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The changes are coming for the US national team.
Bruce Arena confirmed as much in his press conference on Monday afternoon ahead of a vital (and aren’t they all now?) World Cup qualifier at Honduras on Tuesday afternoon (5:30 pm ET | beIN Sports, NBC Universo), not that it should be any shock to those of us who witnessed the USMNT’s capitulation to Costa Rica on Friday night.
Beyond bouncing back from such a demoralizing home defeat, Arena must also find a lineup that is equipped to deal with the usual complications of qualifying on the road in CONCACAF: hostile crowds, tricky fields, and – perhaps most importantly for Arena’s team selection – the crushing heat and humidity of Central America’s rainy season.
Where to start? The backline would seem to be the obvious answer. Both Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream were largely (but not solely) culpable on Costa Rica’s goals in the 2-0 loss, and it’s a pretty safe bet that Ream drops out for Matt Besler, who is a natural and battle-tested replacement on the left side of central defense.
Cameron’s case is a little trickier, as he is on paper still the best center back on the roster despite having a night to forget (and then some) in New Jersey. While it’s tempting to look at Omar Gonzalez – with his experience playing in Mexico – as a potential replacement, Gonzalez only recently returned from injury with his club and does not offer as much in possession as Cameron. We’ll give the Stoke City man another go here, hoping his showing against Costa Rica was an aberration.
Outside Cameron and Besler, Graham Zusi should keep his spot owing to the paucity of healthy right backs on the roster, his experience, and a decent outing in the previous game. On the left side, look for DaMarcus Beasley, with all of 34 games of World Cup qualifying experience and four years playing in one of MLS’ hottest and most humid markets, to step in for Jorge Villafana.
Further up the field, Arena will face some tough choices: bring in Clint Dempsey, a supersub so far this summer, into the starting lineup? Stick with a 4-4-2 or go back to a 4-2-3-1 after the failed experiment at Red Bull Arena?
Whatever the look, it’s hard to imagine that Arena will drop his key players – Michael Bradley and, yes, Christian Pulisic – in such a key game. (Unfortunately for Arena, Altidore is suspended after picking up a yellow at the end of the Costa Rica game.)
Darlington Nagbe’s security on the ball will also be invaluable in a game where the US will look to avoid chasing possession as much as possible. (The forecast calls for a game-time temperature of 91º with 73% humidty, which is projected to feel like 106º – not to mention a possible thunderstorm.)
That leaves us with two potential spots in the front six up for grabs from the starting XI that took the field on Sept. 1. In the midfield, Fabian Johnson looked sluggish going the full 90 vs. Costa Rica with only one club game under his belt between his return from injury and this round of qualifiers. Up top, Bobby Wood put in a good effort but looked awkward in a hold-up/connecting role and never really got any space to work with. But with Altidore suspended, he should get a chance to lead the line, playing a role that will more effectively allow him to probe and get in behind.
In, then, come two seasoned campaigners in Dempsey (to replace Altidore) and Alejandro Bedoya. Many have argued the last few months that Dempsey, 34, is now most effective in shorter spurts off the bench. But this is the best clutch goalscorer in US history we’re talking about here, and he’s played all but three minutes of his last five starts for the Seattle Sounders, with four goals and an assist in those games. It's also worth noting that Dempsey scored a hat trick last time these two teams met, and while no one will publicly admit that this game has anything to do with the last, his presence from the start – and the memory of that performance in late March – could prove a psychological advantage for the Americans.
Bedoya, a classic glue guy and capable central midfielder, will offer a steadying presence in the midfield when the US come under duress (and believe me, they will need to weather the storm at times).
Put it all together and we’re looking at something that will in fact look at times like a 4-4-2 and at other times a 4-2-3-1. Dempsey has never been a traditional No. 10, and if he plays, he will likely be asked to both play off Wood and drop a little deeper when the situation requires. We’ll call it a 4-2-3-1 for this exercise, but don’t get too caught up in the formation numbering:
Agree? Disagree? Have your own lineup suggestions? Make your voice heard in the comments below!
Editor's Note: This column has been amended to reflect Jozy Altidore's suspension due to yellow-card accumulation.