COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — It may have taken the first 45 minutes of Thursday's World Cup qualifying match against Trinidad & Tobago for the U.S. national team to find a groove, but once they did, the Americans looked like a team taking to Bruce Arena's stewardship.
Between the Soca Warriors' hyper-defensive tactical setup, to the lung-gripping altitude that took some adapting to, Thursday's 2-0 win wound up looking more difficult than it was expected to be. That wasn't all that went against script. Clint Dempsey figured to tie or break Landon Donovan's goal-scoring record, but failed to find the net in a shortened performance that concluded with his unhappy exit. Christian Pulisic's latest star turn quickly overshadowed Dempsey's grumpy display, and while the young sensation deservedly grabbed the headlines, he was far from alone in ultimately putting away the feisty Caribbean opponent.
The U.S. can head to Mexico feeling good about accomplishing the first step of its June mission, but the much tougher challenge awaits on Sunday against a Mexico team that had the luxury of resting several of its best starters ahead of the rivalry clash at Estadio Azteca.
Here is a look at the key takeaways from Thursday's win, and a look at a potential U.S. starting lineup against Mexico:
NAGBE'S SELFISH SIDE A KEY INGREDIENT
It is a familiar refrain that has lingered throughout Darlington Nagbe's career. Be more selfish. Get greedy. Don't be shy about having the kind of talent that can break down any defense. Sharing is fine but winning is better, and sometimes being a good teammate means keeping the ball and attacking defenders rather than deferring to teammates.
We watched this conflict play out once again on Thursday, as Nagbe appeared hesitant to just go at the cracks in Trinidad & Tobago's defense, choosing more often than not to pass the ball rather than taking a chance and letting his talent shine. The second half showcased Nagbe at his best, maneuvering past defenders with quickness and grace, breaking things open to not only create chances for himself, but for his teammates as well. His efforts helped create the opening goal in Thursday's 2-0 win and solidified his standing as an increasingly important cog in the U.S. attack.
“I think he is an exceptional player,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said of Nagbe. “I tell him all the time that he has to be a little more selfish and you saw tonight when the opportunities were there, he’s exceptional. Part of our plan was to give him opportunities one-on-one and I think he’s a very talented kid. He’s just beginning to get experience at this level.”
The soft-spoken Nagbe downplayed the difference in his game in the second half, but acknowledged needing to take control of games more often.
“I don’t think it’s a big change, but I would say it’s more of a personality kind of thing,” Nagbe said. “I’m looking to help the player next to me. There are moments that I definitely need to be more selfish and I’m aware of that.”
With Pulisic growing into his role as the focal point of the U.S. attack, the need for supporting players to take some of the workload off him, and given defenses something else to worry about, becomes more important. That was clear on Thursday, when Nagbe's runs helped create room for Pulisic to do damage.
"When he’s on his game, and he’s gliding past players like he does it helps us so much," Pulisic said of Nagbe. "He’s a great player to have over there. It helps me and the team so much."
VILLAFANA CONTINUES TO MAKE LEFT BACK HIS SPOT
From not even in the conversation to looking capable of starting for years to come. That's the rapid progression Jorge Villafana has undergone in the months since Bruce Arena took charge as U.S. coach once again and immediately scratched his head at the fact Villafana had yet to receive a single national team cap.
Villafana continued his efforts to reward Arena's faith with another rock-solid performance at left back against Trinidad & Tobago. He was steady defensively, save for needing to close down some crosses better in the first half, but overall he handled threats well. His biggest contributions were in the attack, where he forced a quality save with a dangerous shot and nearly earned an assist when his cross led to a Jozy Altidore header that was also saved well.
Villafana's next test could come Sunday, when Arena might call on him against Mexico. Arena could give veteran DaMarcus Beasley a look if Villafana can't recover from the short turnaround time between games, but if he's physically capable of starting Villafana should keep hold of the job he has thrived in since earning it.
DEMPSEY'S BITTERSWEET DAY
There were plenty of smiles on the faces of U.S. players as they left Dick's Sporting Goods Park, but Clint Dempsey didn't look much like smiling. His stone-faced demeanor made it clear he wasn't very interested in taking any post-game questions, no doubt preferring to let his play do the talking once he's back on the field.
Dempsey's night was supposed to be one for the ages, with a shot at Landon Donovan's career U.S. goals record within sight. He came close to tying the record when he sent a first-half shot buzzing just over the crossbar, but that's as close as he came to career national team goal number 57. He struggled to impose himself on the match, particularly in the first half, but did contribute to the build-up on Pulisic's first goal, and could be seen lurking just behind Pulisic when the young sensation finished from close range.
Perhaps the expectations of what the night was supposed to be made Dempsey's performance seem even more disappointing than it was, but he did make his mark on the match before being the first U.S. starter subbed out. That early exit led to an exchange between Dempsey and Arena, who wasn't worried at all about there being a problem now.
“There’s a guy with a lot of confidence and he wants to be on the field," Arena said of Dempsey. "However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team and position us to win the game. And I understand that he’s a very competitive guy. We talked about it and he’s okay."
Dempsey's 61st-minute departure from Thursday's match seemed to set him up for a start against Mexico, but we shouldn't be so sure. Asking the 34-year-old striker to start two matches in four days at altitude might be pushing it, and Bobby Wood is a capable replacement who only played seven minutes on Thursday.
Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Dempsey will be a good bet to make his mark at Estadio Azteca.
JOHNSON'S MIDFIELD MOVE YIELDS MIXED RESULTS
From the time Arena declared that he would use Fabian Johnson as a winger rather than a fullback — thus letting the Borussia Moenchengladbach player focus on his preferred position — there was reason for real optimism that he could help boost the attack. Two games in, we're still waiting for Johnson to hit his stride.
Johnson didn't have much of an influence on Thursday's match operating from the left wing, a somewhat concerning development after he struggled in the friendly against Venezuela.
So why shouldn't we be worried just yet? It must be noted that Johnson missed two months of action toward the end of the Bundesliga season with a hamstring injury. He returned in time to make just one start before the season ended, and that match he played at right back. His match fitness is clearly not at its best. Throw in having to adapt to altitude and you have a player clearly operating at well below 100 percent.
Johnson's last 90-minute performance for club or country came in early March. That day he scored two goals in an outstanding showing for Moenchengladbach against Schalke. That day he showed just how dangerous he can be on the wing. Arena knows very well that when Johnson is healthy and fit, he can be a force. We may not get to see Johnson's best in June, but Arena is clearly putting in the time with a player he sees being a long-term fixture on the team.
PROJECTING THE USA XI vs. MEXICO
How many starters from Thursday's win can Arena realistically start on Sunday against Mexico? That's the big question.
The above projection includes six starters from Thursday, and deploys the players in a 3-5-2 formation. The setup has the functionality of being able to morph into a 4-4-2 or even 5-3-2 when needed. Arena could leave Pulisic in a central role, and go with an Alejandro Bedoya, Yedlin or even Paul Arriola on the right wing. That would mean sitting Dempsey though, which will be a big decision for Arena.
Defensively, Gonzalez is a safe bet to start after being left out on Thursday, but whether John Brooks and Geoff Cameron can handle double duty remains to be seen. Playing all three in a 3-5-2 would be ideal against Mexico, but Arena has been singing Matt Hedges' praises for some time and this could be his platform to show just how good he is. Facing off and having to contain Javier Hernandez is no easy task, but Arena has never been shy about putting players in position to prove themselves.
And what of Nagbe, who played so well on Thursday? He feels like more of a second-half substitute in this match, with Mexico sure to try and overwhelm the U.S. defense in the first half. Having Acosta in the lineup to help Bradley with dealing with Mexico's playmakers makes sense, and we got a glimpse of that partnership late in the Trinidad & Tobago win.
Can Altidore handle double duty? Arena will hope so because Altidore's hold-up play will be crucial to trying to unlock a Mexico defense that will surrender chances.
Realistically we could see as many as eight new starters on Sunday, with Howard, Pulisic and Michael Bradley the three locks to start in Mexico. Given how many key players Juan Carlos Osorio was able to rest in Mexico's win against Honduras, El Tri will have a very strong lineup. Arena may have to choose between trotting out a tired group with more experience, or a fresher lineup that hasn't had much experience in settings like they'll see on Sunday.