It’s the biggest game of the year for the US men's national team, and quite possibly the toughest lineup decision of Bruce Arena’s second stint in charge of the program.
The USMNT face off against their arch-rivals Mexico in a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca on Sunday evening (8:30 pm ET; FS1, Univision, UDN in United States). The match is taking place in the high altitude and polluted air of Mexico City barely 72 hours after Thursday’s 2-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago, and of course, El Tri are always expected to attack relentlessly and in waves at their fearsome fortress.
So with so much pressure and so many physiological demands being placed on his team’s collective shoulders, Arena has to decide how best to arrange his team, and where to make adjustments to the starting lineup that beat T&T in a 4-4-2 (more or less) formation at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado.
“The Bruce” won’t be in any hurry to reveal what he’s thinking between now and when the gameday rosters drop in the countdown to kickoff on Sunday. But here’s how I’d line them up in Distrito Federal (and you can build your own starting XI over at American Soccer Now's fun lineup generator)...
No matter how bullish you’re feeling going into this one, you’re going to have to defend for long stretches against El Tri at Azteca. And you’d be wise to set things up to frustrate the home side’s dynamic movement and desire for quick combination play. That means a five-man midfield, a familiar four-man defensive shape and a lone striker up top to play the No. 9 role, holding up play and helping relieve pressure.
Both Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore can do the thankless job as the spearhead. But with lots of chasing and harrying in store, Wood brings slightly fresher legs given that Altidore started vs. T&T. Clint Dempsey – who’d utterly adore the chance to tie Landon Donovan’s all-time USMNT scoring record in this setting – looks like the odds-on pick for a supersub if an attacking jolt is needed in the second half.
Kellyn Acosta steps in as central midfield reinforcement alongside Michael Bradley; the FC Dallas man is in great form and has fresh memories of thin Mexican air, having shined in FCD’s heartbreaking CONCACAF Champions League semifinal loss to Pachuca.
Thursday’s stars Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe are now key cogs for the Yanks, and are probably young and fit enough to start both games. Arena will know far more about this than we outsiders, of course, thanks to US Soccer’s cutting-edge fitness department and their use of advanced performance data. Veteran Alejandro Bedoya gets the nod out on the right thanks to his defensive work rate, experience, and ability to calmly connect passes.
Fabian Johnson might well get another start, of course, and Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola could bring energy and commitment to the wide spots as well. He hasn’t seen many moments like this at senior international level, but Dax McCarty’s ferocious soccer brain might just be an ace in the hole for Arena in the engine room.
Arena usually likes to craft a sturdy back four and then let them grow and bond together. But I think Sunday’s particular circumstances will prompt him to make an exception to that preference, by bringing Omar Gonzalez into the XI.
Why? He knows and trusts the big center back deeply, and remembers that Gonzalez has played at Azteca for both club and country – most prominently in the Yanks’ 0-0 draw at this stage of the 2014 cycle. He and Geoff Cameron will own the airspace in front of the US goal, and threaten on set pieces at the other end.
No prizes for this one: Tim Howard is the clear starter at present, and will remain.
What’s your take on the USMNT XI? Share your thoughts in the comments below.