As the US national team gets set to tackle the next-to-last pair of World Cup qualifiers in this cycle's decisive CONCACAF Hexagonal, head coach Bruce Arena has filled his latest squad with 26 players that combine to offer two key intangibles: predictability and flexibility.
The Nats currently hold the third slot in the standings, which at the end will be good enough to grab the last automatic ticket to Russia 2018. The margin for error is slim, though, with Costa Rica set to invade Red Bull Arena on Friday (6:30 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás, UDN). They stand just one point ahead of fourth place Panama (who sit in the playoff spot) and three up on Honduras, whom they'll visit on Tuesday, Sept. 5 (5:30 pm ET | beIN SPORTS).
With so much on the line during these next nine days, let's look at how Arena has opted to shrewdly play this all-important selection.
Put simply, the USMNT is looking to set up their stretch drive to Russia in these next two games. Therefore, Arena will bank on a lot of guys who know how to advance from a Hex. A dozen players on this roster have more than 10 World Cup qualifying caps, while both Alejandro Bedoya and Christian Pulisic will join that club with their next one.
In fact, seven of the players called in to this group saw playing time back in four years ago when the US topped Mexico 2-0 to clinch their 2014 World Cup invite. And for that matter, 14 of them appeared at those finals in Brazil.
Familiarity Breeds Content
During the tough times in Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as US boss, one of the major gripes against his selection management was a lack of line-up continuity. This was especially the case on the backline, where partnerships are vital to keeping the ball out of the net.
Klinsmann couldn't help himself, always experimenting even when things were going well. That constant deck shuffling doesn't work in the international game, which typically features players coming from several different countries for short camps and a couple of games together before they go separate ways back to club life for weeks or even months apart.
Even with several injuries to regulars this time around, introductions will not be necessary with Arena. Ten players have played in at least eight of the 14 games since he took over for Klinsmann. Three of those are defenders and one is Michael Bradley, whose job it is to protect the backline and spark the transition game into attack.
What's more, Arena has summoned 18 players that took some part in the team's 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup title run (including six defenders and Bradley). As a result, the chance the US will be hurt by communication errors or some pair of players lacking familiarity has been substantially decreased.
Since taking over for Klinsmann last November, Arena has used no less than five different formations. He hasn't stayed married to a single game plan, choosing instead to cater the tactical shapes to opponents and/or situations. And with this selection, he's given himself the ability to use any of those sets and styles.
You want to lean on the foe in a 4-3-3? Fabian Johnson and Pulisic can run the flanks, and Clint Dempsey can play in the hole behind Jozy Altidore while Darlington Nagbe acts as the two-way conduit between Bradley and the attack. Or Arena can shift Nagbe out wide and hand Pulisic the keys as a No. 10, leaving Deuce as a supersub.
You want to go five at the back? Tim Ream can be a ball-moving defender, while Johnson and Graham Zusi are tailor-made for true wingback roles. How about the old 4-4-2 empty bucket? Bobby Wood can give defenders headaches by running off of Altidore, and Arena has a variety of choices to fill the midfield slots around Bradley.
You get the idea. Because of how this roster is staffed, there is virtually no limit to how the team could operate in these two games. As he's done all year while posting a 7-0-3 competitive record, Arena can continue to keep opponents guessing.
U.S. Men’s National Team World Cup Qualifying Roster
|GK||Brad Guzan||Atlanta United FC||14/0|
|GK||Tim Howard||Colorado Rapids||36/0|
|GK||Nick Rimando||Real Salt LakeRSL||0/0|
|D||DaMarcus Beasley||Houston Dynamo||34/6|
|D||Matt Besler||Sporting KC||11/1|
|D||Geoff Cameron||Stoke City||22/2|
|D||Matt Hedges||FC Dallas||0/0|
|D||Eric Lichaj||Nottingham Forest||0/0|
|D||Jorge Villafaña||Santos Laguna||3/0|
|D||Graham Zusi||Sporting KC||18/3|
|M||Kellyn Acosta||FC Dallas||4/0|
|M||Paul Arriola||D.C. United||3/1|
|M||Alejandro Bedoya||Philadelphia Union||9/0|
|M||Michael Bradley||Toronto FC||35/7|
|M||Fabian Johnson||Borussia MönchengladbachGladbach||16/1|
|M||Dax McCarty||Chicago Fire||0/0|
|M||Darlington Nagbe||Portland Timbers||7/0|
|M||Christian Pulisic||Borussia Dortmund||9/5|
|M||Cristian Roldan||Seattle Sounders||0/0|
|F||Jozy Altidore||Toronto FC||38/16|
|F||Clint Dempsey||Seattle Sounders||39/18|
|F||Jordan Morris||Seattle Sounders||3/0|
|F||Chris Wondolowski||San Jose Earthquakes||0/0|