USMNT W2W4: Can Arena fix the defense? Who joins Dempsey up front?
The United States national team begins a critical week of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying on Thursday at home against Trinidad and Tobago, followed by a trip south to the Estadio Azteca on Sunday to face rivals Mexico.
Here are some of the things to watch for regarding Bruce Arena's team over what promises to be a big week.
1. Can the defense clean things up?
The performance of the defense in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Venezuela left many a U.S. fan feeling uneasy. The team's habit of reacting slowly on set pieces reared its head and if not for some sparkling stops from goalkeeper Tim Howard, the Vinotinto could have easily been up by two or three goals at halftime instead of just 1-0.
Of course, the stakes are higher now in qualifying. Trinidad and Tobago are not expected to play a possession game like the one the Yanks will face in Mexico City, but they certainly boast the talent and speed to do damage on the counter -- much like Venezuela did on Saturday. The Soca Warriors will also be looking to strike from dead-ball situations knowing full well the struggles that has posed for the U.S. in recent months.
It goes without saying that against Mexico, any minor lapse in concentration could prove fatal. The U.S. was reminded of that in last November's 2-1 loss in Columbus, Ohio, when an unmarked Rafa Marquez spun the winning header past Brad Guzan in the 89th minute. The frenzied atmosphere of the Azteca will only make it harder to keep things tidy at the back.
2. Who starts at striker?
Clint Dempsey didn't have much of an impact against Venezuela but his big game pedigree makes him a lock to start up top for the U.S. on Thursday and most likely again on Sunday. The big question is who will accompany him
With Jozy Altidore unavailable last Saturday, Bobby Wood had a chance to stake his claim but failed to convince. The feeling is that Altidore, who has enjoyed a superb season with Toronto FC (six goals, four assists), gets the start on Thursday. His history against T&T is excellent with five goals in qualifiers, including two in last fall's 4-0 win.
Three days later against Mexico, the task could well fall to Wood as Dempsey's partner instead. The Hamburg man has a goal in each of the last two meetings against El Tri and will also be able to provide fresh legs considering the short rest.
3. What will the U.S. midfield look like?
This is where Arena will be scrutinized the most. On Saturday, the trio of Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic and Fabian Johnson, teaming up with with defensive midfielder Michael Bradley in a 4-1-3-2, didn't exactly generate the chances that Arena sought. It will be tempting for the U.S. boss to make a change on that front against Trinidad.
Bradley and Pulisic are shoo-ins to start but the question is whether the latter will stay in the No. 10 position or move out wide right in a 4-4-2 to make room for another midfielder like Kellyn Acosta, who performed well on Saturday and has been very solid this season for FC Dallas.
You could not fault the more romantic U.S. fan for hoping to see a 3-5-2 on Sunday in the Azteca: of course, it was the formation Arena deployed in the famous 2-0 Round of 16 win over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup. Could there be a return? It's quite possible considering that the U.S. were in a 3-5-2 for the latter phase of Saturday's draw. It certainly worked to a tee all those summers ago in South Korea.
4. Can the U.S. break the Azteca spell?
Make no mistake, Thursday's home date against T&T is the most important match for the U.S. here. They absolutely have to defend home soil and get three points. If not, then the American Outlaws and whoever else should start thinking about a potential road trip to either South Korea, Uzbekistan or Australia for the Intercontinental Playoff. But still there remains the holy grail of a qualifying win on Mexican soil.
The best the U.S. has ever done in the Azteca in a qualifier is a pair of 0-0 draws for France 1998 and Brazil 2014. But in a Hexagonal in which Mexico has exorcised their Columbus demons, nothing would be better for the U.S. than to return the favor and register another landmark win over their biggest rival with Arena at the helm.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .