NEW YORK — The most important match of Bruce Arena's latest tenure as U.S. national team coach sits just one week away, and at the top of his to-do list ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Panama is deciding where to deploy his most dangerous weapon.
Where should Christian Pulisic play? The teenage sensation has spent the past month flip-flopping between the left and right wing for Borussia Dortmund, giving Arena plenty of opportunity to see him in both roles. Although Pulisic has featured mainly as a right winger for the U.S. in his recent national team appearances, Arena has plenty to consider when deciding where Pulisic will play in Orlando on Oct. 6.
What will guide Arena's decision? Will it be based on available personnel? Will it come down to where Arena sees a vulnerability in Panama's defense?
"Probably not the matchup as much as what we need as a team," Arena said when asked by Goal about what will determine Pulisic's position. "Matchups sometimes have a little something to do with it. Our first game is going to be at home so we're going to set the tempo. We're going to play him where we think he's best suited to help us win the game."
Arena wasn't about to give anything away in terms of where he sees Pulisic playing in the upcoming qualifiers, joking that it was a pretty fair conclusion that the 19-year-old will play on the right, in the middle or on the left in the U.S. midfield.
Pulisic has found regular playing time under new Dortmund manager Peter Bosz, though not a consistent spot on the field. The impressive play of Dortmund newcomers Andriy Yarmolenko and Maximilian Philipp has led to a winger midfielder version of "Musical Chairs," with the versatile Pulisic deployed on the left when paired with Yarmolenko and on the right when the left-footed Philipp has started.
The constant switching of roles for Pulisic doesn't concern Arena at all, and the U.S. coach only sees it as a positive for the teenage sensation.
"A player his age, to have the opportunities he has, I think is very good," Arena said. "I can't concern myself whether he's playing left, right or center. He's a good player. He's on the field playing. You can play him as a striker if you want. Last year he played as a right-sided guy with a back three. He's played all different kinds of roles on that team."
Just as he has with the United States. Pulisic has enjoyed success as a right winger and as a playmaker for the U.S., though he didn't make as much of an impact in the September qualifiers when fielded on the right wing against Costa Rica and Honduras. He could often be found floating into the central channel in search of the ball and open space to operate.
That said, Pulisic has enjoyed success in a central role, as evidenced by his two-goal performance against Trinidad & Tobago in June. He combined well with Darlington Nagbe, who was deployed on the right wing in that match, even though the two midfielders were interchangeable during the decisive second half.
Arena may also look back to the last match against Panama, in March, which ended in a 1-1 draw in Panama City. Pulisic played on the right wing and helped set up the lone U.S. goal. He took a physical beating on that day, and found the going much tougher then than he did in the previous match, when he steered the U.S. to a 6-0 rout of Honduras.
Here is a closer look at Arena's options for Pulisic, and how his recent playing time at Dortmund might shed some light on the possibilities:
PULISIC ON THE LEFT WING
Though Pulisic has seen the least amount of time working the left wing for the USMNT, he has plenty of experience in the role with Dortmund, and has frequently played there this season with the arrival of Yarmolenko as a right-sided option. He may not be as effective a crosser of the ball when working on the left wing, but the position allows him to take on defenders and cut inside onto his stronger right foot. We saw him play very well on the left wing against Tottenham in Champions League action earlier in September.
Arena hasn't used Pulisic much on the left, and it appears to be his least favorite spot for the youngster, but the coach might have to consider it after seeing Pulisic be less effective on the right wing in the September qualifiers.
Working against Pulisic as a left winger is the fact that left back is a weaker position than right back when DeAndre Yedlin is healthy, meaning Pulisic would have to expend more energy defending than he would on the right. Now that isn't to say Pulisic doesn't have the work rate or willingness to defend, but you want him devoting as much of his attention to going at defenders as possible.
PULISIC AS A PLAYMAKER
Arena made it clear Tuesday that he plans to have the U.S. on the front foot against Panama, and the best attacking performance the U.S. had all year was at home against Honduras in March, with Pulisic in the playmaker role.
Arena has alluded to the belief that Nagbe is better suited for the central role, but there's no denying Pulisic makes things happen in the middle. His two-goal effort in the June win against Trinidad & Tobago came with him working centrally, though he floated to the right on both goals.
Pulisic has shown an ability to deliver the killer pass through the central channel, for club and country, and if there's a drawback to playing him in the middle it's that it puts him closer to Panama's bruisers in central midfield. Of course, Panama found a way to beat up Pulisic in March even with him working on the right wing, but things should be much different in Orlando, on a better playing surface, and in front of a pro-U.S. crowd.
PULISIC ON THE RIGHT WING
If you were going to bet on where Pulisic most likely winds up against Panama, it would be on the right wing. Arena has played him there more than anywhere else, and Yedlin's return to health gives the U.S. a fullback with the speed to cover the flank and give Pulisic the defensive support to allow him to get forward more often.
The importance of Yedlin's return can't be stressed enough. His ability to threaten on the counter forces teams to pay attention to him rather than being able to double up on Pulisic, while his defensive ability will mean fewer times Pulisic has to race back to help put out fires, which we saw against Honduras.
Something else to remember is that Fabian Johnson can play on the right wing and left wing, and now that he is healthy and much more fit than he was in September — when he struggled after only recently returning from an injury — it will give Arena the option to flip-flop his wingers on the fly as he searches for the vulnerabilities in Panama's defense. In short, just because Pulisic starts out at a certain position in the October qualifiers doesn't mean he will stay there.