Arena's best U.S. starting options for March's World Cup qualifiers

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With the January camp in the rearview mirror, it's time to think about what the U.S. starting lineup will look like for the March World Cup qualifiers

The U.S. national team's January camp is in the books and Bruce Arena has plenty to chew on after a pair of largely mediocre friendly performances. The games were far from pretty, but anyone expecting beautiful soccer from a team of players in early preseason form — and in some cases players new to the national team setup — was being unrealistic.

The recent friendlies weren't so much about judging the play of the team, but rather individuals, because the reality is at least half of the squad that takes the field for the World Cup qualifier against Honduras in March will come from leagues outside MLS. There wasn't much seen in the recent friendlies to suggest the MLS contingent is ready to overtake the foreign-based selections, even with Arena in charge.

What the camp and the friendlies did do was let Arena get a closer look at his player pool, and see who might be ready to challenge for a more prominent place on the U.S. depth chart. A best-case scenario would have had some players emerge and go from new faces to legitimate starting options. Yes, Arena was also getting a look at some established veterans, and by all accounts the players who went into camp considered likely starters held on to those titles. That list isn't a long one though, with Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones still clear starters when available, while Sacha Kljestan leads the race to be Arena's preferred playmaker.

So did anyone really play their way into a starting role in March? A few probably gave Arena more reason to think they should be considered for the chance. That short list includes Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Steve Birnbaum and Nick Rimando. Others did impress, like Jorge Villafana and Walker Zimmerman, but overall it's tough to see either of them thrown into a virtual must-win qualifier in March, or a road qualifier with only one or two caps to their name.

The good news for Arena is that, with the exception of Geoff Cameron, his top foreign-based options are playing regularly or back from injury. Fabian Johnson played 26 minutes for Borussia Monchengladbach over the weekend, his most minutes in two months after recovering from injury. He will be in the U.S. lineup in March as long as he is healthy. John Brooks is back playing regularly for Hertha Berlin, while Bobby Wood continues to be Hamburg's lead striker. Timmy Chandler is continuing to start for a surprising Eintracht Frankfurt squad, though he's suspended for the Honduras qualifier. Christian Pulisic has been coming off the bench for Borussia Dortmund, but remains a clear-cut starter for the U.S. when healthy.

So what lineup are we likely to see take on Honduras on March 24? Here two potential combinations, one a 4-3-3 formation, and the other a 4-4-2:

GFX Projected USA XI A March Qualifiers

 

GFX Projected USA XI B 02052017

Here is a closer look at how positions are shaping up with a little more than six weeks to go before World Cup qualifying resumes:


GOALKEEPER

Tim Howard is still working his way back from groin surgery, and expecting him to be ready in six weeks is overly ambitious. Brad Guzan has long been seen as the second option in the pool, but his lack of playing time as Middlesbrough backup has to be a cause for concern. He looked far from sharp in the November qualifiers and if Arena can turn to a veteran MLS goalkeeper who has a handful of early-season games under his belt, you couldn't blame him for taking that option.

Which brings us to Nick Rimando, who has the big-game experience to handle the pressure of starting in qualifiers. He makes the most sense among the MLS options because of his familiarity with the full squad, given he has spent so much time as the team's third goalkeeper. Based on the MLS schedule, Rimando should have three starts under his belt when the team gathers for the March camp.

For those wondering about Ethan Horvath, the young goalkeeper has been stuck on the bench at Club Brugge since making his winter move. Even if he were to break into the lineup Horvath still has just one senior national team appearance, so making his qualifying debut in such a big match would be extremely unlikely.


DEFENDERS

Say what you want about Fabian Johnson being wasted as a left back, but the reality is he's the best option there for March. Arena could certainly be tempted to use Johnson in the attack down the road when he has more time and some better left back options, but for now Johnson is the pick. Jorge Villafana and Greg Garza are interesting options as backups, and Garza could wind up sliding into the U.S. lineup if Johnson is unavailable. Villafana looked sharper than Garza in the recent friendlies, but if Garza is starting for Atlanta United he could have the edge over Villafana, who is struggling for minutes at Santos Laguna.

John Brooks isn't likely to forget his nightmare showing against Costa Rica any time soon, but he has rebounded from a rough patch for club and country to re-establish himself at Hertha Berlin. He is still the best left center back option, and Arena has to know it. Matt Besler missed the January camp after surgery, but he has the experience in qualifiers to start if Brooks isn't available.

Cameron's injury has left the spot next to Brooks wide open. Omar Gonzalez and Steve Birnbaum are the leading candidates to start, while Matt Hedges has to be seen as a dark-horse contender. Arena has history with Gonzalez, but Birnbaum has done well with his national team opportunities and could be a better fit next to Brooks than Gonzalez.

At right back, Arena has name-checked Yedlin as the player he sees being the top option. That's an easier pronouncement to make given that Timmy Chandler is suspended for the Honduras qualifier. Yedlin is in excellent form at Newcastle and should be the starter, while Graham Zusi is looking like the backup. Arena may want to consider leaving Chandler in Germany rather than having him travel to Panama to be a backup for one match, but given how well Chandler is continuing to play for Eintracht Frankfurt, Arena may want to have him in the fold as soon as possible to help him improve on his past disappointing national team performances.

A wild card to consider is Paul Arriola. The Club Tijuana standout has been playing as a right wingback for Liga MX-leading Xolos, and while he is still working on the defensive aspects of the role, he is playing extremely well. Given Arena's interest in moving Zusi to right back, it would make sense for him to also consider Arriola if the 22-year-old can keep up his good form into March. 


MIDFIELDERS

Whether Arena goes with a three-man central midfield in a 4-3-3 or a two-man unit in some variation of a 4-4-2, Michael Bradley will hold things down in a defensive midfield role. He and Pulisic as a left winger are the only clear-cut starting options in the midfield for March, while Jones is a very good bet to start against Panama when he returns from suspension.

And who plays in Jones' absence? The answer to that question depends largely on which formation Arena settles on. If it's a 4-3-3, then Arena must choose between a veteran like Alejandro Bedoya or exciting attack-minded option like Sebastian Lletget. As good as Lletget looked in the winter camp and friendlies, his lack of national team games could lead Arena to turn to the more experienced Bedoya. Lletget brings more attacking qualities to the table though, and Arena knows him well enough to trust him in a big spot.

And if Arena decides to play a 4-4-2? A diamond with Kljestan as playmaker and a Gyasi Zardes or Bedoya on the right would work. Lletget can play on the wing, but he's more comfortable on the left, where Pulisic is likely to be deployed. That leaves the right for Zardes or Bedoya. Zardes was looking sharp in January camp before suffering a minor injury, and his ability to cover ground and be an attacking threat would give him an edge.

Something the January camp did for Arena is give him some viable bench options to consider in midfield, such as Darlington Nagbe and Benny Feilhaber. There are some foreign-based midfielders playing regularly, such as Danny Williams, Alfredo Morales and Joe Corona, but none have spent much time with the team recently and are probably better bets to earn a call in May, when Arena can call in a big group ahead of the summer's qualifiers and the Gold Cup.

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FORWARDS

Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood look like the forward tandem of choice, but again, it will be up to Arena to decide whether to play a two-forward system or deploy Wood wide and camp Altidore up top. Either way, both should be in the lineup if healthy.

Jordan Morris has given Arena something to think about. He still doesn't have a left foot, but he has game-changing speed and has polished his game considerably. He can be the perfect change-of-pace forward off the bench, and would be a viable starter if either Altidore or Wood is unavailable.

Zardes is slated to play exclusively at forward for the LA Galaxy in 2017, and is definitely a forward option for Arena. Juan Agudelo had a good January camp, and a good start to the MLS season could earn him a place on the March roster. Terrence Boyd is a player to keep an eye on. He has started two straight matches for Bundesliga side Darmstadt since transferring from RB Leipzig, and if he gets a steady run going he could be an option for March.

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