ORLANDO, Fla. — The four-man defense has been the key staple of the U.S. national team for so long that it seemed unlikely that we would ever see a shift to a three-man back line, even in specific situations. It took the return of a former coach and the evolution of the player pool to make it a viable option in big matches for the first time in 15 years.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that back then, at the 2002 World Cup, it was also Bruce Arena who enjoyed success playing with three central defenders. Soon after he took over for Jurgen Klinsmann at the end of 2016, he mentioned the 3-5-2 as a system we could see the USMNT use.
Arena wasn't kidding. We have seen the U.S. deploy three central defenders in some very big matches, most notably the 1-1 draw against Mexico at Estadio Azteca. He shifted to a 3-5-2 late in the recent road qualifier in Honduras, a move that helped produce Bobby Wood's vital equalizer, a goal that kept the Americans from having their qualifying hopes suffer a devastating blow.
As the Americans prepare for another crucial qualifier Friday against Panama, there is a very good chance we will see three center backs deployed in either a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3.
"It's always there," Arena said of the 3-5-2 option. "You learn to play it in different styles and certainly if we're chasing the game and we want to throw another player into the attack, it's always an option."
U.S. captain Michael Bradley added: "It certainly can be (an effective tool). Obviously we played three for 90 minutes against Mexico, we played three for the last 25 or 30 minutes against Honduras, but quite honestly the three we played against Mexico was different from the three we played against Honduras.
"It depends on who's on the field, it depends on the situation. It depends on if three actually mean five, or does three mean three? Are we starting that way, or are we going to it at the end of a game if we need to push things?"
Working in the formation's favor is the fact that the current U.S. player pool is stocked with players familiar with different variations of the system. Bradley and Jozy Altidore have featured prominently in a 3-5-2 for a large part of the MLS season with Toronto FC. Geoff Cameron has recently seen playing time in a three-man defense, and so has Omar Gonzalez. DeAndre Yedlin has played as a wing back in a 3-5-2 before, while Paul Arriola spent an entire season in that very role with Club Tijuana under manager Miguel Herrera. It was a positional shift, and tactical education, that has made playing in the system easy for Arriola.
That is at least part of the reason Arena gave Arriola the start against Mexico in June, on a night when the U.S. managed to neutralize El Tri in a system that at times varied between being a 3-4-3 and a 5-3-2.
"As a wing back, someone that likes to get up and down the field, I'm used to that as a right mid anyway," Arriola said. "As a starting point, being a little bit further back as a right wing back, I enjoy it. I think it allows us to create more numbers in the middle, overload the middle and then we can create width with wing backs.
"For me, I really enjoy it and I think against Honduras it was a good switch and a different type of energy that we were able to provide off the bench in a different type of game," Arriola added. "It wasn't me that partook in the goal, but it had a lot to do with it, the movements and freeing Christian [Pulisic] to roam around and be a little freer because he's the guy we want on the ball in the final third."
Even Pulisic has experience playing in a 3-5-2, having spent time there with Borussia Dortmund last season, both as a winger and in a central midfield role. He didn't make as much of an impact against Mexico in June as most would have expected, but that could have also come down to him playing in short rest and at altitude. Against Honduras in September, Pulisic saw more of the ball and more opportunities when the Americans shifted to the 3-5-2 in the final 25 minutes or so.
Yedlin's return to the team provides a big boost, not only because he's the best right-back option in the pool, but also because he has the versatility to play as a wing back as well.
"At fullback you have a little bit more defensive responsibility," Yedlin said of the differences in roles. "You have to help out with your center backs a little bit more. As a wing back, you can be a little bit more aggressive with getting forward. As a wing back, when you get the ball wide, you usually don't have any help out wide. You have to be pretty good on your own out there. There are different challenges to each, so either one is fine with me."
The 3-5-2 system has shown some good things for the U.S. this year, but it is also less than a year since Klinsmann tried to deploy the U.S. in a three-man defense against Mexico in Columbus in November. It was an experiment that failed miserably, lasting less than a half, though the failure was seen more as a product of Klinsmann's poor preparation than the actual fault of the system itself.
"Like anything, tactically you can do anything you want as long as you work on it," Bradley said. "As long as things are made clear, guys understand the idea behind it. And so I think we've found a good way in some of these moments to have some flexibility, to tweak how we do things. To give ourselves the best chance to be successful."
As for as the current U.S. team is concerned, the 3-5-2 is a weapon the team is well-equipped to employ, making it something we are likely to see play a key role as the Americans look to secure their place at the 2018 World Cup.