KC)

In an alternate universe this has been the defining positional battle of the decade for the US. Oh well, at least they're back now!

I thought Feilhaber was the better player against Serbia and Jamaica, and it was his creativity that led to the only goal under Arena thus far:

That said, Kljestan was the better player in MLS last year, and he was very good when he got on the field for qualifiers late in the summer. Creating instant chemistry with Bradley and Pulisic – even against relative minnows – is not something to take lightly.

Either way, both of these guys should be on the roster, and one of them should be on the field. It's also important to note that both are about as honest as any No. 10 in the world when it comes to defensive tracking, which should allow Arena to comfortably trot out a 4-1-3-2/4-3-1-2 without worrying about defensive structure and integrity. Nguyen's lack of the same is why I think he's on the outside looking in.

Bonus: If Emerson Hyndman keeps getting on the scoreboard for Rangers, I'd be happy to see him called into this camp. But I do think it's much more likely we see him in the summer.

WINGERS

  • Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
  • Nagbe (Portland Timbers)

Pulisic is the starter, and hopefully this generation's version of Donovan – an inventive, lightning-quick attacker who can take good moments and turn them into decisive moments.

Nagbe is different in that his productivity has only sporadically matched his potential, but he showed well against Serbia in stretching the field, and will get a chance to do so for Portland this year, too. There seems to be real hope that this is the year the switch is finally flipped and he becomes a dominant attacking player.

Even if that doesn't happen, though, Nagbe still brings so much stuff to the table. I could easily talk myself into starting him on one side of the midfield with Pulisic on the other, and tasking Nagbe with staying tight to the central midfielders in order to bolster possession and gum up opposing transition opportunities. He's done that job for his club before, and it's literally the first job he ever did for his country when he made his debut against Trinidad & Tobago in November of 2015.

That might make one of the three guys listed as central midfielders above expendable, but I'm not even close to sure of that.

Bonus: I hate myself for leaving Arriola off this roster, because he's been so good for Tijuana this year. You could argue he's been the best two-way wide player in Liga MX, and he's certainly been productive in his US appearances thus far. 

FORWARDS

These guys are pretty clearly the top three in the current forward stable, and Morris does, of course, have a level of comfort playing wide if Arena wants to switch to a 4-2-3-1.

Let's all remember that the best part of 2016 was 1) the chemistry the first-choice center defense showed with Bradley at d-mid, and 2) the chemistry Altidore and Wood showed up top together when pretty much everything behind them was falling apart:

If they're starting in front of a midfield that has a sensible structure, Pulisic on one of the wings, a true No. 10, and a pair of fullbacks who threaten on the overlap, then I'm pretty confident they'll figure out a way to put the ball into the net more than once.

Bonus: Gyasi Zardes is pretty clearly in the mix here if he gets healthy. And I want Juan Agudelo to be because his hold-up play is arguably the best in the pool, but he needs to start banging in goals right out of the gate for New England.

There's also that Clint Dempsey fellow. ESPN's Taylor Twellman reported last week that Arena swore Dempsey wouldn't be involved in the March qualifiers, but Deuce has been cleared to play and has now actually taken the field for Seattle in preseason. It's just 30 minutes and I'm sure it's a long way back to full fitness, but if he's kicking the ball in anger for the Sounders come March, I can't imagine he wouldn't have a role in a pair of do-or-die games for the US.

And here, for posterity, is my XI vs. Honduras:

 

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