A sense of panic set in among some U.S. national team supporters after Friday's loss to Costa Rica, but that feeling isn't likely to make its way to Bruce Arena. The U.S. coach has been around the World Cup qualifying block a few times, so as much as he knows Friday's loss has made getting to Russia more difficult, he knows there's still reason to believe his team can finish the job.
With that in mind, it's tough to see Arena going with a complete shakeup of the team that lost on Friday when he chooses his starters against Honduras on Tuesday. As disappointing as the team's showing was against the Ticos, Arena knows Tuesday's opponent isn't on Costa Rica's level in terms of talent or organization, and some players who couldn't seem to put a foot right on Friday could still be the ones who shine in San Pedro Sula.
Does that mean Tuesday's match will be easy? Far from it. We saw four years ago what the hot and hostile conditions in San Pedro Sula can do to the U.S., as a 2-1 Honduras win set the Americans off on a losing foot to kick off the most recent Hexagonal. Eight of the 11 players who played in that loss are on the current U.S. team, so they won't need much reminding of how important it will be to match Honduras' intensity, particularly early on.
Arena wasn't the coach back in 2013, but he has taken a U.S. team to Honduras before — back in 2001 — so he isn't a stranger to the challenge that awaits, and he isn't a stranger to winning in Honduras.
It's clear that changes do need to be made to the U.S. lineup, but just how many is the real question heading into Tuesday. We shouldn't expect wholesale changes like we saw back in June. Circumstances were different then because of the extremely short turnaround time between the clash against Trinidad & Tobago in Colorado and the showdown in Mexico City against El Tri just two days later. Back then, Arena knew he would need to essentially field two different teams for those matches, and prepared his squad for that.
Which changes should we expect on Tuesday? Here are five moves we could see Arena making:
CLINT DEMPSEY FOR JOZY ALTIDORE
This swap may seem like a no-brainer given the fact Jozy Altidore is suspended, but should we automatically assume Arena will want to start Dempsey in his place? It is certainly the most sensible move given Dempsey didn't start against Costa Rica and he brings an undoubted ability to generate goals. He did score in the one Hex road game he played in this cycle – March's 1-1 draw against Panama. He didn't play against Mexico in June, but that came after he started in the win against Trinidad & Tobago just two days earlier.
What other option does Arena have? Jordan Morris has the sort of speed that could punish Honduras on the counter, which could come in handy as the Catrachos push the action early on. The big question, though, is whether the Catrachos will really look to attack in numbers since they're at home, or if they will show the U.S. respect and keep numbers back.
In the latter instance, a relatively rested Dempsey makes the most sense, and if there's a player capable of finding a crucial early goal in San Pedro Sula, it's the Seattle Sounders ace.
MATT BESLER FOR TIM REAM
If there is a player who seems destined to hit the bench it's Tim Ream, who endured a poor showing against Costa Rica even if Arena suggested otherwise after Friday's match.
Arena's decision to start Ream ahead of Matt Besler, despite Ream and Geoff Cameron's lack of familiarity, proved costly because the Ream-Cameron pairing clearly lacked chemistry and Costa Rica took advantage. Besler and Cameron have played together several times before, so there would be better understanding between the two.
Experience isn't a problem for Besler, who was a regular starter throughout the 2014 World Cup qualifying cycle. He didn't play in the Honduras loss in 2013, but watched it from the bench, and became a starter immediately after that match. Besler is also familiar with many of Honduras' attackers, having faced most of them in MLS before.
DAMARCUS BEASLEY FOR JORGE VILLAFANA
Bruce Arena's affinity for Jorge Villafana has been clear since he took over as U.S. coach from Jurgen Klinsmann, and Villafana has rewarded that faith for the most part. The Costa Rica match wasn't Villafana's best, which probably makes sitting him against Honduras easier to explain, even if it might have been pre-determined.
DaMarcus Beasley is 35, but he's still a capable left back option. He held up reasonably well against Mexico in June — as much as he was made the scapegoat by many for Mexico's equalizer — and is in the midst of a solid season with the Houston Dynamo. Beasley also has an in-depth knowledge of Honduras' attackers considering he plays in Houston with Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis. That familiarity, coupled with Beasley's experience playing in hostile CONCACAF environments, should give him the nod on Tuesday.
KELLYN ACOSTA FOR FABIAN JOHNSON
This is obviously not a straight swap from a positional standpoint, but if Arena sits Fabian Johnson — who looked far from being 90-minutes fit in Friday's loss — then Darlington Nagbe stands as the best option to slide into a left-wing role.
That would make room for Kellyn Acosta to step in and partner with Michael Bradley in central midfield. Acosta had his shaky moments at this summer's Gold Cup, but his recent experience playing in hostile CONCACAF environments — courtesy of FC Dallas' path in the CONCACAF Champions League — coupled with his high work rate and free-kick capabilities would make him a useful addition to the midfield. His experience of playing against Mexico at Estadio Azteca should also serve as good preparation for a start in San Pedro Sula.
If Arena decides he likes having Nagbe in central midfield, then starting Paul Arriola on the right wing and shifting Christian Pulisic to the left wing is another option. Arriola also started against Mexico in June and used to ply his trade in Liga MX, so he's no stranger to playing in tough environments.
OMAR GONZALEZ FOR GEOFF CAMERON
There's no denying Geoff Cameron had a bad game against Costa Rica, but it was his first real blemish for the national team in some time. Should he really sit after one bad match? Arena has to really think about chemistry, and there is no center-back combination with a better and more established track record than Omar Gonzalez's partnership with Besler.
It is completely plausible that Arena had always planned to partner Gonzalez with Besler for the Honduras match, but if there were any second thoughts about a center-back swap, they probably evaporated after the Costa Rica match.
Whether it's in place of Cameron, or next to Cameron, Gonzalez feels like a lock to face Honduras. It should be noted that Gonzalez started in the U.S. loss to Honduras in 2013, in what was his very first World Cup qualifier. His partner in central defense that day was none other than Cameron.