What is old is new again with the U.S. national team as Bruce Arena returned to the bench in the Yanks World Cup qualifier against Honduras. The match was the former manager’s first meaningful match back after replacing Jurgen Klinsmann and the stakes were high. With two embarrassing losses to begin qualifying in the CONCACAF “Hex”, the U.S. sat last in the table and needed a home victory against Honduras to right the ship.
The big news out of the U.S. camp was who was not there. Bundesliga players Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson, and Timmy Chandler were all scratches in the match. Jermaine Jones, currently in MLS and a starter under Klinsmann, was suspended. Under Klinsmann, the line-up for this match may have emphasized talent over fit an seen the German slot his most talented players into a starting XI, almost like someone new to Football Manager trying to adjust his team’s formation after an injury.
Arena, always the pragmatist, went with the familiar. Seeing a void at right back, he moved Geoff Cameron out wide from his better centre back slot and started Omar Gonzalez next to John Anthony Brooks. This was a slight gamble Gonzalez had played poorly for the national team. In the midfield, he started the recently capped Sebastian Lletget on the right and Darlington Nagbe on the left. The next great American Christian Pulisic slotted behind the forwards and captain Michael Bradley played deeper. The formation on paper looked like a 4-4-2 diamond but played more like a 4-1-3-2.
Arena’s strategy was to get the U.S. off to a good start and score an early goal. The thought was multi-layered. Honduras had less overall talent than the U.S. but possessed dangerous speed and the ability to run in behind the back line. The more the U.S. pressed for a goal, the easier Honduras would have exposing the U.S.’s tall but slower centre backs. Then there was the PR aspect. The U.S. needed to start strong to erase those lingering doubts in the stadium about their ability to qualify for the World Cup. The longer the U.S. went scoreless, the greater the doubt would creep into everyone wearing red, white, and blue.
The U.S. caught an early tactical break in this match. Honduras dominated the early play but when they lost the ball, they focus on marking out Bradley. The idea looked to be to force the U.S. to play out of the back and hoof the ball past the midfield to the U.S. forwards. The problem with this strategy is that with Nagbe, Lletget, and Pulisic, the U.S. have three good midfielders on the ball. When the backline got the ball t them, they were able to attack the visitors and create chances that less creative players could not. This was how the first goal was created; hold-up play in the Honduras half led the ball going to Pulisic’s feet where he found LLetget in front of the net after creating space.
Once the route was on, Honduras seemed to wilt. In fact, the U.S.’s large margin of victory masked some defensive deficiencies seen in the match. It should not matter – after Tuesday’s qualifier Arena should have access to his missing key players for the next set of qualifiers. On the day, Bruce Arena 2.0 went pragmatic and slotted the players he had into their optimal positions to get a result.