Bruce Arena was brought in to patch up the United States’ faltering World Cup qualification campaign. His first task? To try to patch up his ailing squad.
Arena was charged with a much-needed rescue act in November after Jurgen Klinsmann’s ongoing struggles put the U.S. at the foot of the six-team CONCACAF qualifying group and cost the German his job.
Yet as the first two meaningful matches of Arena’s second term in charge approach, the veteran coach and his roster have been hit with an injury plague at precisely the wrong time.
Friday’s clash with Honduras and next Tuesday’s road game in Panama need to be the start of a revival for the U.S. as it aims to ease fears the team could fail to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
While Arena announced his squad Wednesday, he was content and confident with what he had to work with.
“We put together a roster that we think has balance and one that gives us an option (of) playing a number of different ways,” Arena said. “It's a roster where the primary rationale is to help us be successful in these two games. … Our approach to these games is simple: We want to win.”
However, each day has brought a new dose of bleak news regarding the health and availability of key performers.
Forward Bobby Wood, in fine form with Hamburg in the German Bundesliga and increasingly a trusted and energetic anchor in the American lineup, was ruled out on Sunday with back problems and will play no part in either game.
A couple of days earlier, Fabian Johnson, arguably the most accomplished and versatile player Arena had at his disposal, was pulled from the roster after suffering a thigh injury in Europa League action with Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan will also be absent, in order to be with his wife as she gives birth to their second child, and suddenly some extra nerves are jangling among U.S. fans that have no wish for the qualification process to turn into a nail biter.
Defeats at home to Mexico and away to Costa Rica in November were disappointing but far from terminal, as there are eight games remaining and the top three in CONCACAF are assured of a World Cup place, while a fourth goes into a playoff.
Any further setbacks, though, and things start to get a bit twitchy. Costa Rica leads the qualifying table with six points, Mexico and Panama are on four, while Honduras sits on three. The U.S. is pointless after its two opening displays that were, frankly, also pointless.
The dilemma for Arena is that the injuries leave him facing a set of tricky decisions. He has not had time to see most of his first-choice players in action for the national team and the months of tactical plotting that began when he replaced the Klinsmann will have been seriously affected by the absences.
With Guzan out, Tim Howard is likely to start. While Howard has been first choice for the U.S. for the best part of a decade, he only recently returned from a grueling rehab stint and two games in four days will test him.
The right side of defense is one spot that is particularly fraught. DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj would both have been viable options but are hurt, and Timothy Chandler was not called up – either because he is suspended for the first game, because Arena isn’t convinced of his worth or maybe a bit of both.
Johnson, who can play a variety of positions well, would have likely slotted into that role before his own physical setback.
Arena may now go with Geoff Cameron of English Premier League side Stoke City, on the right. However, while Cameron is serviceable there, he is possibly Arena’s best central defender and may be best kept in that position.
The coach is out of safe options and will have to roll the dice to a certain extent. Clint Dempsey was a surprise choice in the squad, having missed the final four months of last season with an irregular heartbeat, and is not certain he is fit enough to play 90 minutes.
“Do I think I'm able to go out there and do 90 minutes in World Cup qualifiers? I don't know if I'm there yet,” Dempsey said. “I'm not at 100% I would say but I'm getting close. I'm feeling more comfortable.”
Arena might be tempted to see if he can squeeze a little extra out of Dempsey, or throw in emerging youngster Jordan Morris, given that the Wood-Jozy Altidore partnership that thrived recently is now no longer an option.
A lot of options that would have been forefront in Arena’s mind are now no longer open to him. How he handles the upheaval will go a long way toward determining the early success of his latest stint in charge, and could shape the team’s fate as the campaign progresses.
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