Inconsistent U.S. have issues all over pitch, help for Christian Pulisic is key
Four years ago, Mexico's nightmarish (albeit successful) path to World Cup qualification was met with more than a bit of schadenfreude north of the border. El Tri only made it to Brazil thanks to the help of the first-placed U.S., who knocked Panama into fifth on the final day of qualifying, allowing Mexico to finish fourth and then book their World Cup spot via a playoff with New Zealand.
That a similar fate could one day befall the U.S. was acknowledged, but it seemed so unlikely. Yet the U.S. is now in a position of having to stare down the same scenario. And with two games left to play, it's safe to say that what has befallen the U.S. in 2017 is remarkably similar to what El Tri encountered in 2013. There have been fired coaches, subpar home form and mounting tension, as well as questions about whether this team is as good as it is perceived to be.
The U.S. still largely controls its qualifying fate despite winning just two and drawing three of their eight games so far, but that isn't as comforting as one might expect. It's true that wins over Panama and the already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago are almost certain to guarantee the U.S. third place (the last automatic qualification spot) in the Hexagonal. But given how much the Americans have struggled so far, there is little reason to think that clinching qualification will be so straightforward. After all, concerns and inconsistency abound all over the field.
1. The goalkeeper
Even the goalkeeping, long a position of unquestioned strength for the U.S. team, has some question marks surrounding it. Outwardly, Tim Howard seems completely healed from the adductor surgery he underwent last November, and he saved the Americans more than a few times during the Gold Cup. But there have been moments that reveal he's not quite the keeper he once was, like when was beaten from a tight angle against Costa Rica.
Brad Guzan has been slightly better and did his job during the 1-1 tie with Honduras, but he still seems somewhat short of his best. The coming weeks will see plenty of eyes on both players as to who should start in goal against Panama on Oct. 6.
2. The back line
The inconsistency along the back line, both in terms of form and player selection by manager Bruce Arena, is another concern. In recent games, the U.S. has been guilty of catastrophic breakdowns, and only Honduras' inability to punish them prevented the Catrachos from running away in Tuesday's fortuitous draw.
Without question, injuries haven't helped. The central pairing of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron that was so successful at the Copa America Centenario last year has rarely been duplicated since, and it won't be in the near future because of Brooks' injured thigh tendon.
But changing three-quarters of the back line between the Costa Rica and Honduras matches seemed a step too far, especially as it relates to Cameron. There's no doubting he was poor against Los Ticos, but he remains the best organizer at the back, and he'll be needed in the remaining fixtures in October. The steady Matt Besler seems the best option to partner him.
At outside-back, DeAndre Yedlin's hamstring injury was a significant blow both in terms of his defending and the additional speed he brought to the field. His return would be most welcome. It also looks like Fabian Johnson returning to left-back would be an upgrade and add to the team's overall quickness as well. It might not make the Borussia Moenchengladbach man happy, but it's what the team needs.
3. Midfield issues
Just as much concern surrounds the construction of the U.S. midfield. If the Honduras match reinforced one issue, it's that Michael Bradley benefits from having a highly active sidekick like Kellyn Acosta beside him. Granted, it was a day on which the U.S. wasn't good with the ball in general, but Acosta's mobility in terms of winning second balls and getting some tackles in frees Bradley to try to build the U.S. attack.
While it's true that opponents have done their utmost recently to take Bradley out of the game, it's a trade-off the U.S. should be willing to make. Alejandro Bedoya is another possibility, as is Huddersfield Town's Danny Williams. That said, despite Arena's statement that "We would look at [Williams]," he seems an afterthought at this point.
4. Attacking balance
The biggest issue for the U.S. is attacking balance, or rather the lack of it. Much has been made of positioning Christian Pulisic on the wing, though he and the team would be better off playing more centrally. Arena has insisted Pulisic has license to go where he pleases and has used the Borussia Dortmund attacker in different positions.
It's a debate reminiscent of the one that used to surround Landon Donovan, in terms of where he should line up. In the 2010 World Cup cycle, then-manager Bob Bradley opted to put Donovan out wide. The difference is that Bradley also had Clint Dempsey available to play on the opposite wing, which allowed for some variety in attack.
5. Variety in offense
That is what this U.S. team needs most at the moment. For all the ability of players like Darlington Nagbe and Johnson, neither has really provided the kind of attacking presence to make teams think twice about double-teaming -- or even triple-teaming -- Pulisic. Unless someone else starts shouldering some of the creative load, it won't matter where Pulisic lines up. The 18-year-old needs to do his bit as well and pass the ball quicker when opponents collapse on him and not try to dribble his way out of trouble, especially in the middle third.
Of course, Arena doesn't have the luxury of unearthing some uncut diamond at the moment. The player pool isn't going to change over the next month, but it can't be the archangel offense where Pulisic is expected to always come to the team's rescue either.
An additional creative outlet will need to step up, otherwise the U.S. may end up enduring the nightmare and humiliation of a failed qualification campaign.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.