The list of players lost to injury has grown quickly for the USA ahead of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, leaving Bruce Arena with a tough task.
When Bruce Arena settled on the 24-man U.S. national team roster for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, he had to feel pretty good about the squad he had to work with. DeAndre Yedlin was the only projected starter he would be without, and the veteran trio of Geoff Cameron, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey were all available after months of uncertainty about whether they would be fit in time. Life was good, and Arena probably liked his chances of winning the qualifiers the U.S. needs to win.
Things have changed dramatically in the five days since that initial roster was named. Fabian Johnson injured his hamstring and Bobby Wood hurt his back, leaving the U.S. without two of its most important players. Sources told Goal on Sunday that central defender John Brooks was also in danger of missing the qualifiers with a knee injury, which explains why Matt Besler was called in along with Sacha Kljestan when Wood’s injury was announced.
Hertha Berlin has since cleared Brooks to travel to the U.S. training camp ahead of the March qualifiers, with an MRI revealing what the club is calling a “meniscal irritation.”
If Brooks’ minor knee injury becomes a bigger problem and forces him out, that would mean three starters lost in the span of five days for a U.S. team that can’t afford to lose to Honduras on Friday. If you didn’t know any better, you would think someone with a U.S. voodoo doll was wreaking havoc on the squad at the worst possible moment.
Short of storing Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley in bubble wrap until Friday, there’s not much Arena can do but hope the veterans he has called in can help fill the void left by the four starters who could miss the March qualifiers due to injury.
Here is a look at how Arena may cope with the key absences:
Arena had already made it clear he intended to play Johnson as a winger in the March qualifiers, and while only Pulisic is on par with him in the wide midfield pool, the U.S. does have some viable options.
Alejandro Bedoya hasn’t wowed in his recent national team appearances, but he has considerable experience in big matches, is a good two-way player, and can help the U.S. cope with the challenges Honduras will offer on the wing. When you think about how shaky the U.S. fullback options are, you suddenly understand why Arena might have more appreciation for someone who offers the kind of tireless work Bedoya puts in.
Darlington Nagbe has settled in on the left wing for the red-hot Portland Timbers, and looks very comfortable there. He has the passing skills and quality on the ball to help break down what will be a defensive-minded Honduras system. If Arena prefers Bedoya on the right wing, then Nagbe would be a good bet on the left.
Arena may have been considering Pulisic for an attacking midfield role, but if he doesn’t use the 18-year-old centrally, then playing him on the left works too. Though he isn’t a left-footed player, Pulisic has shown well on the left wing before, as he did in September in a World Cup qualifying win against Trinidad and Tobago.
Sebastian Lletget is another possibility, though Arena is more likely to have other plans for the LA Galaxy midfielder.
This injury is a brutal blow considering how well Wood had been playing for Hamburg, and how his presence next to Jozy Altidore might have been the ideal recipe for breaking down Honduras’ five-man defense.
So who replaces him? Some might think Clint Dempsey is the answer, but that isn’t likely to be the case. Arena has already stated he sees Dempsey more as an option off the bench, and it remains unclear whether the 34-year-old can handle the amount of pressing required from a starting forward in the international game.
Jordan Morris makes the most sense as a replacement for Wood if Arena decides he wants to play two forwards against Honduras. No, Morris isn’t as polished as Wood, or as good a finisher, but he gives you the tireless work rate, and his speed can punish Honduras.
Pulisic isn’t a striker, but if Arena decides Wood’s absence means scrapping the 4-4-2, then there’s a good bet Pulisic will play in an attacking midfield role behind Altidore. Pulisic has shown in recent weeks that he can be a threat as a central playmaker for Borussia Dortmund, both running at opponents and slipping perfect passes to a lead striker.
This injury didn’t catch Arena by surprise since he knew about it before choosing his initial roster, but that doesn’t make Yedlin’s absence any less difficult to deal with.
Cameron hasn’t played much right back recently at Stoke City, but he spent years playing there in the Premier League, and has filled in there enough times in big matches for the U.S. to be trusted at the position. The key question in that case is can you afford to move him from central defense, especially if Brooks is out?
Michael Orozco has been playing right back in recent weeks for Club Tijuana after earlier playing right center back in a three-man defense. Orozco has plenty of experience at the position, but he’s also looked vulnerable when playing right back for the national team, particularly against speedy opponents.
The Brooks situation is a peculiar one. Unlike Wood, who did leave Hamburg’s match this weekend late in the game with back discomfort, Brooks played the full 90 minutes in Saturday’s loss to Cologne, which had to make Arena punch a wall when he heard he might not have his first-choice center back available.
Sources told Goal that Brooks had testing before Hertha Berlin eventually cleared him on Monday to join the U.S. training camp with what has been deemed a minor knee injury. That uncertainty led the U.S. to bring in a veteran option in Besler to provide cover.
Anyone who saw Brooks dominate at the Copa America knows just how good he can be, but we also saw in November against Costa Rica just how terrible he can be. His absence would still be a difficult blow, but Besler might actually be a better alternative because he’s faster than Brooks, and Honduras features some absolute speedsters in the attack.
Of course, we should consider the fact that Arena originally chose Tim Ream ahead of Besler. Ream has been starting regularly and playing well for Fulham, so he should walk into camp as the leading candidate to replace Brooks at left center back. One potential factor working against him is a lack of familiarity with the center backs in the current pool, at least when compared to Besler.
If Arena decides he has to play Cameron at right back, then suddenly an Omar Gonzalez-Matt Besler pairing would make plenty of sense. The tandem was Jurgen Klinsmann’s first-choice pairing in the last World Cup qualifying cycle and the 2014 World Cup, so it isn’t a case of two defenders unfamiliar with each other. In fact, if Arena plays Cameron at right back and DaMarcus Beasley at left back, which is entirely possible, he would be using a back four that has several contests together — including some very important Hexagonal matches in the last World Cup cycle.