Armchair Analyst: With World Cup in the balance, who should Arena call?

I suspect that four points from the next two games would be enough to get the US men's national team into third place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, and thus would be enough to secure automatic entry into next summer's World Cup.

But also: It might not be enough, and almost certainly won't be enough if they don't beat Panama outright in October 6. That would mean another month of holding our collective breath and hoping that things go right come the playoff against the fifth-place team out of the Asian federation (Australia or Syria) in November.

So yeah, getting the full six points next month, first at home against Panama and then at Trinidad & Tobago, is imperative for Bruce Arena & Co. He's going to call in his best team(*).

(*) Last time Arena called 26 players even though you can only have 23 rostered per matchday, so that's the number I'm shooting at here.

Here's my prediction of what he'll consider that to be:

GOALKEEPERS: Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Howard has not been in great form lately, but I don't think that will be enough for Arena to write him out of the rotation entirely. So I'd expect the usual, with Howard getting the home leg and Guzan the away date, and Rimando in town for "break glass in case of emergency" duties.

Alternate: Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge) – Horvath has been good, but not good enough yet to displace Rimando as the No. 3.

DEFENDERS: DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Miazga (Vitesse Arnhem), Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo)

Something folks are going to struggle with emotionally is Arena's commitment to "his" guys or "proven" guys or just "guys he can trust." This sometimes leads to him sticking with an underperforming veteran or two to a fault – and yes, it feels like that's what we're staring at in Beasley's case – and means he can be slow to work promising young players into the squad.

To that point: I sure wish Miazga had gotten more than a single game at the Gold Cup. Miazga was good in his 90-minute cameo appearance this summer, and has been very good for Vitesse early this season. That includes a shout in the Everdivisie team of the week thanks to a Man of the Match showing in their 2-1 win at Ajax:

In an ideal world we wouldn't be talking about this because "Cameron and John Brooks" would be written in ink, but nothing about this World Cup cycle has been ideal for the US. Brooks will be hurt until winter and Cameron has missed his last two club games with a hamstring injury – there's no guarantee he'll be available in October.

Neither Cameron nor Ream nor Gonzalez are going to be dropped for their disappointing showings back in September. Part of this is that's just not how Arena operates, and part is that none of the guys further down the depth chart have really made a case (no, RSL fans, Justen Glad's not there yet).

Some of you may be wondering where Timmy Chandler is, as he's been adequate or above as a right wingback for Eintracht Frankfurt this Bundesliga season. There is a chance he'll be called in, but I wouldn't expect it, as he's turned down too many call-ups across three different coaching regimes. Chandler's better than Zusi, but not as good as Yedlin, and there's no need to potentially upset the locker room balance for the sake of a back-up.

Also bear in mind that there's a non-zero chance the US will come out in a 3-5-2/5-3-2 for one or both of these games.

Alternates: Chandler, Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC) – I would take Morrow over Beasley at this point, but I don't expect it.

MIDFIELDERS: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

McKennie, a 19-year-old central midfielder from the FC Dallas academy, is the only new name here, and no, I don't expect him to play. But he's started two games for Schalke in the last two weeks and has the look of an exceptional talent, so it makes a good amount of sense to get him into the squad for a "get your feet wet" look at this point.

If McKennie is not there, it's for this reason: Arena does not want to jeopardize the kid's standing at his club. Schalke are notoriously difficult when it comes to releasing players for international dates (they refused to allow McKennie's call-up to the U-20 World Cup this spring), and while they'd be required by FIFA statutes to release him for this trip, it might not make sense, long-term, for Arena to call him in for games in which the kid is almost certainly not going to play.

Should that happen, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Schalke would get super petty about finding playing time for McKennie in the months to come.

The rest of the midfield picks itself. I'd sure like to see Bedoya get time as the No. 8, by the way:

Bedoya's smart, does real work off the ball on both offense and defense, and is the kind of no-frills connector that the US have mostly been missing over the past few months. He also finds the game more than Acosta or Roldan.

Also note that both Arriola and Johnson are arguably more at home playing wingback than either fullback or winger, and that the US only came alive in the last 20 minutes against Honduras following a switch to the 3-5-2. Running out in that formation has the added bonus of putting Pulisic in the middle of it all as an attacking central midfielder.

That might not be his best position for Dortmund, but it has been for the US.

Alternates: Jonathan Gonzalez (Monterrey), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls) – The 18-year-old Gonzalez has been one of the biggest surprises of the Liga MX season, anchoring the midfield for the league's best team. He's a no-frills, lock-down No. 6 who looks to have a big future in the Makelele role.

The future hasn't arrived yet, though. If the US were in a more comfortable position in the table, he'd be called in. But they're not.

Corona still figures into the depth chart somewhere, and Adams ... I don't think Adams is ready yet, but if Arena said "I'm calling him to play shutdown corner at right wingback," I'd nod and say "ok, that makes some sense." I don't remotely expect it, though.

FORWARDS: Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Wood plays for a team that couldn't find the goal with a map, Altidore's been missing games with a hamstring knock, Dempsey's been in a rut and Wondo is here for purely ornamental reasons. Not not not ideal.

One thing to bear in mind is that Wood has always been comfortable playing as a lone forward, and Altidore's shown increased facility for that as well:

That's not a goal Jozy used to score. So there's a very real scenario in which Arena trots his team out in a 3-5-2 one game, and then in a 4-2-3-1 in the next – and yes, those are the two formations in which the US have looked most solid defensively and most comfortable going forward in numbers.

Playing Pulisic underneath, say, Wood is totally feasible as long as the wingers (presumably two of Johnson, Arriola and Nagbe) make sure they find time and space to get forward as well.

Alternates: Dom Dwyer (Orlando City), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), C.J. Sapong (Philadelphia Union), Alan Gordon (Colorado Rapids) – I'm not even trolling with that Gordon shout. I would be totally fine with him (or Sapong, who's younger and better but less proven) on the matchday squad in a "hey, we're about to start pumping balls into the box" role.

But I'm not expecting it, and I'm not expecting to need it. The US got ambushed by Costa Rica and then by Honduras before fighting back behind the grit of Wood, Arriola, Besler, Cameron and Jordan Morris. They should've discovered something about themselves in those games, and about each other, and about urgency of the games they're playing it.

Now they have to use that knowledge and their greater-than-the-guys-on-the-other-side talent to get the job done, no matter who Bruce picks.

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