The time for experiments is over, and the pressure-packed World Cup qualifiers awaiting the U.S. national team are less than two weeks away. Bruce Arena knows securing a minimum of four points, if not all six, is necessary when the U.S. faces Honduras and Panama.
With that in mind, we should expect a U.S. squad that will be very light on new faces, a team that will lean heavily on most of the same players who struggled through a pair of World Cup qualifying losses last November. Arena will name his squad in the coming days ahead of training camp, which will begin on Monday in San Jose, California, and what he will have is a team with several players in good form and riding waves of confidence.
Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, John Brooks and Fabian Johnson are all on good form heading into the qualifiers, while Tim Howard and Geoff Cameron have both returned from long injury layoffs in time to be ready for the upcoming matches. In terms of regular starters, DeAndre Yedlin's minor thigh injury is probably the most worrisome injury Arena has to deal with at the moment.
There should be some different wrinkles in the squad Arena chooses, whether it's the continuation of the Graham Zusi experiment at right back, or Paul Arriola's excellent form this year, to Sebastian Lletget's potentially important role in the U.S. midfield.
How will the U.S. squad look when it convenes next week? Here is a look at the players who could get the call to try and help the U.S. climb out of the Hex basement:
GETTING THE CALL- Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, William Yarbrough, David Bingham
JUST MISSED - Nick Rimando, Luis Robles
Just a week ago the goalkeeper position looked a mess, what with Howard still being sidelined and Guzan having been stuck on the bench, but both Howard and Guzan played and did well this past week to give Arena something to think about. A healthy Howard is on the team, and likely the starter, It might seem odd to have Rimando not make the cut given the fact just a week ago he seemed like a good candidate to start. It ultimately boils down to Arena. Does he see Rimando as a third goalkeeper, which would explain passing on Rimando when Real Salt Lake has a game at Red Bull Arena the day after the World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
If Howard suffers an injury relapse, or if Arena decides Guzan hasn't played enough in recent weeks, then Arena could call on Rimando's experience. That said, given the magnitude of the qualifiers it's tough to see Arena passing on either Howard or Guzan when healthy, and if they are healthy, having Rimando serve as third goalkeeper when his club has a scheduled match seems a waste. The same goes for Luis Robles, who would be facing Rimando and RSL. Of course, Arena could call in both Rimando and Robles.
GETTING THE CALL - Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, DeAndre Yedlin, Steve Birnbaum, Greg Garza, Graham Zusi
JUST MISSED THE CUT- Timmy Chandler, Matt Hedges, Eric Lichaj, Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman, Michael Orozco, Jorge Villafana
We know Arena would like to move Johnson to his more natural role in midfield, but that can wait until after the upcoming qualifiers. The U.S. needs Johnson at fullback more than it needs him in the attack at the moment.
Will Arena bring Chandler to camp even though he is suspended for the first match? It's certainly tempting considering how well Chandler has played in Germany this season. That said, Chandler has struggled with the national team, and Arena could let Chandler stay home if he doesn't plan to start him against Panama. Now, if Yedlin's thigh injury doesn't heal in time, Arena may have little choice but to bring Chandler in.
As much as Arena doesn't want to rush people back who have recently returned from injury, it wouldn't be rushing to call in Cameron, who will have had three full matches under his belt ahead of the U.S. camp if he starts and plays 90 against Chelsea this weekend. There is a bit of a logjam at center back, and this camp is a good opportunity to bring in several options for a closer look. It remains unclear who Arena prefers between Gonzalez and Birnbaum, with Hedges another defender Arena is very high on.
At left back, Johnson can handle the role, while Garza has impressed in his first two matches for Atlanta United, and could get the call to start if Arena decides to, or needs to, deploy Johnson at right back. Villafana impressed in the January camp, but
If Yedlin is unavailable, it could open the door for Orozco, who has been playing regularly for Club Tijuana.
GETTING THE CALL - Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Alejandro Bedoya, Darlington Nagbe, Sebastian Lletget, Paul Arriola
JUST MISSED THE CUT- Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, Emerson Hyndman, Kellyn Acosta, Joe Corona
You might ask why would Jones get a call despite a suspension for the Honduras match when Chandler wouldn't? The U.S. will need Jones' toughness and edge on the road in Panama.
Who will step in with Jones suspended against Honduras? Sebastian Lletget is one possibility, though the LA Galaxy haven't done him any favors in that regard by playing him as a right winger in their first two matches.
Could Arena give Cameron a start in central midfield and have him partner with Bradley? it's something to think about given the fact Cameron has played in central midfield for Stoke City since returning from injury. A Bradley-Cameron pairing could help control the middle of the field against Honduras, but then again Honduras has the attacking weapons to make it wiser to deploy Cameron in central defense.
Where will Pulisic go? Playing Pulisic on the left wing, partnered with Fabian Johnson, could be effective against Honduras, which would free up the right flank for a veteran like Bedoya, or an exciting and in-form talent like Arriola, who has played well enough this year with Club Tijuana to merit a call-up.
Fans of Feilhaber won't be happy to see him miss out after waiting so long to get back into the national team picture, but there are several options capable of playing in a central playmaker role, from Kljestan to Lletget and even Nagbe.
Will Arena give Williams a call, or will he turn to an MLS-based option, such as Dax McCarty to provide depth in defensive midfield? As noted above, Cameron could be another defensive midifield option, but it's more likely either Williams or McCarty should receive a call to offer a boost off the bench.
GETTING THE CALL - Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Chris Wondolowski
MISSED THE CUT - Clint Dempsey, Terrence Boyd, Julian Green
Wood is in excellent form for Hamburg, and Arena should reunite the Wood-Altidore tandem up top. Morris is a perfect speed option off the bench and Wondolowski remains the good locker room guy who can find a goal against CONCACAF competition.
Should we believe Arena when he says he wants to take his time with Dempsey? And can we really expect Dempsey not to jump at the chance to play in some monumentally important qualifiers? That's the big question. This projection leaves Dempsey out because of Arena's cautious approach, but nobody will be surprised if Dempsey gets the call.
Boyd is definitely on the radar, though he has seen his playing time diminish at Darmstadt in recent weeks. He is still a promising striker option, so don't be surprised if he gets a call. Green is earning playing time for 2. Bundesliga side Stuttgart, but seems an unlikely call-up for March.