Fresh faces: Half of US roster could change for World Cup
NEW YORK — U.S. coach Bruce Arena has used 48 players during a 14-game unbeaten streak since replacing Jurgen Klinsmann last November, including seven who made their national team debuts.
There could be many fresh faces for next year’s World Cup, led by teenager star Christian Pulisic. Arena’s roster projects to include only about half the players who made the trip to Brazil in 2014.
Arena redefined roles for Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson, and elevated Jorge Villafana, Kellyn Acosta and Darlington Nagbe on the depth chart. With 10 months left, Arena’s process to select his 23 World Cup players has become clear.
“We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go,” Arena said after the Americans beat Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final on Wednesday night. “Doing this well past midstream I found to be a difficult challenge.”
Bradley has been dropped into a deeper defensive midfield role, while Johnson has been established in wide midfield instead of his repeated shuttling between there and the back line. Dempsey, back from heart procedures at age 34, has been transitioned from a regular to a spot starter and second-half substitute.
“Clint has been fantastic in the role we gave him the last two games,” Arena said.
The coach gave Villafana his international debut, and the 27-year-old has become the first-choice left back. Acosta has seen substantial playing time in defensive midfield. And after getting dropped by Klinsmann, Nagbe has returned and earned Arena’s praise for his play on the midfield flanks and in the center.
“He never loses the ball,” Arena said. “We want to get him a little bit more assertive in the final third of the field.”
Arena used 27 of 29 players on his Gold Cup roster, experimenting in the group stage and using a B-plus team in the last two games, when he started the same lineup for the first time in 11 matches since his return.
“When you play on the international level in big moments like this, you’ve got to raise your level,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “I thought they were exposed to that and I thought a lot of them responded really well. It’s not easy your first time around.”
After an 0-2 start in the final round of World Cup qualifying, the Americans are third in the six-nation round and appear on track to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup. Qualifying resumes Sept. 1 against Costa Rica at Harrison, New Jersey, and selection of a World Cup roster is about 10 months away.
“I think I know who our top 44 players are,” Arena said. “I think I now understand our four teams that we can put together and build a depth chart to take us through this tournament and the rest of the year and, hopefully, position ourselves for a World Cup.”
Knowing many changes could take place because of injuries, performance and club playing time, here is a look at the depth chart:
Hoping to start in a third World Cup, 38-year-old Tim Howard is the No. 1 keeper, and Brad Guzan, who turns 33 next month, is No. 2. Ethan Horvath and Jesse Gonzalez (both 22), Bill Hamid (26) and Sean Johnson (28) appear to the top contenders for No. 3.
DeAndre Yedlin has established himself as the starter, and Graham Zusi and Eric Lichaj played well enough in the Gold Cup to compete for the backup job with Timmy Chandler, who repeatedly has been absent from the national team because of injuries.
John Brooks and Geoff Cameron are the first-choice starters, and Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler established themselves during the Gold Cup as the top reserve choices. Tim Ream and Matt Hedges also are competing for roster sports, and Cameron Carter-Vickers (19) and Matt Miazga (22) could move up if they get regular club playing time.
Villafana heads the position with the least depth, and Johnson always could be shifted back again. DaMarcus Beasley, 35 and a veteran of four World Cups, remains an option along with Greg Garza and Lichaj, who is right-footed but could move across.
Asked to play a mainly defensive role by Arena, Bradley has turned in some of his better performances. Acosta, just 22, has been paired with Bradley in a 4-2-3-1 formation, especially after 35-year-old Jermaine Jones got hurt. Cameron could be moved to the position, and Danny Williams, Dax McCarty, Perry Kitchen and Caleb Stanko are among a half-dozen possibilities.
ATTACKING AND WIDE MIDFIELD
Pulisic, just 18, has become the best American player and often dominates the attack, whether in the center of the field or a flank. Nagbe has joined Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya and Gyasi Zardes as options. Sebastian Lletget was rising in stature before a severe foot injury in March. Paul Arriola, Kelyn Rowe and Joe Corona showed sparks of promise during the Gold Cup. Emerson Hyndman and Lynden Gooch could play themselves into consideration with top club seasons. Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber appear to be longshots.
Altidore is the clear No. 1 and Bobby Wood No. 2, assuming he recovers from a knee injury that hampered him this spring. Dempsey will try to maintain his form during the next year, and 22-year-old Jordan Morris impressed Arena with his three Gold Cup goals (while also annoying him with a key defensive mistake that led to Jamaica’s goal in the final). Aron Johannsson and Rubio Rubin dropped down the chart because of injuries; new U.S. citizen Dom Dwyer gained attention with goals in his first two games or the national team; Juan Agudelo and Terrence Boyd keep struggling to move up the list. Given Dempsey’s age, it is hard to see Arena taking Chris Wondolowski, who also will be 35.
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