First let’s start with the call ups, the quibble will wait till the end.
There has been much discussion about the direction of the national team since the moment the final whistle blew on November 15, 2016 in San Jose, Costa Rica. The stars and stripes suffered a humiliating defeat to the tune of 4-0 that saw Jürgen Klinsmann ousted from his role as head coach.
There has been no shortage of opinion on what formation to play, how to put players in their most natural positions, and what the right mix of veterans and youth should be. Well, we finally have what would appear to be Bruce Arena’s answer to some of those questions as he prepares the senior team for a critical home match against Honduras (March 24) and a road tilt in hot and humid Panama (March 28). Realistically we cannot afford anything less than 4 points, although the full 6 points should really be the goal here.
Let’s touch on some of the most interesting aspects of the players called up, let’s begin at the back and move forward.
We have seen a handful of fringe candidates called up in recent months as we continue to search for younger keepers to pass the torch to. David Bingham (S.J. Earthquakes) as well as Luis Robles (N.Y. Red bulls) both had a shot during the January camp but it wasn’t long lived. Arena has opted to go with the same three keepers that were on the 2014 Brazil World Cup roster. In the three years since that tournament, for better or worse we are exactly where we started, just older.
I love Nick Rimando, he will always be my homeboy, but the question must be asked, are Howard, Guzan and Rimando so amazing that no one can catch them despite their age? Or has the U.S. started to stagnate in its ability to develop top shelf goalkeepers to push the older stalwarts? Either way, the average age for these three will be 35.6 years old. There is a possibility that we will have a 39-year-old starting keep in Russia, assuming we qualify and Tim Howard is still in the mix.
Defenders (8): John Brooks (Hertha Berlin/GER), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/ENG), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca/MEX), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana/MEX), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna/MEX), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
When we look at the defensive back four there are some things to be really excited about, and there is at least one big headscratcher. Our first big take away is not found in who was called up as a defender, but rather who wasn’t called up to play fullback.
Arena has made his backed up his words with actions. Last week Bruce Arena went on FS1 and said, “I think we’re going to play him (Fabian Johnson) where he plays for his club team…It only makes sense to me. He’s played a number of games for Gladbach on the left side of midfield, and I think that’s his natural position where he feels most comfortable and that’s where we’re going to position him.”
Can I get a hell yes? The Klinsmann experiment of having Johnson start at both fullback slots as well as outside midfielder is over…we think. While Arena has called up multiple options to fill the fullback roles he failed to call in someone who is a natural right back. Typically, Deandre Yedlin would fill this roster need, but he is out injured. This means that either the young and energetic Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna/MEX), the aging DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), of the steady Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG) could all get pushed to the right side. Or, it is entirely possible that Fabian Johnson is once again asked to play out of positon.
Our centerback situation is a lot less grim, thanks to the timely recovery of Geoff Cameron. He will most likely headline the core of the defense, with John Brooks partnering alongside him.
Midfielders (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach/GER), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
They hype train rolls on people. The starlet, Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund will continue to have his opportunity to shine on the big stage as he headlines our midfield class. At the pubescent age of only 18, Pulisic continues to set records with style and ease. He scored the opener on Tuesday in a DFB-Pokal domestic cup match. Last week he was also pivotal in Dortmunds UEFA champions league tilt against Portuguese powerhouse Benefica. He assisted on the team’s first goal, and scored the second himself as Dortmund routed Benefica 4-0 and 4-1 on aggregate. Pulisic is for real, and I think the time to temper our expectations has come and gone.
As far as the rest of the midfielders, it is nice to see Nagbe and McCarty in the mix. Both well deserving, and both can provide a spark. Likewise, after a strong showing in January, and no doubt a by-product of the pre-existing player/coach relationship, Sebastian Lletget will participate in his first qualifiers. An argument can, and probably should be made though that Lletget, as well as Kellyn Acosta could have easily been left off to make way for the likes of Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan. Both Feilhaber and Kljestan are creative players who come in handy if Honduras and Panama decide to park the bus and play for the draw or the counter-attack.
Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Bobby Wood (Hamburg/GER)
The heart and soul of the team (see what I did there) for many years has been the captain emeritus Clint Dempsey. After a long and nerve-wracking saga involving an irregular heartbeat, Clint Dempsey is not back in full fitness and ready to continue to help the USMNT advance. Although the Sounders FO has been very tight lipped, it was revealed by Dempsey’s brother Ryan that Clint had a medical procedure to resolve his ailment. Either way, he will factor in, whether as a starter or a spark off the bench has yet to be seen.
Our forwards for this round of games is the youngest unit on the squad with an average age of 26.7 years. Dempsey pulls this average up considerably with an age of 34, but keep in mind that Morris is only 22 and Wood is still fairly young at 24 years old. Altidore is 27.
The largest weight will fall on the shoulders of these four men in the coming weeks. The U.S. is averaging only 0.5 goals a game thus far in the Hex, and if that continues it will be nearly impossible to qualify for Russia.
Now for the quibble that we promised. The locker room may have an uncomfortable mood the first couple days of camp. This will be in large part due to the public spat that Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya found themselves in this last Saturday. Bedoya, speaking to the media, took issue with a penalty that was called against Philadelphia when Altidore was taken down in the box. Bedoya, when asked about the play quipped, "Knowing Jozy, he tends to go down easy in the box, so let's just leave it at that…I didn't even see it, but from what I hear it was definitely not a penalty.”
Not one to bottle up his feelings, Altidore decided to shoot back at Bedoya via twitter, yes twitter, people. Altidore wrote, “Nice comment pal, you have a lot to say but never to anyones face. I’m surprised..but I shouldn’t be.”
It will be interesting to see how this one plays out. They don’t have to like each other as long as they play well with each other, but chemistry is a funny thing and when there is contention in the locker room, it often can be reflected on the field.