Bruce Arena is missing two of his best players, and is stuck with just one formation that makes sense because of it.
The United States men’s national team has a near-must-win World Cup qualifier against Honduras on Friday, and they’ll have to play it without a few of their best players. Striker Bobby Wood and wide utility man Fabian Johnson are both unavailable, and their absences seriously hamstring new manager Bruce Arena.
Wood and Johnson aren’t so much more talented than their peers that their output can’t be matched by someone else, but the USMNT does have a problem with replacing them directly. There’s no one else in the squad exactly like either Wood or Johnson, so taking them out of the squad limits the lineups that Arena can deploy his players in.
Without them, Arena is pretty much stuck with the flat 4-4-2 that USMNT fans have been hoping the team can move away from. Here’s why.
Losing Bobby Wood means a lack of formation options
Wood is by far the most versatile and complete of the strikers in the USMNT player pool. He formed a good partnership with Jozy Altidore in 2016, but has spent plenty of time playing as a lone striker for both Union Berlin and Hamburg. Unfortunately, that’s not something any of the other American strikers are good at.
Altidore’s been asked to play at the top of one-striker formations before, but the weakest part of his game is probably his off-the-ball movement, which is a bad trait for a lone striker to have. There was a time when Clint Dempsey could have played as a false nine, dropping deep to win the ball, but at 34 he probably doesn’t have the legs for a lone-striker role. The same goes for Chris Wondolowski, also 34. Jordan Morris is very athletic and has great movement, but hasn’t yet developed his hold-up and combination play to the level of the other strikers.
If Wood were available, Arena might have packed the center of midfield or tried out Christian Pulisic in a No. 10 role. Instead, he’s pretty much forced into playing with two strikers, because every forward on the roster is considerably better with a strike partner than they are without one.
Losing Fabian Johnson means other players are restricted
Not only is Johnson one of the Americans’ best players, he’s one of the most versatile, too. He can play fullback, wingback, or winger, on the left or right side, in any formation. His injury is another reason Pulisic is likely to play wide, rather than in the center as Arena has hinted at previously — the USMNT is very light on true wide players.
If Arena wanted to play with wingbacks — or just very attacking fullbacks — he no longer has that option either. Johnson’s injury, coupled with the absences of DeAndre Yedlin, Timothy Chandler, and Eric Lichaj, means that Arena’s starting right back will be someone who prefers to play in central defense. That, too, limits his options.
What does the USMNT lineup look like without them?
Here’s a guess at the team Arena will pick.
For those of you hoping that the future is now in midfield and it’s time to see younger faces, we think you’re going to be disappointed. In a high-pressure, must-win game, expect Arena to turn to the most experienced guys on his roster. Pulisic will make the starting XI simply because he’s the Americans’ best attacker by far, but it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Dax McCarty (or Sacha Kljestan) and Alejandro Bedoya beat out more inexperienced players who are in better form.
If you’re expressing dismay at seeing Michael Orozco Fiscal’s name above, you may be in luck. This back four isn’t any more or less likely than one featuring Geoff Cameron shifted over to right back and Omar Gonzalez slotting into the center of defense.
United States soccer blog Stars and Stripes FC predicts a similar lineup and formation, but sees Sebastian Lletget getting the nod in central midfield and Graham Zusi starting at right back.
This isn’t a bad lineup by any stretch of the imagination. It should still be good enough to beat Honduras at home. But it’s unfortunate that Arena isn’t going to be able to deviate from this formula too much. If Wood and Johnson were fit, we might have seen a very interesting setup in midfield. Instead, Arena’s going to play it safe, as he probably should.