United States men’s national team coach Bruce Arena released a 26-man squad for World Cup qualifiers over the weekend, and there were some surprises. Fabian Johnson didn’t make it despite being arguably the most accomplished American player in Europe. Gyasi Zardes and Benny Feilhaber, who are out of form, got called in.
An injury kept star defender John Brooks out, but another member of the first-choice back line — DeAndre Yedlin — has returned when his team needs him most. Jordan Morris also had to miss out due to injury, and Zardes was later pulled off the team without a replacement after he got hurt in the LA Galaxy’s most recent match. Arena’s squad selection provoked quite a few questions from USMNT fans. Here are six of the big ones.
Surely you want Fabian Johnson as an option?
Johnson was ineffective in his last USMNT start, and it’s understandable that Arena might not see him as part of the team’s best starting XI. But Johnson is a versatile player, with experience playing on the wing and at fullback, left and right, in a variety of formations. He’s someone any coach would like to have on their team in the event of an injury or a player having a really bad game. He’s an excellent multi-position backup at worst.
While Johnson only recently returned from an injury and probably isn’t at peak fitness yet, he has played in Borussia Mönchengladbach’s last two matches, making a start and going 70 minutes over the weekend. He might not be fit enough to play 90 minutes in hot conditions, but a mostly fit Johnson would still be the best bench option the Americans could have.
Hopefully this is a simple case of Arena only wanting the fittest possible players in his team for two must-win games. But between Johnson’s history of getting sent home for a perceived lack of commitment to the team and Arena’s comments about foreign-trained players before he was hired, a lot of fans will find it hard to believe this is only about fitness.
Why was Gyasi Zardes called in?
This is currently irrelevant because Zardes was injured over the weekend and won’t be available for the USMNT, but it’s hard to figure out why he got a call in the first place. Zardes is currently in the worst form of his career and has just two goals and two assists despite playing over 1,900 minutes in MLS this season, mostly in advanced positions.
Arena’s decision to not call in a replacement suggests that he never had big plans for Zardes anyway, so it’s tough to figure out why he was called in. Big World Cup qualifiers aren’t exactly spots for career rehab call-ups. Maybe Arena just thinks he’s a great locker room personality, or works as a great scout team guy? I’m just throwing darts blindfolded here.
How about an in-form goalkeeper?
Nick Rimando is probably the best goalkeeper in MLS history and one of the most beloved people in the sport, and he deserved his 22 caps. But the opportunity cost of giving those starts to a player who was never going to be the American No. 1 was lost experience for potential future starters. That would have come in handy right now, when none of the three keepers in the squad — Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Rimando — are on top of their games. Given their ages, it seems unlikely that their dips are temporary.
So instead of having Ethan Horvath or Bill Hamid racking up Gold Cup and friendly caps, preparing for the day that they’d be needed to step into a big game, they’ve been kept out of squads and given minimal opportunities by the last two USMNT managers. Horvath has one cap; Hamid has three. Both are in significantly better form than the goalkeepers Arena will turn to during this international window.
It’s understandable that Arena wants experience in goal against Panama and T&T, rather than throwing someone into his first Hex game. But Arena and Klinsmann should have seen this problem coming miles away and gotten ready for it.
Is Benny Feilhaber the best option at his position?
Feilhaber was once exiled from the USMNT for dissent and public criticism of Klinsmann. For years, American fans had to watch on in frustration while he ran the midfield for Sporting Kansas City and Klinsmann called up inferior passers instead. But this has been one of Feilhaber’s weakest MLS seasons, while Lee Nguyen and Sacha Kljestan have racked up assists.
It’s great to see Feilhaber back, but why now, when there are better options? That’s nothing against Feilhaber, he just hasn’t been as good as Nguyen or Kljestan this year. They should be in the team ahead of him.
Does DeAndre Yedlin fix some problems?
Graham Zusi has done an admirable job as a fill-in right back during an injury crisis, but he’s not a long-term solution at the spot. DeAndre Yedlin is probably first choice at right back for every game he’s fit, and that will hopefully include Friday’s match against Panama.
Yedlin still depends on his pace to bail him out of sticky situations more often than great right backs do, but he’s fast enough to get away with it, and he’s improved his positioning and ability to read the game considerably over the last two years. He’s the best American right back, both defensively and going forward.
It’s not a lock that Yedlin makes the USMNT significantly better right away — he’s still fairly error prone, and he just recently regained full fitness after a preseason hamstring injury — but the best version of Yedlin has a massive impact on multiple aspects of the game. He’ll make the USMNT less vulnerable on the counter attack and more dangerous in attack.
Full United States squad
Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders (9): Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Tim Ream (Fulham), DaMarcus Beasley(Houston Dynamo), Michael Orozco Fiscal (Club Tijuana)
Midfielders (10): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes).
The USMNT takes on Panama on Friday, Oct. 6, then travels to play away at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, Oct. 10.