Armchair Analyst: Defensive depth set to be tested – again – for USMNT

Here is the little bit of good news: DeAndre Yedlin is back in training for Newcastle United. He missed the newly promoted EPL team's first game of the season with a hamstring injury picked up at the end of last month, and there was legit worry it would keep him out until the beginning of September.

The very beginning of September, of course, is when the next pair of World Cup qualifiers will be played for the USMNT. On September 1 they host Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, and on September 5 they'll go down to Honduras to face los Catrachos. They are big games.

Now, there is no guarantee that Yedlin will be back. He's probably not going to play this weekend for Newcastle, and he's likely to be less than 90 minutes fit next weekend. But the possibility of him being available to Bruce Arena for one or both of next month's WCQs, either as a starter as a sub, is now on the table in a way it didn't seem to be a week ago.

This is, as I said at the top, good news. Yedlin is the unquestioned first choice at RB, and while there is depth behind him – Graham Zusi has been reliable, Eric Lichaj is an experienced pro, and Timmy Chandler is playing well for Frankfurt (though that's a tune we've heard whistled one too many times – none is anywhere close to Yedlin as a two-way presence. 

Elsewhere, the news is not so good. John Brooks was subbed off 37 minutes into his Wolfsburg debut after tearing tendons in his right thigh. Brooks, like Yedlin, is a write-his-name-in-pen starter for the US. Unlike Yedlin, his injury is not short-term:

So now, two weeks before the games kick off, Bruce Arena has to figure out a big, glaring roster issue. As I see it he has three options to pair in with Geoff Cameron (guaranteed starter, so long as he's healthy) in the middle of the back four in place of Brooks:

Matt Besler (44 caps): The 30-year-old is probably the favorite to get the job, provided he stays healthy. Besler's had another excellent season for Sporting, and marshals what is by far the league's best defense – they've conceded just 19 times through 24 games. He's also got plenty of experience playing in these types of pressure-filled games, be they in qualifying or the World Cup itself.

Besler played a key role in this summer's Gold Cup triumph as well, starting five games in central defense. That included a 2-0 shutout of Costa Rica in the semifinals.

Tim Ream (25 caps): Back in March, when the US faced a similar injury crisis following Brooks' injury in the 6-0 home win over Honduras, Arena decided to go with Ream as the fill-in for the next game.

That turned into a 1-1 draw at Panama, and choosing Ream over Besler was understandable given that Ream was fully fit and sharp (Fulham were in the middle of their season while Besler's year was just beginning). Ream struggled a little bit on the day – nobody for the USMNT was good in Panama City save for Christian Pulisic – but I don't think starting him was the wrong call.

It wouldn't be the wrong call here, either, as Ream's started the Championship season in fine form for the Cottagers. They've allowed just two goals in three games with him at left center back for the full 270 minutes thus far, and he'll have two more to play before camp starts. Rust shouldn't be much of an issue even if it's not precisely mid-season for Fulham.

Bear in mind that Arena seems to trust Ream more than Jurgen Klinsmann did. But at the same time, bear in mind Ream's history of struggling against CONCACAF opponents.

Omar Gonzalez (45 caps): Gonzalez is also dinged up – he picked up a knock in a Copa MX game about a week ago and hasn't dressed for Pachuca since (I haven't been able to track down exactly what the injury is, or how long he'll be out, but he's not listed on the most recent injury reports). Omar partnered Besler for the majority of the Gold Cup, starting six of seven games and adding a couple of goals. He's more of a threat to score off of set pieces than either of the guys above him on this list, and he and Arena go back a decade. They've won a lot of stuff together.

But Omar's not a natural left center back. He's very right-footed, which limits his ability to spread the field and play out of the back, which could invite some pretty dangerous pressure from the Ticos and/or Catrachos. Given that and his injury situation, this is probably a long-shot solution.

• Best Guess: It'll be Besler paired with Cameron for the first game in a reprise of what we saw in the 2014 World Cup. I actually like this pairing quite a bit, as Besler's natural tendency to drop (and his sweeper-like ability to read the game from those situations) melds nicely with Cameron's more aggressive, front-foot defending. And both guys can pass the hell out of the ball, which matters quite a bit as possession has become a weapon under Arena.

For the second game, at Honduras, I suspect there'll be a certain amount of squad rotation. That could include central defense or – if they play well enough against Costa Rica – maybe not.

One more thing: Presumed starting LB Jorge Villafaña has yet to play for Santos Laguna during the Apertura. Like Besler and Gonzalez he was a starter for the US in the Gold Cup win, but he seems to have lost his club role to 18-year-old Gerardo Arteaga.

This is not insignificant. Villafaña has been legitimately good for the US, and Arena didn't hesitate to throw him into the fire back in March against Honduras despite the fact that Villafaña had, at that point, just 90 league minutes since the end of September. It is nonetheless far from an ideal situation.

If Arena decides Villafaña can't go, the presumed LB fill-ins:

  • DaMarcus Beasley (125 caps): Once more unto the breach, dear friends...
  • Justin Morrow (3 caps): I thought he was better than adequate in the Gold Cup.
  • Fabian Johnson (56 caps): Arena has been determined to use him as a midfielder thus far, but there's no question he can play LB in games like these.
  • Lichaj (13 caps): Wasn't great at the Gold Cup, has started the Championship season on the bench and is a natural right-footer, but has played quite a bit of LB over the years.
  • Ream: This feels like a break-in-case-of-emergency solution.

My best guess is that we'll see Villafaña start against Costa Rica regardless of whether he's played for Santos between now and then, and then we'll get one more grind-it-out-on-the-road Beasley performance at Honduras.

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