Bruce Arena might have walked away much happier if his U.S. national team had been able to register a comfortable win on Saturday against Venezuela, but the 1-1 draw the Americans settled for gave the manager some valuable insight into how his team shapes up heading into its upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
The U.S. started slow, and paid the price, as Venezuela took the early lead and nearly added to it before Tim Howard made a pair of outstanding saves to keep it close. The U.S. showed more energy and organization in the second half, while also showing the ability to work effectively in a 3-5-2 formation, which could come in handy in the coming weeks.
Christian Pulisic looked very comfortable in the playmaker role, and delivered the equalizer with a confident finish that should serve notice to both Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico that he's ready to carry over his excellent club form into the June qualifiers.
Defensively, the Americans will want to work out some kinks, with DeAndre Yedlin having a couple of lapses he won't be able to afford to make in the coming matches. John Brooks and Geoff Cameron looked solid in reprising their Copa America partnership, while Jorge Villafana may have boosted his stock the most of all the defenders on display on Saturday.
Here is a closer look at five key takeaways from Saturday's draw:
PULISIC CONTINUES TO IMPRESS IN PLAYMAKER ROLE
As much as he can also be dangerous and effective playing on either wing, Pulisic gave yet more evidence to support the idea that he should stay in a central role in the U.S. midfield no matter the system.
Whether in a 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2 or the 4-1-3-2 we saw in the first half on Saturday, Pulisic is best deployed for the U.S. in the middle of the action, where he can deliver incisive passes and make defensive splitting dribbles. Sure, he can be effective on the wing, where he will beat most defenders when isolated one on one, but in the middle of the field his quickness, confidence on the ball and vision can do the most damage.
That reality is likely to lead to Arena having to bench one of his forwards between Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. As it stands, the U.S. is probably better off having one of those three rested for the Mexico match, and trying to deploy all three along with Pulisic might leave the U.S. vulnerable in other areas of the field. This leads up to the next topic.
ADDRESSING POTENTIAL MIDFIELD ISSUE IN THE 4-1-3-2
It's easy to love what Pulisic brings as a playmaker in a 4-1-3-2 setup like we saw on Saturday, but might the U.S. be leaving itself vulnerable in midfield with just Michael Bradley to provide cover in the middle?
The Americans did control possession in the first half, but it didn't lead to much in the way of dangerous chances. When Venezuela was able to have the ball, and get out on the counter, the U.S. looked vulnerable in transition. Part of that was down to the team looking flat as a group, but part of that was also Bradley having to cover a healthy amount of ground behind the midfield trio of Darlington Nagbe, Pulisic and Fabian Johnson. Working on that defensive balance, and ensuring that the wide players provide defensive support, is something Arena will want to emphasize in the coming days.
That 4-1-3-2 setup is likely what we will see against Trinidad & Tobago, with the Soca Warriors expected to try and bunker in and counter. If that is how Thursday's qualifier plays out then the Americans should have ample opportunity to pick apart the T&T defense, but Trinidad & Tobago has speedy midfield threats like Kevin Molino and Joevin Jones who could capitalize if the U.S. midfield plays like it did on Saturday.
VILLAFANA SETTLING IN AT LEFT BACK
For someone who had only played in four national team matches before Saturday, Villafana sure looked comfortable. The Santos Laguna man made his fourth consecutive start for the U.S. on Saturday, and looked at ease in both the 4-1-3-2 and the 3-5-2 the U.S. switched to in the second half.
Villafana has the edge right now over the rest of the potential left back candidates because of his steady one-on-one defending as well as his quickness. Something else to consider is that he plays at altitude with Santos Laguna, where Torreon's 3,000 foot elevation isn't exactly Mexico City's 7,000, but it's something that surely has helped Villafana as he prepares for the upcoming qualifiers in Colorado and Mexico City.
That potential advantage could make Villafana a strong candidate to play in both World Cup qualifiers, something we aren't likely to see many players do because of the short break between matches (just three days). Fatigue certainly didn't look like an issue for Villafana on Saturday, as he looked even better in the second half than the first half as he buzzed up the left wing.
Not everybody appeared to adapt to the demands of the week's altitude training. Johnson struggled on Saturday, and though he is normally one of the best players in the U.S. player pool, you wonder if he might be a player who has issues with altitude in the coming matches.
THE 3-5-2 LOOKED PROMISING AND COULD BE AN AZTECA OPTION
Mention the 3-5-2 system and Mexico to a U.S. fan and they might have painful flashbacks of the awful start the Americans endured playing in a 3-5-2 under Jurgen Klinsmann in the first half of last November's World Cup qualifying loss in Columbus, Ohio.
The big knock about that disastrous showing was that the U.S. players simply weren't given good instructions leading into that match, which left them ill-prepared and vulnerable against a dangerous Mexico side. Clearly Arena wasn't scared away from the idea of using a 3-5-2, going out of his way to mention it as a possibility shortly after being hired.
We saw the 3-5-2 in the second half on Saturday and it looked promising. The center back trio of Tim Ream, Matt Hedges and Omar Gonzalez functioned well as a unit, while Villafana and Yedlin worked well in the wing back roles. Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta provided ample support behind Pulisic, leaving you to wonder if Arena might be thinking about using this system against Mexico.
That might sound like a risky proposition, but the versatility of the system is that it can play as a 5-3-2 defensively and a 3-5-2 in attack. The U.S. has a trio of very good center backs in John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and Gonzalez who could function well together in that setup, and that system just might be what the U.S. needs to contain what will likely be an attack-minded 4-3-3 setup from Mexico when the rivals meet on June 11.
TIM HOWARD IS LOCKED IN
Should anyone really be surprised that Tim Howard is sharp and ready to go for the qualifiers? Not really considering how good he has looked for the Colorado Rapids this season. His age (38) makes it easy to expect a drop-off at some point, but as he showed against Venezuela he can still make big saves and command the penalty area well.
Something else Howard doesn't get enough credit for is organizing the defense. He is vocal and does a good job of communicating with his defenders, which will be particularly valuable if Arena decides to implement some new strategies, like a variation of a 5-3-2.