Bruce Arena had plenty to ponder as he sunk into his seat on an airplane bound for Honduras this past weekend. A 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica on Friday night didn’t put Arena’s U.S. national team in a hole, but it put the Americans in need of a result on Tuesday in San Pedro Sula (5:30 ET, BeIN Sports, go90 app).
And to get that result, Arena surely has to make changes. Some of them will have been planned weeks ago, but the Costa Rica defeat should influence his team selection as well.
“The weather will be a factor tomorrow,” Arena said Monday. “We’ll have changes to our lineup both because of the short turnaround and the game the other day.”
So what exactly will be different? What should be different? Let’s start with the U.S.’s shape and go from there:
1. The formation
There’s almost no way the flat 4-4-2, which at times looked like a 4-2-4, reappears in Honduras. It shouldn’t have appeared in the first place Friday. Arena could keep two up top, but it’d have to be in some sort of 4-3-1-2, with Pulisic the “1,” and the two midfielders flanking Bradley far more defensively disciplined than the wide players in a 4-4-2 or 4-1-2-1-2.
A 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 similar to the one we saw in Mexico City is also on option, but it’s not as necessary as it was in June. The turnaround isn’t as short. The opponent isn’t as strong.
The most likely U.S. formation is a 4-2-3-1. Which means…
2. Don’t drop Nagbe, but bring in Kellyn Acosta
The U.S. will need an extra ball-winner in midfield for what should be a more helter-skelter, choppy game than Friday’s. That ball-winner will likely be Acosta. The FC Dallas midfielder had a suspect Gold Cup, but was strong in the 1-1 draw in Mexico three months ago. He’s the man to partner Bradley.
Nagbe wasn’t and isn’t. But he and his ball retention ability will be necessary if the U.S. hopes to exert some semblance of control over the game. It’s just that it’ll be valuable on the wing or in a more advanced central role.
3. Drop Fabian Johnson
Johnson wasn’t actively poor against Honduras, but he wasn’t effective. It’s almost as if he hadn’t played more than 10 minutes of competitive soccer since June 8, and hadn’t played a full 90 since March 16. Oh … right … he hadn’t.
Johnson is positionally flexible, so there’s room in any formation for him, but the U.S. would probably be better off with fresh legs – or simply with Nagbe wide left in Johnson’s spot.
4. Replacing Jozy
Altidore is suspended because of a 79th-minute yellow card against Costa Rica that was both questionable and ridiculous in multiple ways. Altidore’s reaction was stupid. But Johnny Acosta’s flop was disgraceful.
And CONCACAF’s suspension rules are absurd. Yellow card accumulations never reset – not even after the semifinal round. Altidore’s first yellow was from the first Costa Rica match, all the way back in November. Why are two cautions nine months and five games apart cause for suspension?
Anyway, Arena will be without Altidore, which erases one selection dilemma if he opts for a lone striker. That striker should be Bobby Wood. But if it’s 4-2-3-1 – and if Acosta and Bradley are the two, and Pulisic and Nagbe are two of the three – Arena needs to settle on the third of the three. His options include Clint Dempsey, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, and Alejandro Bedoya.
Dempsey would play behind Wood, with Pulisic wide right and Nagbe wide left. Arriola would play wide right, with either Pulisic or Nagbe central. Morris could play wide, but could also join Wood up top in that aforementioned 4-3-1-2. Bedoya could play literally anywhere in midfield other than Bradley’s No. 6 position.
What Arena does here is anybody’s guess. It almost feels like a Bedoya game, especially because his versatility would allow the U.S. to morph from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, or vice versa, mid-game. It also might depend on where Arena thinks Pulisic and Nagbe are most effective – and I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer to those questions just yet.
5. Changes at the back?
Not a single one of the back four is guaranteed a place. Geoff Cameron is the most assured, and is the best player of the four, but he was genuinely bad against Costa Rica. Seeing Arena trot out Eric Lichaj, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and DeMarcus Beasley would not be shocking. It would probably be an overreaction – it’d be a mistake to drop Cameron – but the other three spots are very much up for grabs. It’s a crapshoot. Any combination could work. Any combination could also be disastrous.
6. Brad Guzan or Tim Howard?
The issue here is physical recovery, not Howard’s culpability on Costa Rica’s first goal. Howard remains the USMNT’s best goalkeeper. He’s better than Guzan. But is he better than Guzan with only three off days and a five-hour flight in between games?
That’s the question Arena must ask himself. He went with Guzan on two days’ rest at high altitude at Azteca in June. The Honduras trip won’t be as demanding, but don’t be surprised if Guzan gets the call.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.