Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard - US national team - during national anthem
Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Armchair Analyst: Dempsey & Howard return, but questions still for US

For the last five years the USMNT was largely defined by their inability to string together coherent attacking sequences, and thus an inability to consistently create danger from the central midfield. It was frustrating because 1) who wants to watch soccer like that?, and 2) in Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen, the US player pool included three "in-their-prime" playmaker types who were all doing the job to one extent or another.

When Bruce Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann in late autumn, one of the first things he said was that the US needs more passing in midfield. I took that – I think most of the fanbase took that – as evidence that at least one of those guys would get their shot, and to Bruce's credit he called in both Kljestan and Feilhaber for this winter's two friendlies, with each getting a start. Feilhaber was instrumental in the only goal the US scored in those two games when he set up Jordan Morris against Jamaica.

Neither guy is on the US roster for the upcoming qualifiers against Honduras at home and then on the road at Panama, the first of which I'd call a "must-win" and the second a "must-result." I am frustrated by this, though I will admit there are a few things about how this roster is constructed that suggest a true No. 10 wasn't going to see the field much regardless.

1. Clint Dempsey's back, and won't be playing as a lone target forward

Deuce isn't a No. 10, but he's the most creative forward and best finisher in the pool, and now suddenly the US are deep at forward. Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood are all proven quantities in CONCACAF, and Jordan Morris is getting there.

That means the US will be playing something with two forwards – we all know it's going to be a 4-4-2, right? You can fudge it and say "oh it's a 4-4-1-1" or "it's a 4-2-3-1" with Dempsey in the middle of the "3" line, but at this point in his career he's a second forward. He does second forward things like dropping into midfield to help in possession, but when he does so he doesn't do playmaker things like cracking open the defense with a through-ball or a long-ball to the back-post winger, etc etc etc. He helps you combine, gets himself into the box to score. He's a forward.

And it's hard to play a 4-4-2 with a true, central playmaker in the modern game. Doing so risks stranding the one defensive midfielder, or asking the wide midfielders to pinch in tight and cede the wings.

That's not a smart play against Honduras especially. And while Panama's not quite at that level, they will still exploit isolation opportunities for all they're worth.

2. The No. 8s on this particular roster are creative

Kellyn Acosta already has three goals for FC Dallas this year, and Sebastian Lletget was a two-way central midfield force for the Galaxy last year (please move him back to that spot full-time, guys). Alejandro Bedoya has never produced a ton of box-score stats, but he played a good chunk of his career as a No. 10 in France and here in MLS, and has a knack for being part of long build-ups.

One of those three guys is likely to start alongside Michael Bradley, who will almost certainly be deployed as a true d-mid for these games. This will provide some extra defensive steel in the most crucial part of the field without giving up the ghost in the way of creativity.

Rather, it just shifts the creative burden to Dempsey (who will try $&!% in combination with his forward partner, likely Wood) and to the wingers. Which is where this roster gets interesting...

3. Is Christian Pulisic made for the empty bucket?

Pulisic has been devastating over the last six weeks for Borussia Dortmund, particularly when he cuts inside from the wing in transition. I think it's his best spot, and his ability to eviscerate defenders 1v1 opens up the field for the rest of the attack. Putting him on one side offers the type of individual flair and penetration, both on-the-ball and off-the-ball, the US has largely lacked in recent years.

He's also no stranger to playing as a No. 10, and has been doing it a lot lately:

I will say this: Pulisic is not a two-way No. 10. If he's going to be used as a central playmaker it means the US will be playing a 4-2-3-1, and I don't think Pulisic's finishing is yet good enough to justify such a big switch. The 4-4-2 with him on one wing makes more sense because it keeps two of Dempsey, Wood and Altidore on the field in their best spots.

Either way, though, it feels like the keys are being handed to Pulisic at least a little bit. There's not much of a Plan B in terms of offering creative verticality.

4. Wing and right back are riddles

The other wing is more of a mystery. If Arena had his full complement of players I think the job would go to Fabian Johnson. But "DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj are both injured – otherwise they were slated to be on the roster" throws a wrench into the works. And neither Graham Zusi nor Timmy Chandler (who's suspended for the Honduras game anyway) were called in, and now suddenly we're looking at a squad where there's really only three guys we can be comfortable with at right back

  • Geoff Cameron, who was an integral part of the US's central defense at last summer's Copa América
  • Michael Orozco, who is doing a nice job on the right side in a 3-man look for Xolos but has had his, um, ups and downs for the US
  • Johnson, who played right back at the most recent World Cup

I'm more comfortable with Johnson at that spot for the obvious reason, but also because I don't want to break up the Cameron/John Brooks pairing in central defense.

The other reason I'm more comfortable with Johnson is Darlington Nagbe, who is apparently a full-time left midfielder/winger for club and country. The great weakness of the 4-4-2 is that you're playing numbers down by default in central midfield, and that means one of the wide players has to pinch in to help in possession and at times defensively.

Nagbe does that naturally. It's always his inclination to come inside and try to combine, and with Pulisic playing direct-to-goal on the other wing, it would offer the US structure a good balance.

5. DaMarcus Beasley Forever

There are three guys on this roster who can play left back, and it wouldn't shock me if Jorge Villafaña got the first crack at it. Down in Panama, though? Beas.


So in general I'm not in love with this roster but at least I get it. There is some pattern to divine, and the only really new additions (Lletget, Villfaña, Walker Zimmerman, and Dax McCarty, who is clearly the backup d-mid) fill obvious needs. Each pick makes sense in a vacuum and in the overall structure of the thing.

Let's hope that "the overall structure of the thing" makes as much sense when the US take the field against the Catrachos in nine days. At this point, there's no room for do-overs.

USMNT Roster

Goalkeepers (3)
GK Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough/Atlanta United)
GK Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids)
GK Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders (8)
D John Brooks (Hertha Berlin)
D DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo)
D Geoff Cameron (Stoke City)
D Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca)
D Michael Orozco (Tijuana)
D Tim Ream (Fulham)
D Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna)
D Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
Midfielders (9)
M Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas)
M Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union)
M Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
M Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy)
M Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
M Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)
M Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)
M Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire)
M Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Forwards (4)
F Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)
F Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
F Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
F Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
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