Inside Opta: Arena gets the most out of Pulisic, Bradley for USMNT

Kyle Terada
Goal takes an analytical look at the U.S. national team's 6-0 win over Honduras, which saw the star duo thrive in central midfield.

Where Jurgen Klinsmann failed, Bruce Arena already has succeeded — in one game, at least.

How to best utilize the U.S. national team's most pivotal player was a hot topic throughout the Klinsmann era. At the 2014 World Cup, that discussion circled around Michael Bradley and the U.S. coach's insistence on playing the midfield general in an advanced role. More recently, Klinsmann found himself looking to seize upon the scorching form of 18-year-old wunderkind Christian Pulisic.

Pulisic shines in playmaker role for USA

One could argue his fatal miscue as coach was rolling out a 3-4-1-2 formation in the 2-1 home loss to Mexico in November. In building a formation around Pulisic's playmaking prowess, Klinsmann tapped into the correct notion. But by dropping several players into unfamiliar roles and rushing out the alignment after just three days of preparation, Klinsmann made a severe miscalculation.

A week later, after a lopsided defeat in Costa Rica, he was out of a job and Arena was back as U.S. coach. Having masterminded a 6-0 thrashing of Honduras on Friday, Arena already has taken a massive step toward getting the Americans' World Cup qualifying campaign back on the track.

How did he do it? Across the map, Arena picked the U.S. pool's most talented players and put them in familiar positions — a simple idea that became unnecessarily abstract under Klinsmann.

USA formation vs. Honduras

The USA's average formation against Honduras. Note the position of Bradley (4) and Pulisic (10).

Michael Bradley touches vs. Honduras

Bradley's passing chart against Honduras.

That's not to say Arena's 4-4-2 diamond formation was an obvious choice. But the U.S. played a version of the alignment in a friendly win over Jamaica last month, laying the groundwork for Friday's lineup. Most importantly, the setup got the most out of Bradley and Pulisic.

Sitting in his preferred deep-lying playmaker role, Bradley connected on 63 of 68 passes and led all players in the Hexagonal's three matches Friday with 13 recoveries. He moved the ball with pace and precision, setting the stage for Pulisic, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore to work their magic in the attacking third. And the Toronto FC star scored his first international goal since July 2015, punishing open space and converting a left-footed shot from distance.

Roaming in front of Bradley, Pulisic pulled the strings in a dominant performance that could long be remembered as his coming out party on the international stage.

Aside from the Bradley strike, he played a part in every U.S. goal. Pulisic assisted two tallies directly and set up the opener with a deflected shot. He scored a goal of his own and drew the free kick that capped Dempsey's hat trick. In addition to threading passes and running at defenders, Pulisic made eight recoveries and tied for the Hex lead Friday with nine duels won.

In short, it was everything Klinsmann could have imagined when handing Pulisic the playmaking reins in November.

Nagbe turns in quietly efficient outing

Darlington Nagbe touches vs. Honduras

Nagbe's passing chart against Honduras.

Although Klinsmann deserves credit for unearthing and polishing diamonds in the rough such as Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris, his inability to capitalize on a known commodity like Darlington Nagbe was another blemish on his resume.

After failing to earn a single start in a full year under Klinsmann, Nagbe has gotten the nod in two of Arena's three matches in charge — including the triumph over Honduras.

Dempsey keeps turning back the clock

Like Sebastian Lletget and Alejandro Bedoya, who saw time on the opposite flank, Nagbe has extensive experience both as a winger and a central midfielder. It's a skill set that lends itself to playing wide in a narrow midfield, and Nagbe was a quietly efficient force throughout the 90 minutes at Avaya Stadium.

The 26-year-old put his technical ability on display, slipping out of some tough spots and completing 32 of 34 passes. It's also worth noting no player in Friday's three Hex matches won more duels (nine) or made more tackles (six) than Nagbe.

After creating some danger with a gliding run through midfield early, Nagbe settled into that complementary role. On a night like Friday, that's exactly what the U.S. needed.

Quick kicks

It wasn't flashy, but Jorge Villafana got the job done in his competitive debut for the U.S. The left back only sent two passes astray and helped contain Honduran winger Andy Najar. So does Arena start him again Tuesday in Panama or turn to tried-and-tested veteran DaMarcus Beasley? It's a tough question. ...

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John Brooks will be missed Tuesday. The 6-foot-4 center back bounced back from his lackluster performance against Costa Rica in November, topping the Hex matchday with nine clearances despite sitting out the final 20 minutes because of a sinus infection. With Brooks released from the roster, it'll be up to Tim Ream or Matt Besler to fill the void. ...

The return of Jermaine Jones from suspension poses a quandary for Arena. The 35-year-old has played wide in a diamond midfield in the past, but his outing in the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico in October 2015 showed that's a questionable fit. As sharp as Pulisic looked as a No. 10 on Tuesday, he could shift out wide to make way for Jones in central midfield. That's the safe choice, at least, assuming Panama will provide sturdier resistance than Honduras and the U.S. will go more conservative on the road.


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