The US is on the brink.
This World Cup qualifying cycle has been the complete opposite of the 2014 cycle. Four years ago, the US were already qualified at this point and were at the top of the table. Fast forward four years and they’re fighting to qualify for any spot. The United States’ last games against Costa Rica and Honduras were not convincing for fans. The pressure is building up for Bruce Arena. He knows four points are the least they can do, and six points is a must. Panama is not going to roll over for the United States, even on US soil. Tensions will be high, and be ready to buckle up for a wild match. A win could be the USA’s ticket to Russia, but a loss will send them to rock bottom. They’ll also have to show up down south, in Trinidad and Tobago, and take points on the road.
Arena Announces the Roster.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Michael Orozco (Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Surprise Inclusions: Benny Feilhaber and Juan Agudelo
Jurgen Klinsmann used to get a lot of heat for never calling in Feilhaber. He has been a force in the Sporting KC midfield for years now, but hasn’t played a meaningful game for the US since 2010. I don’t know if Agudelo being included or being listed as a midfielder is more surprising. Juan Agudelo was once a huge US prospect, but has been struggling with the transition from a youth prospect to an actual starter. I doubt either will be used, but still surprise inclusions.
Surprise Exclusions: Fabian Johnson
Fabian Johnson’s exclusion was almost as shocking as Landon Donovan’s exclusion from the 2014 World Cup. It seems both have similar story lines, as the players had a falling out with the managers. Johnson’s fitness could be question, since he has not played much in the Budesliga. However, Johnson has been questioned on his commitment to the US, in recent years. He was sent home early from the Gold Cup in 2015, and Klinsmann publicly stated his displeasure with his lack of effort. Regardless, Johnson is the best left sided player for the United States, and this could backfire on Arena, if the worst happens.
In Friday’s crucial game against Panama, the US attack needs to wake up. In their last away fixture versus Panama, Pulisic was battered by defenders, but that didn’t stop him from assisting Dempsey. This time, expect to see at least two guys on him at all times. Someone not named Pulisic, is going to have to step up and expose Panama’s defensive overload on the young winger. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bobby Wood come in clutch for the US again. Here is my lineup prediction for both games:
GK: Tim Howard
Defenders: Jorge Villafana, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, and DeAndre Yedlin
Midfield: Darlington Nagbe, Michael Bradley (C), Kellyn Acosta, Christian Pulisic
Forwards: Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood
This line up has to play both games (barring injuries), because there is no more room for error. Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler are the clear cut best center backs available. Yedlin will give the US more security at full back with his return, but Villifana is still a question mark. The midfield has to give Pulisic more support, so he can stay forward and find space. Bradley needs time to pick out passes and control the tempo of the game. The past few games, he has not been able to do that. Finally, there is only one simple message for the forwards: Score Goals.
I know some US fans are very nervous about these games, but somehow the US always has pulled through. I do believe in this team, and I think they can be going in a positive direction. They just have to get the job done. Luckily, these crucial match ups are very favorable. Panama is a beatable opponent, especially at home. Trindad and Tobago are eliminated, and points will not be an impossible goal to obtain. Right now, I am cautiously optimistic for the United States. I will stand by with what I have been saying, and that is worst case scenario, the US have to play in a continental playoff to go the World Cup. However, I expect six or four points and an automatic qualification this weekend.