U.S. boss Bruce Arena focused on the job at hand ahead of crunch qualifiers
Leave it to Bruce Arena to insert a wrinkle or two into what is the most critical roster of this World Cup cycle.
The objective for the U.S. is clear. Despite a dysfunctional World Cup qualifying campaign, the Americans are still in control of their own destiny, tied for fourth place heading into the last two matches of qualifying. Two wins will get the job done and secure the third and final automatic qualification spot.
As such, the usual faces are on the roster, from Tim Howard in goal to Michael Bradley in midfield to Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey up top. It is these players upon whom Arena will rely, and he's comfortable in doing so.
"The players always give the commitment, that's never an issue," Arena said. "The issue is whether or not we get the results we need, and I think we're positioned to do that. When I took the job last November, if you said to me, 'You'd be in position in Game 9 to play a game at home that you had to win, would you take that?' I would say, 'Yes.'"
But scanning the 26-player list, one name jumps out: that of Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber. Practically from the moment Feilhaber first appeared on the national team scene, he has been an enigma.
He has clearly possessed first XI talent in terms of his vision and technical ability. There was a time when it seemed he might even be the kind of creative force that the U.S. would build itself around. Yet even at the apex of his national team involvement during the 2010 World Cup cycle, he couldn't rise above a super-sub role. Since then, Feilhaber hasn't even been an afterthought.
Yet such is Feilhaber's ability -- and effectiveness during this time with Sporting Kansas City -- that the U.S. hasn't been able to completely give up on the midfielder. And with the U.S. team's World Cup qualifying hopes hanging in the balance, Arena has once again decided to give Feilhaber a chance to contribute, naming him to his 26-man roster for the crunch World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.
There is the chance, of course, that Arena won't need Feilhaber, and the U.S. will take care of the Canaleros and the Soca Warriors without too much fuss. But that would mean breaking the habit that the U.S. has set for itself this cycle of making the qualifying journey as tension-filled as possible. And should the U.S. need a player to pick the lock of a packed defense, Feilhaber is certainly one who can do so.
Feilhaber's inclusion, along with that of New England Revolution attacker Juan Agudelo, is also an acknowledgement that the U.S. needs a spark of some kind -- any kind -- to get its offense going. As much as the U.S. might not like to admit it, it has become entirely too dependent on Christian Pulisic to kick-start the offense. Of the 12 goals the U.S. has scored in the final round of World Cup qualifying, Pulisic has been involved in nine of them.
This is not to say that the U.S. shouldn't be leaning on Pulisic. Clearly he is the kind of attacking talent that the Americans need to utilize. But the frequency with which Pulisic has been getting fouled -- seven times in the past two games alone -- reveals that the rest of CONCACAF has come to the conclusion that if you stop Pulisic, you stop the U.S. attack. That, more than anything, is what needs to change for the U.S. during these next two games. For the Americans, balance needs to return to the attacking force.
So if Feilhaber's inclusion counts as a surprise, so does the exclusion of Fabian Johnson, especially when you consider the roster's inflated numbers. To be clear, Johnson has underwhelmed during the last two fixture periods, in particular his anonymous performance against Costa Rica. He has also logged just 181 minutes with club side Borussia Monchengladbach this season, which is why he won't be joining up with the U.S. in Orlando, Florida.
But leaving him off the roster appears to give Arena one less option at outside back, where the U.S. looked especially vulnerable against Honduras. Without question, the return to health of DeAndre Yedlin as well as that of center-back Geoff Cameron will ease Arena's defensive worries to an extent, but Johnson would have provided some cover on the left. Now that responsibility will be left to Jorge Villafana and DaMarcus Beasley, both of whom have experienced their share of ups and downs.
Regardless, this is a side -- from the goalkeeper, to the center-backs, right through the midfield to the forward line -- that will need to raise its collective game, and obtain the results it needs to claim the third and final automatic qualifying spot. Doing so will not be easy, especially against a Panama side that has tied the U.S. the last four times the two teams have met.
"It's like any team in CONCACAF and the Hex," Arena said of Panama. "The games on the road are difficult. They're a fairly defensive, physical team. You need the right day in terms of playing well, getting the right officiating, having the right surface to play on. I think all of those factors come into play. The bottom line is that we need to go out on the field and play well, be aggressive to start and get the first goal."
And find a way to win.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.