It’s rare that tension rises this high, this early for the US in a World Cup Qualifying cycle. Zero points in the first two games, though, led to the heightened importance of this Friday’s home qualifier against Honduras. The US hired Bruce Arena in the interest of short-term stability, and a review of previous campaigns show that this low-risk approach made sense. Here are the points by matchday for each US World Cup Hex, from 1998 through today:
Though in hindsight the US qualified for each World Cup with at least a game to spare, the process of qualifying featured more complications. The US had a mere six points through five games in the 1998 Hex, and the 2002 Hex included a three-game winless streak. Just last cycle, the Snow Clasico and another Golden Point alleviated the pressure on an under-fire US team.
Unfortunately, a minor injury crisis hit this past week, ruling out Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson. The additions of Matt Besler, Sacha Kljestan, and Graham Zusi make this roster more weighted toward MLS players than initially expected.
Arena recently cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from sharpness the early-season MLS games. However, time is of the essence; as we see from the point accumulation in previous cycles, anything other than a win at home against Honduras puts World Cup Qualification in doubt. Arena will need to rely upon these early-season MLS players in some capacity, even if they have yet to hit mid-season form.
Fortunately, through a combination of the two US friendlies and CONCACAF Champions League, most players have playing time beyond the first three MLS league games. Here are the total 2017 minutes played for MLS and Liga MX players on the roster:
Through Dallas’ Champions League run, Kellyn Acosta and Walker Zimmerman have each played 500 minutes in 2017, with Acosta in excellent form. Omar Gonzalez leads all North American players in minutes played this calendar year. He’s accumulated more than 700 minutes while starting for Pachuca in Liga MX and Champions League. Among those with less playing time in 2017, most are US veterans familiar with the level of World Cup Qualifiers. Besler, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, and Tim Howard seem to be back from their various injuries, while DaMarcus Beasley continues to put the quotes in “retirement”.
The use of MLS players in early-stage Hex games is not unprecedented. Last cycle, Gonzalez, Eddie Johnson, and Zusi appeared in each of the first three Hex qualifiers. In the 2010 campaign under Bob Bradley, Brian Ching, Landon Donovan, Frankie Hejduk, and Kljestan did the same. In the 2006 Hex, Arena relied heavily on MLS players, even playing more MLS players than non-MLS players against Guatemala on Mathday 3 (side note: Dempsey is the lone hold-over from that group.)
While the midfield configuration remains the biggest question mark for 2018, outside back is the most critical personnel challenge for Arena against Honduras and Panama. Starters Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin – excelling at Newcastle – are out injured, as is Eric Lichaj. Geoff Cameron is himself coming back from a lengthy absence. Zusi and Jorge Villafaña played outside back in the two most recent friendlies, but Zusi is just starting his transition, while Villafaña hasn’t featured for Santos Laguna this season. Matt Besler and Tim Ream have deputized at left back in the past, but both are far more comfortable in central defense.
The final selection will depend on how much attacking width Arena necessitates from his fullbacks. On this roster, few of the midfield options are natural wide players. Even when starting out wide, Darlington Nagbe, Sebastian Lletget, and Alejandro Bedoya prefer to move centrally. Christian Pulisic might play wide, but with his form and finishing ability, a more dedicated attacking role makes sense.
Thus, Arena could utilize Beasley and Cameron on the left and right, while John Brooks and one of Gonzalez, Besler, Orozco, or Ream partner with him. It may not be what we see in a year, but three points is all that matters this week.