The U.S. national team is getting ready to steer into uncharted territory in June's CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, and Saturday's friendly against Venezuela should offer a good glimpse at what Bruce Arena has in mind to deal with the challenges on the horizon.
Playing back-to-back qualifiers isn't a new challenge — the U.S. just did that in March — and neither is playing in Mexico after a home qualifier, which happened in 2013 when the Americans earned a draw at Estadio Azteca. What is new is the brutally tight window between the June 8 home qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago and the June 11 showdown in Mexico City.
"We’ve never had that situation," Arena told Goal. "You usually have five days between games, so this is different for everyone.
"And the reason is Mexico’s going to the Confederations Cup and they wanted more time (to prepare)," he added. "We agreed to that. I think it’s the same for both teams so I’m not totally concerned about it. We’re going to take it one game at a time. Get on with the game against Trinidad, and then make some decisions."
There are only three days between kickoffs of the U.S. team's two June qualifiers, a rough turnaround time made even more difficult by the fact both games are being played at altitude. Arena told Goal he sees both the U.S. and Mexico rotating players between the matches, which means we won't necessarily see the strongest possible U.S. taking the field in Mexico City.
"I think (the U.S.-Mexico qualifier) is going to be a difficult one for both teams because of the short recovery time from the games on the 8th," Arena said in a recent interview. "So I think that’s going to be even more challenging. I think right now nobody knows who's playing in that game, either coach."
Arena surely has a better idea now who might face Mexico, and Saturday's friendly against Venezuela could offer some light into his thinking. If the U.S. plans on trying to field as strong a team as possible against Trinidad and Tobago, and field a less-experienced group against El Tri, then Saturday's friendly would be a good place to have a look at the team that will take on Mexico.
Fielding a second team against Mexico might sound like heresy to U.S. fans who have grown accustomed to seeing the quadrennial World Cup qualifying visit to Estadio Azteca as the biggest match outside of the World Cup, but the U.S. team's current circumstance — desperately needing all three points from the Trinidad match — essentially eliminates the possibility of the Stars and Stripes saving their best players for the team's biggest rival.
"We’re saving no one for Mexico," Arena said.
Could there be some field players who pull double duty? That's possible, with players like Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron capable of handling the load of two matches at altitude in three days, but both Arena and Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio have made it clear there will be a healthy number of lineup changes between their respective June qualifiers.
With that in mind, here is a look at what the U.S. lineup could be against Trinidad and Tobago:
If that squad faces Trinidad and Tobago, then Arena could choose to field this rested group against El Tri:
If Arena chooses to trot out his first-choice lineup against Venezuela, it might be because of the fact he hasn't actually had a chance to see anything close to his first-choice group play together since he replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach. Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin were all missing from the March World Cup qualifiers while John Brooks only played one of the two. If Arena has concerns about chemistry, and familiarity with his approach, then starting the first lineup listed here would make sense, with the six substitutions being used to deploy members of the second lineup listed.
The U.S. spent the past week training in Denver to begin the process of acclimating to the altitude awaiting the home qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the altitude in Mexico City on June 11. Though Saturday's friendly at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, won't be played at the same level of altitude, the U.S. has already made progress in adapting to the conditions awaiting in the qualifiers.
"Obviously a big thing here, with being at altitude, is getting your body to adjust," U.S. midfielder Dax McCarty said. "It's never easy. A little bit short of breath there the first couple of days, but now we're four days into training. You can tell guys are getting sharper. Guys are starting to catch their breath a little bit easier. The sessions have been really sharp."
McCarty is one of the candidates vying for the midfield spot made available by Jermaine Jones' absence due to a knee injury. Both he and Kellyn Acosta are in the conversation for a starting role, and both could be used as starters if Arena does employ the split-squad approach to his qualifying lineups.