Armchair Analyst: Zardes, Johnson & controversy on the USMNT roster

The first thing to understand here is this: You're getting all heated about the 24th man on a 26-man roster. I understand why – everybody likes to feel outraged from time to time, since it's vivifying in its way – but let's just process the above and hold onto it and make it the foundation of any discussion going forward.

The second thing to understand: Gyasi Zardes isn't going to be playing a minute in the next two games, anyway. He limped off the field after 33 minutes of the Galaxy's 1-1 draw against RSL on Saturday night, and did not look very much like a man who would be able to play a soccer game any time in the next 10 days. I bet he'll be replaced tomorrow (fingers crossed for Matt Polster).

EDIT: He has indeed been ruled out by US Soccer, but there is no replacement.

The third thing is this: For all the flack Zardes takes from the fanbase (some of which I participate in from time to time), he has been a reliably productive two-way wide player for the USMNT over the past two years. Do you remember the Gold Cup?

Do you remember the Copa America? Against Paraguay, and then against Ecuador? You can bag on Zardes for his first touch and his club form, but he has a history of production in big moments for the USMNT. I'm not saying that should put him in the team, but the conversation about this roster can not ignore that he's got six goals and seven assists, many in big moments.

The fourth thing is this: Zardes's inclusion is going to be tethered to the surprise absence of Fabian Johnson. This is probably a fair framing, since they fill the same gap in Bruce Arena's regime – two-way wide attackers, be it in a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 or a 5-4-1.

There is a strain of discussion out there suggesting Johnson has been mostly poor and disinterested for the US since the 2014 World Cup, but I'm going to push back on that, as he was excellent in last summer's Copa America. That, however, has been the exception more than the rule, and Johnson was mostly a non-factor in the recent September qualifiers. He failed to even contest a midfield 50/50 that led to Marco Ureña's game-winning goal in the Costa Rica game, and when he did get on the ball he was happy to drift away from physical confrontations and toward the touchline.

Johnson was not close to being a difference-maker to the good despite being played in a position that he swears is his best. Worse, he didn't look up for the fight, and CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is nothing if not a fight. Especially against Panama. Against Honduras, he didn't get off the bench.

Given that and his poor club form – he's played just 180 minutes for Borussia Mönchengladbach this year, though 90 of those were pretty good ones this weekend in a 2-1 win over Hannover – I'm not finding reasons to be upset about Johnson's absence.

There are also this summer's comments to consider. "I still really enjoy playing for my country, but there is an agreement with head coach Bruce Arena that I will only play in the more important matches," Johnson told Bild. From the outside looking in, that appears to be less than full buy-in from a guy who should be a team leader. Let's recall that Jurgen Klinsmann had doubts about Johnson to that effect as well. There is precedent.

There is also zero question that Paul Arriola has been a more effective wide player for the US over the past 12 months. It was him, Geoff Cameron and Bobby Wood who changed the game (along with a timely switch to a 3-5-2) against Honduras.

A few other notes:

• I thought Matt Miazga would get a call, but Arena went with Michael Orozco instead. Orozco isn't as talented as Miazga, but Orozco knows how to function in CONCACAF, and he's well-versed at playing in a three- or five-back system. I have a suspicion, given how good the US were for the final 20 minutes against Honduras, that we could see a 3-5-2 or a 5-4-1 in one or both of these upcoming, must-win games.

• Sporting KC playmaker Benny Feilhaber is jacked to be called in.

“I think my exact words were, ‘If you need me to be a cheerleader, I’ll be a cheerleader,’” Feilhaber said to Sam McDowell of the KC Star. “Hopefully I get more of a role than that, but it’s just exciting to be part of that group. Literally whatever they need me to do, I’m ready to do.”

Feilhaber is a string-pulling midfield playmaker who's got a history of performing in big moments, for both club and country. One of the issues the US had in the most recent set of qualifiers was that too much of the creative burden fell to Christian Pulisic. Putting Feilhaber on the field would mean that there's another guy out there who can hit the final pass, or punish an unbalanced defense. He's done it against some pretty damn good teams, remember:

• New England's all-around-attacker-who-should-just-be-a-center-forward, Juan Agudelo, is the other surprise call-in. Agudelo hasn't scored since July, but that's largely because he's not been played as a forward since July. The Revs are, for some reason, married to him as a pseudo No. 10 or a possession-based winger.

Agudelo has been good, especially in possession, in both roles. He's also been a committed defender. Given his talent I don't mind seeing him here.

• Bobby Wood saved the US in San Pedro Sula, but on the club level he's running out for a team that has no idea where the goal is. Hamburg haven't scored a goal since August 25, and are 0-4-1 since then in the Bundesliga. Wood missed one of those games with a knee knock, but he's 100% fit now.

Wood still looks good – Hamburg's issue stems from a couple of injuries on their playmaking line, so it's not like he's out there blowing chances. He's just not getting any.

Regardless, he, I'm sure, play a huge role in these games.

Jozy Altidore, Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin are all fully fit after recovering from hamstring issues in September. Altidore went 90 and had a hand in three goals in TFC's win on Saturday, including drawing the Supporters' Shield-clinching penalty and adding an icing-on-the-cake assist a few minutes later. Cameron put in 90 as the middle defender in Stoke's 3-6-1/5-4-1 from their 2-1 win over Sunderland, and Yedlin had a mostly quiet but reliable 90 as an overlapping fullback in Newcastle's 1-1 home draw against Liverpool, including some nice defensive plays down the stretch.

Let's hope both Yedlin and Cameron are fit to get 180 minutes. With all due respect to Graham Zusi, the gap between him and Yedlin is significant.

• Matt Besler is something of a question, however. He didn't play in Sporting's 1-0 loss to Vancouver on Saturday:

He should be fine by Friday, though. Omar Gonzalez seems to have rediscovered his form, with 180 good minutes for Pachuca this week, and Tim Ream keeps going 90 minutes every week for a Fulham team starting to push its way up the standings in the Championship (3-1-1 in their last five). 

I understand that fans will have bad memories of Ream, Cameron and Gonzalez from last month. Try instead to remember how excellent all three were in the 1-1 draw at Mexico. This is another data point that leads me to think we'll see a three- or five-man backline.

• If that defense plays well and Pulisic, Altidore, Wood and Clint Dempsey play like they should, the US will qualify for the World Cup. Three years into this miserable cycle, it's disappointingly clear that remains a big "if."

U.S. Men’s National Team World Cup Qualifying Roster

Pos Player Club
GK Brad Guzan Atlanta United FC
GK Tim Howard Colorado Rapids
GK Nick Rimando Real Salt LakeRSL
D DaMarcus Beasley Houston Dynamo
D Matt Besler Sporting KC
D Geoff Cameron Stoke City
D Omar Gonzalez Pachuca
D Michael Orozco Club Tijuana
D Tim Ream Fulham
D Jorge Villafaña Santos Laguna
D DeAndre Yedlin Newcastle United
D Graham Zusi Sporting KC
M Kellyn Acosta FC Dallas
M Juan Agudelo New England Revolution
M Paul Arriola D.C. United
M Alejandro Bedoya Philadelphia Union
M Michael Bradley Toronto FC
M Benny Feilhaber Sporting KC
M Dax McCarty Chicago Fire
M Darlington Nagbe Portland Timbers
M Christian Pulisic Borussia Dortmund
F Jozy Altidore Toronto FC
F Clint Dempsey Seattle Sounders
F Chris Wondolowski San Jose Earthquakes
F Bobby Wood Hamburg
Series: 
Topics: 

Stay connected: The official MLS app keeps you connected with the latest news, highlights, scores, standings, and analysis all for FREE. Download for iOS (Apple) or Download for Android