What USMNT must do to crack open the door to Russia

Bruce Arena is taking nothing for granted.

“The door for Russia -- there is not even a crack open right now," he said after the USA's 1-1 tie with Honduras gave it reasonable odds of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. "There is a lot of work to be done to get to Russia.”

Lots of questions were raised throughout the U.S. lineup after the 2-0 loss at home to Costa Rica and 1-1 tie with Honduras earned on an 85th-minute goal.

Arena has said he's unwilling to go with anyone he hasn't seen before -- so no Timmy Chandler -- and it isn't likely he will make any dramatic changes for the matches against Panama in Orlando at home on Oct. 6 and at Trinidad & Tobago five days later.

But there are a number of questions he will have to answer once and for all.

1. Howard or Guzan in goal?

It's hard to see Arena going with someone other than Tim Howard or Brad Guzan in goal for the next two games. Howard has played four of the six Hexagonal matches under Arena and the last three games at the Gold Cup; Guzan started the last two away games in the Hexagonal and first two games at the Gold Cup.

Howard had been solid in every game until Friday night when he failed to stop Marco Urena on Costa Rica's opening goal that changed the complexion of the match. What was common to both keepers was their distribution, which was poor. The Urena goal followed a bad kick by Howard that the Ticos won in midfield and led to a counterattack.

Long term? If the USA goes to Russia, it is still hard to see Arena making a change. The keeper with the biggest upside is 22-year-old Ethan Horvath, who is starting for Belgium's Club Brugge -- unbeaten and untied in league play -- but without a chance to show off what he can do in Europe -- Brugge was eliminated in both UEFA Champions League and Europa League qualifying -- he won't have a platform to make his case.

2. Two or three in the middle of the backline?

The U.S. backline did not cover itself in glory in last two games. The second Urena goal for Costa Rica followed a horrible pass by Geoff Cameron. Omar Gonzalez's failed attempt to stop Rommel Quioto put the Houston Dynamo forward in on goal for the Honduras goal on Tuesday.

The two center backs, Tim Ream and Cameron, turned the ball over frequently against Costa Rica while the outside backs, Graham Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley, struggled to keep up the speedy Honduras attack.

All this should come as no surprise. The ages of the seven defenders Arena started in the two games are 35, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28 and 27. All but Jorge Villafana and Ream are holdovers from the 2014 World Cup.

Arena doesn't have a lot of alternatives in the short term. John Brooks is out for the October qualifiers and he'll likely miss the November playoff, if it comes to that. DeAndre Yedlin is set to return at Newcastle United after missing three weeks with a hamstring injury, but there is no guarantee he'll start for the Magpies.

Both Brooks and Yedlin are only 24. Earlier in their careers, they were prone to mistakes, but they both are athletically superior to what Arena otherwise has at his disposal and both can contribute offensively.

Costa Rica exposed the problems the U.S. backline has handling pressure, and a big reason the USA struggled to create much was it got so little help from the back four in attack. The sequence that led to the first Tico goal epitomized the problems -- the USA had possession but ran out of ideas, so Ream passed the ball back 40 yards to Howard.

In the last 20 minutes at Honduras, Arena went with three center backs and put Paul Arriola on the right side and pushed Kellyn Acosta back to the left back in a move that settled the backline.

Arena could think of playing Arriola and Fabian Johnson (or Darlington Nagbe) on the wings if he doesn't think Villafana and Zusi are contributing enough in attack.

3. Two central midfielders or two forwards?

Like in the last two games of the Gold Cup, Arena started Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta as twin central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 at Honduras. That pairing didn't work perfectly, but the USA did look more comfortable in midfield, relatively speaking, than it did against Costa Rica.

The continued twin pairing of Bradley and Acosta would also allow Christian Pulisic to move into a central role (as opposed to starting out from a position on the right wing) and be pushed farther into attack (and relieved of defensive responsibilities).

Arena will counter that playing Pulisic wide or centrally doesn't matter -- he is given the freedom to go where he wants -- but he'd likely agree that he wants Pulisic farther up in the attack, where the USA has gotten so few touches. (One those came, however, when Pulisic was fouled 27 yards out, setting up Acosta's free kick that led to Wood's tying goal.)

But if Arena sticks with four in the back, Bradley, Acosta, Pulisic, plus two wingers would require Arena to go with only one forward, like he finished the T&T game in June. He started Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood against Costa Rica and Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris against Honduras, but both pairings were starved for service.

At this point, getting more from the players in the wings and getting Bradley and Pulisic in better positions to create might be bigger priorities for Arena as he tries to crack open the door to Russia.
41 comments about "What USMNT must do to crack open the door to Russia".
  1. Dan Phillips, September 7, 2017 at 12:56 a.m.

    Arena needs to bring in the younger Euro players. Why not Timmy Chandler? He is a lot better, and younger, than the 80 year old DeMarcus Beasley. I Klinsmann was too wild and experimental, Arena is too boring and conservative. This team is doomed with Arena. Will probably QUALIFY. 4 teams go. so easy. But then it will be 3 and out, and time to look for a new coach.

  2. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, September 7, 2017 at 10:01 a.m.

    I'm fine with bringing in new players but I've seen enough of Chandler in a USMNT shirt.

  3. Gus Keri, September 7, 2017 at 5:35 a.m.

    The USMNT looked most secured in the back when they switched to three central defenders at the end of Honduras game. It's the way to go for now, I think.

  4. David Mont, September 7, 2017 at 10:38 a.m.

    Anyone but Chandler!!!! I actually, contrary to the popular belief, do not think that Zusi and Beasley did poorly in the Honduras game. They played against speedy, decent wingers and for the most part held their own. For some reason, there is an expectation that a good defender will never allow a cross into the box or an attacker to get by. That's not realistic. Sometimes a cross will get in, and an attacker will be able to get around a defender. That's just the nature of the game. The objective is for the team to handle such situations appropriately.

  5. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, September 7, 2017 at 1:21 p.m.

    I actually thought Zusi was our best player against CR. Now that tells you a lot about the rest of the team but still.

  6. Goal Goal, September 7, 2017 at 10:39 a.m.

    I don't know what you do with this team. Many talented players but apples to oranges when it comes to comparing them to top talent in WC competition. Looks pretty bleak to me.

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, September 7, 2017 at 1:21 p.m.

    What do you mean by top talent? Spain, Germany, France, Brazil etc.? Yeah playing those teams would be bleak.

  8. Fajkus Rules, September 7, 2017 at 1:11 p.m.

    It's difficult to understand why the US can't develop world class defenders. It doesn't take amazing ball skills to be an effective defender, soccer defense is very similar to basketball defense, you cannot take away all options to an attacker, you can only limit or take away certain options and if they challenge the options the defender is denying, then the opportunity for steals increases. Positioning, work rate and attitude are the core qualities of outstanding defensive basketball players. Too often our defenders have poor or average positioning -- Ream's recovery run when first beaten vs. Costa Rica provided ample room for the cutback that provided the opening for the first goal. Similar to Beasley's recovery run vs. Portugal in the 2014 WC which gave Ronaldo ample room for the cross leading to the equalizer, if either of those recoveries are closer to the attacker in "shoulder charge" position, rather than "recover to goalside" position, then each attacker would have much tougher situations from which to emerge to obtain a decent scoring opportunity. If Ream prevents the cutback there, or is ready to tackle the cutback, another defender was just about to arrive from the other side when Ream was beaten.

  9. Ben Myers replied, September 7, 2017 at 2:02 p.m.

    It's not just the failure to develop world class defenders. It's a failure to develop world class anything in the continental United States. The better players, young or old, all honed their skills and feel for the game playing overseas. If the USMNT fails to make the 2018 World Cup, fire Arena and call for the cashiering of the invisible USSF leader Gulati. Three and out? Same.

  10. Al Gebra replied, September 7, 2017 at 8:37 p.m.

    For the most part, I agree with you but there has been notable exceptions. Regarding top defenders ever in the game anywhere in the world, you need not go any further than Marcelo Balboa. Except for 1995-96 with León in the Mexican League, he played professionally in a variety of US teams and leagues. Players like Balboa are still out there in the US leagues. You just gotta look with an open mind.

  11. Fajkus Rules, September 7, 2017 at 1:26 p.m.

    As for work rate and attitude, could we get 9 more Pulisic clones? I suspect that if he played defender, he would quickly emerge as one of our best. The rest have varying levels of work rate and "refuse to be beaten" attitude. Whoever went for the slide tackle right before the Honduran goal, 3 other US defenders were in spectator mode, rather than "hustle to support" mode. They should be made to watch videos of Michael Jordan or Kawhi Leonard playing stifling defense. If that doesn't work, then bring in a new bunch and see if they are hungry enough to work their asses off. US has given up 11 goals vs. 3 by Mexico and 5 by Costa Rica in CONCACAF qualifying -- embarrassing and unacceptable!!

  12. beautiful game, September 7, 2017 at 1:43 p.m.

    Solid Soccer IQ is missing in most players; so too are simplicity of play, awareness, confidence, and instinctive reaction which are huge elements in determining efficacy. Looking for better defensive tactics, ask Javier Zanetti, Marco Baresi or Paolo Maldini for their thoughts on honing defensive talent.

  13. Ben Myers replied, September 7, 2017 at 2:02 p.m.

    Could not agree with you more.

  14. David Mont, September 7, 2017 at 2:05 p.m.

    The US national team has been attempting to play "possession soccer" that everyone seems to demand these days. Started with Klinsmann, and Arena is continuing with this. However, we're not Spain or Barcelona, and our "possession soccer" results in endless passing that goes mostly backwards or east-west, very few meaningful attacks, and even fewer shots on goal. If you notice, the team seems to average 3-4 shots on goal per game. And that's against inferior CONCACAF opposition! Smart soccer is not "possession soccer" or anything else... Smart soccer is whatever type of soccer that allows a given group of players achieve its goal -- get a win. "Possession soccer" will not do it for the US team. Long balls and hard running, so much despised by so many, has a much better chance of achieving that goal.

  15. Goal Goal, September 7, 2017 at 2:20 p.m.

    Okay David lets go out and play kick the cover off the ball and see what happens. The easiest offense to defend at the level we are talking about. Our problems are multiple but fixable at least in my mind. Most of the team runs hard and some fast but not to the right location. Whether you play possession or kick and run you have to attack the net. We do occasionally but not consistently. No attack. No goals. No wins. Not competitive at this level.

  16. frank schoon, September 7, 2017 at 2:25 p.m.

    We can kiss goodbye the idea of having good defenders for a while....there are none. We have to make due with what we have, after all,that is why Zusi turned into a back. First of all we need to breed good individual defenders which we are not doing as long as we are teaching our youth to play the flatback system which is a zonal defensive system. The kids need to play tough man to man defense first in order to learn how to survive 1v1 and stop an opponent. Need to learn how to follow your men ,don't give him space, don't let him turn or receive the ball...these are all things the kids are doing less of because they learning to play in a zonal system which gives the opponent time and space to turn, to shoot, to receive and even run with the ball. When Cruyff coached Ajax, he made the youth play with only 3 defenders, no libero or 4th defender, because there were only 3 attackers. He wanted the kids to learn tough one on one defense without being helped. I don't see any of the soccer academies are attempting this. This is problem with todays soccer. Count how many defenders out number the opponents when the opponents score. They usually outnumber the opponents sometime by 2,3 or 4 players...And if you look so few opponents are marked tightly....We need to start developing tough defenders. Learning to play man to man defense is pro-active as compare to zonal which is reactive. Great defenders are known for their individual prowess not for their zonal prowess.Next since it is in vogue or it is a trend, which I'm not a supporter of, that backs have become attacking backs then why not place a former attacker like a winger or attacking midfielder ,someone who is a good ball handler in that position. It's easy to teach an attacker defense. This is why Zusi should not be playing that position, for he is not an attacker. There is a lot to playing good defense but the back line should not be judged on its own for defense needs to be played by everyone...it is not just 4 guys back there.

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, September 7, 2017 at 6:36 p.m.

    This problem is not unique to the USA. Man marking and tackling have suffered generally due to a lack of man to man experience.

  18. frank schoon replied, September 7, 2017 at 6:38 p.m.

    Bob , that is so true. Just watching EPL, CL or anywhere where they play flatback.defense...

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, September 7, 2017 at 6:40 p.m.

    It may amuse you to know that Anson Dorrance has seen the same problem you do--numbers up zonal defending. His solution was to recommend that all youth teams to use the 343 system to create 1v1 matchups all over the field. It not only promotes development of defensive skills, but attacking skills as well.

  20. frank schoon replied, September 7, 2017 at 7:04 p.m.

    Bob, What gets me and that it's simply common sense playing zonal for youth does absolutely nothing for their individual defensive development. My teams have never played zonal nor 4-4-2. But what gets me is that USSF coaching school has been teaching this this zonal defense and have never come out and stated this is not good for learning individual defense.
    Playing man to man defense,teaches to be more aware, anticipate more and be involved more, in sum it forces the player to be pro active and THINK. It is that simple.
    Zonal soccer is an uncompleted form of defense, it is the next to the last stage before you really stop a man.
    But these coaching school and the academies follow trends and so do most of the coaches for this is what taught to them at these coaching classes..

  21. Al Gebra replied, September 7, 2017 at 8:51 p.m.

    You're right Mr. Schoon. I was taught (at the USSF national schools, none the less, that depth and width were key in a defensive posture as is man-on-man marking of every attacker in the final 1/3 of the field. And the marking is certainly not just done by the defenders. For years I played sweeper (AKA Libero) and I found it very effective. It made up for any shortcomings in my teammates...including me. Let's try it

  22. frank schoon replied, September 7, 2017 at 8:56 p.m.

    Al Gebra, I have always played with libero for still think it is than playing with Flat back......And Good for you !

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, September 9, 2017 at 10:52 a.m.

    Frank 25 years ago I taught kids zonal marking--man to man coverage in an individual zone. Nine individuals zones backed by a traditional sweeper. I let the players decide when to leave their zones. I still like the idea as a starting point for novices. Having responsibility for a defensive zone also grounded them while attacking, and kept them thinking about team shapes (both sides) during all moments of the game. Was a great team building exercise too. Bottom line, I think a modified zone defense, which has elements of both man to man and zone defenses, may also be good for development too.

  24. frank schoon replied, September 9, 2017 at 11:19 a.m.

    Bob, first of all having these discussions with you tells me it is too bad most of the coaches aren't like you, which is a loss, I think, a big loss to youth players. Zonal comes secondary to man to man defense. For what does zonal soccer really imply, whenever a man comes in to your territory he becomes yours to guard. And he becomes dangerous, you have to stop him via man to man not zonal defense. This is why zonal is really a step prior to man to man defense for that is what defense is all about in the end.There is nothing wrong with zonal soccer but you can't play it unless you have the basics of good man to man defense down. If you're not good man to man what good is it to play zonal. Here is the other thing I like about man to man and a sweeper, behind or in front of the back line. Is that the most important element is player have to be more on their toes when playing man to man for they constantly have to watch, think, anticipate what his opponent is going to do in relation to the game. For example, if defender happens to watch the ball by turning his head the attacker has a change to make a run. This is why a defender continually has to position himself be more aware so he can watch the man and the ball (which Zusi failed to do in Honduras game)at the same time. Furthermore there is more communication between the sweeper and his defenders as to who pick up the next man coming through or switching. Zonal soccer makes the player too lazy and doesn't worry until the attacker comes in his zone even the attacker is allowed plenty of space to receive and turn the ball. This is why strikers love to play in England for the defenders play give space This new trend of zonal defense on corner kicks is just plain suicide for you give the opponent to time to run and jump up for a head and you can only react after...this is crazy. It is funny but Germans are not good in zonal soccer. It was Happel that first introduced zone defense to HSV in the early 80's but as a whole zonal does not fit the German mindset or psyche for it is either black or white and not grey. This is why the great german defenders have always been man to man. It has always been a joke with the dutch that Germans are so good man to man they'll follow you to the bathroom at halftime.

  25. Bob Ashpole replied, September 9, 2017 at 11:55 a.m.

    Frank I think you are thinking about more advanced players, not beginners. I look at zonal marking differently. I see it as identical to man to man, except that the zones tell players when to switch marking assignments as opponents run through the zones. For beginners, this is easier than having to decide when to switch off and communicate with a partner each time an opponent runs by. I don't expect beginners to have the experience needed to make good decisions on switching. The U10s understood the need to closely mark everyone in front of the goal so they instinctively would switch to man to man coverage in the danger area. (This is why it is crucial to NOT tell players that they have to stay in their zones/positions.) Then we started with actual man to man coverage on restarts and then switched over to zonal as play developed. So there was a lot of man marking.

  26. frank schoon replied, September 9, 2017 at 12:44 p.m.

    Bob, to me what is a natural start in defense is man to man, like in street soccer. You play and if someone with the ball is near you , get him. Since we didn't have coaching in the streets ,we just played and it wasn't like telling each other " oh, you got him,all take this guy". We just played and pick the man if he has ball. It was kind of loosey goosey,for after all in the street we came to play with the ball and not think what will I learn defensively today,LOL. Maybe you're right more advance, but even so with beginners , I would let them play and not worry about defense for most have trouble enough just controlling the ball, by themselves. What is the most important for beginners to me is getting ball skills and defense not important to me at this stage...

  27. Larry Milnes, September 7, 2017 at 2:53 p.m.

    I read all of these comments, and really enjoy all the points of view. Most always, given a bit of reading between the lines, they are mostly spot on. I have been looking for the missing link in the US game for some time. I watch the recorded games over and over. At one point, not being able to identify a real specific, other than the obvious very slow play and reaction play, I began to hone in on three items: offensive team shape, defensive team shape, and transition. Wow. That was enlightening. Do these guys ever train in small-sided games for understanding of the games skills and understanding of basic soccer? Doesn't look like it. But eventually in trying to come up with a solution, it really came down to being out of position within the shape, and failure to support attack or defending on the ball, using the basic skill of soccer -- triangular play. It can be said the difference between a good player and a world class player is that the good player does the basics, and the world class player does the basics very well. Soccer is a very simple game, and the farther the individual players venture from the fundamental triangular positioning of team play and support, the farther the team ventures from being effective. I keep hearing of how Pulisic gets smothered, and while true, that is usually 3 against 1. Now where are the 2 open US teammates that are supposed to provide an option back, square, or forward? Watch the reruns. They are standing out of position, not moving to support, and watching. Bareclona are the masters of the basic triangular play, and when a player gets in trouble on the ball, its a quick release into one of the support positions, and that teammate is ALWAYS there. The support player does not have to waste valuable and too late catch up once his mate is in trouble on the ball. I could make an argument on many specific items, and in second place would be the speed of team and individual play of the US. But first and foremost I am convinced the number one training drill each player, and team, of the US men need is simple and basic one on the ball, one support member behind, two square, and one in front. They really suck at this and it is, and cannot be argued, the basic skill of the game of soccer. Like they say, practice does not make perfect, so I assume they get away with that sloppy play in practice sessions. Perfect practice makes perfect, and they need their butts kicked in practice drills till they elevate their play in tight settings and at incredible speed and outnumbered. It's a beautiful, and simple, game.

  28. Bob Ashpole replied, September 7, 2017 at 6:47 p.m.

    I don't like describing good positioning as triangles, but I understand what you are saying. The problem is that when players (of any level) are under pressure they forget what they worked on last week and revert to their bad habits. There is no short term solution. The long term solution is to focus on fundamentals at the youth level and stop the premature teaching of team tactics instead of fundamentals. Winning youth matches is nice, but it should not be the focus of youth soccer.

  29. Thomas Fouce replied, September 8, 2017 at 2:18 p.m.

    While players may be out of position, Pulisic does not help himself, or the team, by continually trying to take on multiple defenders when he should pass the ball and get positioned for a return pass. He seems to try to do too much by himself and ends up turning the ball over. I hope that he will learn - quickly! - not to do that.

  30. frank schoon replied, September 8, 2017 at 2:28 p.m.

    Thomas, Very true, but is why is only 18

  31. John Polis, September 7, 2017 at 3:10 p.m.

    Watching fan and pundit comments following two lackluster performances by the USA, including a second straight loss to a superior Costa Rica team (they've outscored us 6-0 the last two games), I've noticed that the criticism this time around is gradually shifting to the players -- where it should be. As we all saw in the game against CR, the same group of players who laid eggs for Coach Klinsmann in the first two qualifiers have now proven they can do the same thing for Coach Arena. The assumption that the USA has this great national team that just needs a magic-touch coach at the controls is misplaced. Top to bottom we are not good enough. At the same time, we don't have enough top class players who can salt away starting positions over their colleagues. Many of our best players are very young. And many of our best players are, frankly, too old. That's why it was necessary for Coach K to experiment, which he did, and it's why Coach Arena changed seven players each of our last two games. I haven't heard much criticism of those changes. We've even seen that young players like John Brooks, who many think at his best may be our best center back, have awful games (as did Omar Gonzalez the other night). Good national teams are about having enough top class players who can be used as interchangeable parts during long tournaments when injuries strike. And you need a lot of them. We don't. In fact, when it comes to true world class players, we're still looking for our first.

  32. Bob Ashpole replied, September 7, 2017 at 6:56 p.m.

    The national team is not different than any other team in that you don't want starters "who can salt away starting positions over their colleagues." Any team is better if there is internal competition for starting positions. As an aside I truly dislike the phrase "world class". It is meaningless.

  33. Bob Ashpole replied, September 7, 2017 at 7 p.m.

    John you are mistaken to say that Arena is experimenting with lineups during the qualifiers. The fatigue problem is what is driving his lineup choices, not a lack of knowledge of the players.

  34. Al Gebra replied, September 7, 2017 at 8:55 p.m.

    Mr. Polis, I agree re Brooks. He's slow but lumbering

  35. Marc Vermette, September 7, 2017 at 7:28 p.m.

    There seems to be this constant search for a player that works with Bradley in the middle, and yet the US has failed to find someone. Perhaps that is due to Bradley and all his weaknesses. Bradley sits and many of the problems (not all) will go away...yet we will never see it, for one reason or another...

  36. Goal Goal replied, September 7, 2017 at 8:25 p.m.

    Amen to Bradley and put Altidore on the same wood.

  37. cisco martinez, September 8, 2017 at 12:02 a.m.

    The American player unfortunately cannot play out of the back, we aren't technically or tactically superior, we are only strong In the physical aspect of the game and until we can increase our development in the areas of tactics and technique we need to play to our strengths. We need to play 3-5-2 and maximize our strengths of our limited talent and minimize our weaknesses.

  38. Bob Ashpole replied, September 9, 2017 at 11:09 a.m.

    Cisco I agree, except for the 352 remark. On the men's side, most coaches and players today have little experience with it (myself included). Both 442 and 433 should be 343 in the attack. The 352 is heavy in the center and weak on the flanks. I would think it is best suited for highly skilled players who can attack through the center while the single flank players on each side stretches the defense.

  39. Kent James, September 8, 2017 at 12:38 a.m.

    Well, I'm going to try to score against the run of play here and say we don't suck as badly as everyone thinks. And sorry, I don't think our players are technically incompetent, either. And their soccer IQs are generally fine (of course they don't always do the right thing, but neither are they clueless). The CR and Honduras games both demonstrated what we should have known, and that is that while the odds are good to qualify from CONCACAF, there are no guarantees, and on any given day, any team can beat any other. I think Paul Kennedy's analysis is pretty accurate. Every player makes mistakes, you just hope your mistakes don't cost you a game (as Gonzalez's almost did). I think we've got a solid team, maybe even a little better than average for us (primarily because of Pulisic). We obviously can't afford any bad results against Panama or T&T, but hopefully we're done with those.

  40. Bob Ashpole replied, September 9, 2017 at 12:05 p.m.

    Kent, I agree. It could be worse; we could be trying to qualify in CONMEBOL! Argentina and Chile are both out of the top 4 and having a rough time.

  41. Nick Daverese, September 8, 2017 at 6:26 p.m.

    What are we worrying about we have an in with Russia. Russia fixed our election right they love trump and trump is our president now. Trump makes one call and the fix is in we're in the WC.

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