Arena trusts his eye in compiling U.S. squad ahead of World Cup qualifiers
In a move befitting the critical nature of the two upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica on Friday and Honduras the following Tuesday, U.S. manager Bruce Arena has gone with quality and familiarity in constructing his 26-man roster.
Sure, the mainstays are there, including the likes of Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic, the Toronto FC duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey, Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron and Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard. But in determining which players are best suited to provide cover, Arena has gone with players he has seen as opposed to those he hasn't, despite their pedigree.
That's why when it comes to determining who should back up Bradley, there is room on the roster for the Chicago Fire's Dax McCarty and Seattle's Cristian Roldan, but not Huddersfield Town's Danny Williams. It's why you see Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi and Nottingham Forest's Eric Lichaj as the options at right-back and not Eintracht Frankfurt's Timmy Chandler, despite the fact that usual starter DeAndre Yedlin has been left off the squad as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
There is also no room for LA Galaxy midfielder Jermaine Jones. Jones -- who has endured two injury-plagued seasons, first with Colorado and now with the Galaxy -- is set to miss this weekend's California Clasico against the San Jose Earthquakes due to a foot injury. But one gets the sense that the emergence of Kellyn Acosta alongside Bradley has accelerated the process of moving beyond the 35-year-old as an option in midfield.
As expected, Wolfsburg defender John Brooks and Club Tijuana defender Michael Orozco will also miss out due to injury.
Chandler's exclusion probably counts as the biggest surprise. He has been playing well for Frankfurt, though rare are the moments when he has been able to reprise that form for the U.S. Time will tell whether Williams gets another crack, as he seems to be the most capable and experienced option to provide cover for Bradley.
But with time a scarce commodity during this double-fixture period, the U.S. manager is taking no chances. All told, 18 members of the Gold Cup-winning squad are included in the current roster. The remaining players such as Pulisic and Cameron are all familiar with Arena's methods.
"Everyone here is experienced inside the group, they know what needs to be done, what's expected of them, our style of play and how we go about doing things," said Arena. "I think since everyone's been with us now in 2017, it'll make what is a really difficult week a little bit easier.
"People from the outside don't realize how difficult it is to bring in a team and players from literally all over the world and get them recovered from weekend games and get them prepared for a critically important game on Friday. It's a real challenge, and to have a group that's together now that has tasted some success in 2017 should allow it to be a smooth transition into this game on Friday."
Arena insisted his decisions have been based on the entire year and not just the Gold Cup.
"Thinking of that tournament, there were some situations where it obviously helped, but we've looked at the whole picture during the year when players are playing not only with the national team, but their club teams, as well," he said. "We've taken into account a lot of factors in building this roster."
Arena has long proven to be adept at building a team in which the requisite pieces fit well together. That will be critical this week as the U.S. attempts to solidify its position in the Hexagonal table, one that currently sees the Americans occupy the third and final qualifying spot -- but just one point ahead of fourth-place Panama and three ahead of fifth-place Honduras.
"We're far from being in Russia," said Arena, who later added, "Things can change real quickly over these next two games. We have to make sure we're the team that secures points at home and hopefully get some points on the road. If we do that, we're getting a lot closer to Russia. No one is safe, at this point and a lot of things are going to happen over this next weekend."
The turnaround might not be as onerous as the hypoxia-induced challenge of last June, when the U.S. played both Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico at altitude, but there are significant obstacles this time, as well. That's especially true for the Honduras match, which will be played in the afternoon heat of San Pedro Sula that lately has seen temperatures reach the low-90s at the scheduled kickoff of 3:30 p.m. local time.
There is also the fact that six U.S. players -- Altidore, Paul Arriola, Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler, Bradley and Cameron -- are sitting on yellow cards, and should one of them get booked against Costa Rica, they would be suspended for the Honduras match. For those reasons, Arena might need to dig into his depth once again.
Of course, Pulisic remains the hub around which the U.S. attack is built. What remains in flux is where to deploy him. In home qualifiers against Honduras and T&T, Arena has opted to pair Pulisic and Bradley together centrally. On the road, he has tended to operate out on the wing with license to cut into the middle.
The former approach has freed up Pulisic a bit more but put an inordinate amount of defensive responsibility on Bradley, who has excelled when a player such as Acosta has been placed alongside him. Costa Rica's midfield remains one of its strengths, with Celso Borges back in the fold after sitting out the Gold Cup. For that reason, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Pulisic start out on the wing, where he has been in scintillating form of late for Dortmund.
Whatever Arena decides, the end goal remains the same: Win at home and get some sort of result on the road. That is a formula the U.S. has followed since Arena took over. Doing so again will put the U.S. in prime position to qualify for Russia.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.