With the World Cup finally upon us (God, I love the World Cup!), I wanted to talk a bit about my love for Mexican football. I am not the perfect Mexican, I understand that, I’ve always understood that (But then again, what Chicano is?). I was born here, my Spanish is somewhere between average and poor depending how long it’s been since my last trip abroad, my surname is Penney, I’m 6’3”, I don’t have any Mexican-American friends, I’m a registered Republican, my visits to Mexico have become more and more infrequent, and growing up in the Northeast Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican culture dominated the New York metro Hispanic landscape (And they still do).
My connection to Mexican culture and my Mexican heritage has come mainly from two sources: My mother’s food is the first (or if we were visiting Guadalajara: Mama Cuca’s or Juanis’ food). Frijoles, chilequiles, chiles rellenos, tacos de crema, ropa vieja, tortas ahogadas, ceviche, and many more dishes than I care to count. And I am extremely grateful that I am now cooking many of these dishes myself.
But the other major way I’ve connected with my Mexican self is through the national team. Every four years, I get to watch twenty-three wonderful players in green Mexico kits take part in what I think is the greatest sporting spectacle on earth: The FIFA World Cup. In my life I have been cognizant of six World Cups: 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014. Despite my fandom of football waxing and waning throughout my life, my love for all things El Tri has always burned bright. In each of these years I have vivid memories of watching Mexico. Many of these memories were exhilarating with equally as many heart wrenching.
I remember, despite being only 10 years-old, how confused I was to see Mexico lose to Bulgaria on penalties in ’94. I’ve definitely blanked out losing to Germany on an ’87th minute winner in ‘98. But I’ll never forget Mexico’s back-to-back comebacks from 0-2 down against perennial European powers Belgium and Holland.
In 2002 we famously lost to the United States after a superb group stage performance. I’m still not over it. And I don’t want to talk about it.
In 2006, I remember watching the first two group stage matches in Guadalajara while visiting family. I remember going to get ice cream at halftime of the Iran game and the city seeming a ghost town. We could have robbed half the city’s banks and no one would have known.
And I’ll never forget how good I felt watching Mexico play Argentina to extra time in the Round of 16 only to get my heart broken once again, this time by a Maxi Rodriguez wonder strike.
In 2010 I watched the games from Dublin pubs and I marveled at the kids of the “golden generation” running around making defending World Cup runner-up France look slow. I’ll never forget seeing Chicharito’s giddy face after he maneuvered around Hugo Lloris for his first World Cup goal.
The 2014 tournament will always be about “Piojo” Herrera, Memo Ochoa, and #NoEraPenal (It wasn’t a penalty!).
But why has this team had such a deep and beloved place in my heart? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. Maybe it was my way of seeing Mexicans in their best light, when I often didn’t get a chance to. Maybe it was a part of being part of something bigger-namely, the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of Mexico-even if I wasn’t connected to it on a day-to-day basis. (And make no mistake; fútbol is as much a part of Mexico’s heritage as the Maya or Mariachi.) I didn’t grow up in Texas or Southern California where Mexican, Mexican-American, and American culture intertwine almost seamlessly. I didn’t get to see successful Mexican American attorneys, doctors, architects day-in and day-out. So perhaps because of that I clutched to the one source of pride I saw front and center every four years.
My passion for El Tri isn’t political. It isn’t overcompensation. It isn’t a statement I’m trying to make for others. It’s personal. And it’s pure. It’s about feel. In fact, I’m probably about as big an America apologist as you’ll find. Nationalism isn’t a sin. It’s a virtue. I believe that. But while America is my country, México y Chivas “son mis equipos”. I feel it in my blood.
I honestly have to say, I can’t ever remember even considering being a USMNT fan. It never really even crossed my mind. Rooting for Mexico against the United States, I never felt guilty about it, it just felt natural. (That being said, as a soccer evangelist in a nation of American sports fans, I found myself crushed at the US’s failure to qualify. I will deeply miss the festive atmosphere which often accompanies US games. But c’est la vie.)
The beauty with which Mexicans play the game is much more aesthetically pleasing than the rough and ragged American way of playing. Even in high school I always knew there was something wrong and robotic about the way the game was played. Football is half sport, but it’s also half art. It’s entertainment. It’s meant to please and amaze. Mexican football has always been about pleasure, just watch Liga MX for proof. When I think of what Mexican football is, something like Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s cuauhtemiña comes to mind-a superb display of brashness and flair. I think I always saw in the Mexico team characteristics which I hoped existed within me. As if perhaps my just being half-Mexican would give me the ability to rely on these traits if desired.
And if entertainment is the purpose of football, then the World Cup has always been the games grandest stage. Or perhaps calling it an altar would be more apropos. While UEFA Champions League may be the brain of the game, the World Cup is its heart. No sponsors on the kits and no ability to import players on huge transfer fees. It is simple. Country vs. Country. Style vs. Style. Mexico, or not, I will soak in as many games as is humanly possible and I would encourage all USMNT fans to do the same. For four weeks we get to lay back and marvel at the world’s best and most famous athletes this side of Madison Square Garden. I’m just as excited to watch Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, James, Kane, Ozil, Iniesta, Mane, Salah, and Suarez as anything else. It truly is football Christmas.
With that being said, do I want Mexico to win? Yes. Do I think they will? No, probably not. But we must aspire to win. Mexican-American culture is first and foremost about aspiration. But while I connect through my blood, I must recognize that it is Mexico’s team first, before it is the Mexican American team. Although I do hope that perhaps one day, either El Tri or the USMNT will create an Oscar De La Hoya type figure that can transcend both sides of the Rio Grande equally. Perhaps Jonathan Gonzalez is that figure. Perhaps it will be an as of yet unknown American player. Either way I eagerly await that player.
But for now, I look at the roster Juan Carlos Osorio has assembled for Russia and I see that it represents so much about what Mexico is today. The spine of the team is part of a “golden generation” which has shown so much promise, much like the country they represent. They are far more international than any Mexican team that’s come before, with seventeen of the players having played in Europe during their careers. Three of the players are making huge money in the United States-like so many Mexicans dream to do. Yet, like Mexico, despite the talent the team has, it has never truly achieved its potential. Some of that may be misplaced machismo. Some of it is federation mismanagement. And for good measure our team captain Rafa Marquez has been sanctioned by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged ties to drug trafficking. Unfortunately, it shows that even in our beloved game of football, we can’t always escape some of the harsh truths about the problems Mexico, as a nation, faces. But all of these things are what make the team the perfect reflection of the country they play for-for better or worse. Yet the program creeps closer and closer to what it can be with every passing year. For six tournaments now, Mexico has stumbled in the exact same place: the Round of 16, always failing to take Mexico into that elite eight they’ve been knocking on the door of for so long. I think that anything beyond that “quinto partido” will be transcendent. But if that’s where the tournament ends this summer once again, I’ll be OK with that too because I know I’ll have enjoyed the ride. I always do. And then I’ll do what everyone else does: watch the remainder of the World Cup games with delight.
Juan Carlos Osorio is under fire. That is no secret. In fact whoever is the National Team manager is under fire the second they are hired. I really think that sometimes coaches are hired just so they can be fired.
Either way, despite the fan and media hysteria, the truth of the matter is Juan Carlos Osorio is actually doing a pretty good job. If the #1 objective of a National Team Manager is to qualify his team to the FIFA World Cup, then JCO has already gotten mission accomplished. He’ll have a big chance in two weeks to earn himself some good press for a half second if he’s able to officially secure Mexico’s World Cup berth.
At this exact time last cycle “Chepo” de la Torre had just: flamed out in the Group Stage of the 2013 Confederations Cup, bungled his Gold Cup with a Mexico B squad by losing to Panama, and was on his way to getting fired when he proceeded to lose to Honduras at the Azteca in September. Then after losing to the United States (dos a cero) under Luis Fernando Tena, Mexico then hired Victor Manuel Vucetich for the final two qualifiers which required Mexico needing a Raul Jimenez golazo and a Graham Zusi to bail the entire country out.
Instead, JCO has four games left in which he could play the Chivas u-19s in all of them and qualify El Tri to Russia. Somehow, this is such an atrocity that it requires vulgar shouting every time he walks by some clown wearing a green jersey. But I digress.
While there are some things Osorio does which irk me, (I think sometimes he rotates without a clear enough purpose, for instance. And his tendency to play people out of position can be annoying.) I happen to think he’s doing a good job. The players are still coming to his aide. And that’s vital.
Now that we have all that nonsense out of the way, assuming JCO isn’t fired or (perhaps rightfully) quits between now and FIFA World Cup 2018, let’s see if we can’t figure out what he’s thinking is his World Cup roster if he had to draw it up today. With Liga MX already kicking into high gear and two qualifiers forthcoming now seems as good a time as ever.
So, without further ado, let’s evaluate, how I think is how Juan Carlos Osorio is currently viewing the player pool in its entirety:
Now, once I was able to group all the names and see them in front of me, I was able to better find a way to a top 23. Here’s what I came up with as Juan Carlos Osorio’s top 23 as of this moment:
So, how did I come up with this? Well, I’ll tell you generally now before going player by player in a bit. Mexico, more so than the United States, was able to more clearly delineate the “first string” from the “second-string” because El Tri was entered into two international tournaments this summer: FIFA Confederation’s Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Osorio therefore was kind of forced to play his hand as to what was his “Top 23” and then his “Next 22” as the two rosters only shared one player-Luis Reyes of Atlas. He also put all 12 of his European contingent in the Confederation’s Cup squad while the Gold Cup squad, save for one member of MLS’ Houston Dynamo, was composed of Liga MX players. So it was a decent bit easier to get into his head as to who his best squad was.
The following was Mexico’s roster for the confederations cup:
From that 23, only five players were replaced. Rodolfo Cota, Rafael Marquez, Oswaldo Alanis, Luis Reyes, and Jurgen Damm were all removed from the 23 and in their placed the following five came in: Jose de Jesus Corona, Edson Alavarez, Jesus Gallardo, Jesus Dueñas, and Jose “Tecatito” Corona.
The next important thing was to determine what is Mr. Osorio’s preferred formation? And amazingly enough, despite all the formation changes, lineup changes, and position changes, we really did notice a top XI emerge in a preferred 4-3-3. The excellent Sir Tom Marshall of ESPN seemed to agree.
Here’s what it would look like:
Based off that, let’s go player by player and explain why I think JCO has them on his roster.
Forwards: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez as a prospective starter for El Tri should come as no surprise to anyone. Not only is he one of the world’s (or at least North America’s) most popular players, but he has a really good goals to minutes ratio. (Don’t make me look it up. OK fine, here it is.) I don’t really need to defend his roster slot or his selection as a starter.
Raul Jimenez is the next player on the depth chart and he’s pretty much a lock too. He’s a big, strong, skilled player who will deploy his coach’s game plan sans complaint. He will even play as a right winger if need be. He’s also the only one who could step in and play as a lone striker if Chicharito were to go down.
After that we come to two players who are undoubtedly forwards, but are not really strikers either: Giovani Dos Santos of the LA Galaxy and Marco Fabian of Eintracht Frankfurt. Dos Santos while capable of playing as a winger or even an advanced midfielder in a pinch, is best deployed as a second striker making late runs into the box and the freedom to create. Fabian is very similar. Though I think he’s better suited to midfield work. I think both will make the team based off experience provided they maintain good form at club level. Dos Santos in particular has his detractors, especially since his move to MLS. But his ideal replacement candidates the young trio of Orbelin Pineda, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Erick Gutierrez did not step up in the Gold Cup and I think Gio played just fine in Russia.
Lastly, I placed Oribe Peralta in as a fifth forward or third striker. While he’s getting up there in age, (he’ll be 34 in January) he will be there for his intangibles if he stays healthy. The guy is a gamer and has a World Cup goal on his resume. ‘El Cepillo” (The Brush) as Peralta’s known reminds me a lot of Clint Dempsey in his effort and ability to come up clutch time and time again.
Wingers: If there’s one position where Mexico seems to have an almost endless amount of depth it is at winger. Not that all things are equal. But someone like Isaac Brizuela, the American-born right winger that was part of Mexico’s 2014 squad, is clearly outside the top 5 despite being a dangerous weapon for Guadalajara.
Jurgen Damm of Tigres UANL is a fine player and has been flirting with a European move this summer. Yet he only made Mexico’s Confederation’s Cup squad because of Jesus “Tecatito” Corona’s absence (which had a trickledown effect because the Gold Cup squad could’ve used him) for “personal reasons.”
Carlos Vela, despite being an inverted winger, is clearly at the top of the list. The Real Sociedad man is probably Mexico’s most talented player. He’s shown a lot more maturity the past couple seasons both with club and country and should be one of the top three or four names on the team sheet. (Although Osorio does seem to bench him for certain matchups for tactical reason. I think that’s one of the many things he does which irks Mexico fans.)
Next on the list is Tecatito. I can’t imagine he’s not starting at LW or LM when September 1st rolls around or even at the first game of next summer’s World Cup for that matter. The guy is one of those tricky attackers unafraid to take people on. Every team needs a guy like that.
Hirving Lozano I think also will be an Osorio regular, especially now that he’s moved to PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie. His speed makes him an ideal late game sub and for a guy with his skills he’s a solid finisher as well.
And I think the last winger spot, despite Jurgen Damm’s talent will go to his Tigres teammate Javier Aquino. Aquino has seemingly been around forever, but he’s still only 27. He is a great two-way winger who, despite the talent on Tigres can still play games where he looks like the team’s best player. I think a guy like that is indespensible to a roster. His defensive tracking also makes him important if Osorio ever wants to go back to three centerbacks. His ability to go endline-to-endline for 90 minutes makes him capable of being a wingback or a winger in a 3-4-3.
One other player worth mentioning is Elias Hernandez of Club Leon. He had a very solid summer and is capable of playing on either wing. But I just think there’s too many other players ahead of him on the depth chart.
Midfielders: So there are three players who cannot be dispensed with in the midfield: Captain Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, and Jonathan Dos Santos. All of them are so talented that Juan Carlos Osorio felt the need to play Hector Herrera as a CDM in order to get them all on the field at once.
The one who played best of the three at the Confederation’s Cup was Jonathan. But to the dismay of many El Tri fans, the younger Dos Santos brother just joined his sibling at the LA Galaxy in MLS. It will be interesting if Osorio will maintain Jonathan in as high esteem after that.
Considering the depth at the position, I’m not sure JDS is really in any trouble of missing out on the roster. Losing his starting role? Maybe. But not his roster position.
One of biggest controversies that arose out of the Conderation’s Cup roster selection was the fact that Osorio didn’t bring a fourth central midfielder and more specifically, he didn’t bring a true #6. It was perplexing given his seeming affection for both Jesus Molina (a true CDM) and Jesus Dueñas (capable of playing multiple roles, but a more than solid experienced CDM). It angered people because once again, it led to Juan Carlos Osorio playing a key player, Hector Herrera, out of position.
I expect him to rectify this mistake in his next roster call up. He’ll do so, I think, by calling up either Jesus Dueñas or Jesus Molina. I went back and forth on this, but I think he’ll prefer Dueñas. While Osorio likes Molina’s height, positional discipline and has complimented Molina several times in the past-even going so far as to say he was ready for European football; I think he’ll prefer Duenas. I think it’s because he’s more versatile and he had a pretty good Gold Cup (or at least as good a Gold Cup as any Mexican player could have had).
Despite three of a possible four central midfield spots generally being spoken for there are some names to keep an eye on. The youthful trio of Pachuca’s Erick Gutierrez and Chivas’ Orbelin Pineda and Rodolfo Pizarro are all possibilities. At 22, 21, and 23 years old respectively, they show a lot of promise and all three are leaders on their clubs. But none of them stepped up as expected in the Gold Cup leaving many to think that they just won’t be ready for this cycle.
There are two names I think worth mentioning, even though I think they’re, as of now, very much on the outs: Carlos Pena of Rangers F.C. and Chivas’ Jose Juan Vazquez. Pena, 27, had been at times a semi-regular for Osorio but after a bad spell at Chivas, he fell out of favor. His physical style of play always appealed to Osorio. So, it will be interesting if Pena, now at the Scottish Premier League side Rangers will be able to catch Osorio’s eye. While the SPL may not be a top European league, Osorio may appreciate Pena’s gumption at going to face a challenge at a pressure cauldron like the Ibrox.
Fullbacks: After Miguel Layun, there aren’t a whole lot of good fullback options for El Tri right now. Layun, the FC Porto man, is capable of playing either fullback position equally well, but as a right-footed player he gives Mexico an extra little something as a ball-possessing LB.
In fact, the depth chart at both fullback spots is so lacking that Juan Carlos Osorio only brought two to Russia and on several occasions played CBs at both RB and LB. However I’m not sure if I expect him to rectify this with his next set of call-ups.
The only other regular or semi-regular fullback was Paul Aguilar. But he’s been out with a serious injury for almost a year now and there’s no telling how Osorio will receive the 31 year-old when he returns.
I think if anyone is going to provide depth at fullback on this roster it will be the 22 year-old Jesus Gallardo from UNAM. He was one of the few bright spots in the Gold Cup, but he’s not a full-time LB. He spends a lot of time at LM as well. Either way I think that versatility will serve him well and I think he’ll get the call-up next time. It will be left to be seen from there if he can maintain that roster slot for another eleven months.
One last option to keep an eye on is Guadalajara’s 20 year old LB Alejandro Mayorga. Osorio liked him so much he took him to the Confederation’s Cup just to get the kid exposed to the experience of the whole thing. But here’s the rub: Mayorga doesn’t have a single senior team appearance for his club. Granted he has the entirety of the Apertura and Clausura to earn a spot, but for a 20 year-old with no pro experience yet that’s a lot to ask.
I think any other depth at fullback will be provided by CBs.
Centerbacks: This position has been much criticized by the El Tri fans, but I think despite that the centerback corp. is fairly set. Hector Moreno is clearly the first name on the team sheet. And while Nestor Araujo and Diego Reyes battle for the right-footed CB spot, both are capable and both seem to have their place in the team secured.
Araujo is the bigger, more physical English-style centerback, while Diego Reyes, despite his height is the more skilled player; capable of playing RB or CDM. It seems as if Osorio as a part of his rotaciones likes each in different matchups.
Carlos Salcedo the former Real Salt Lake and current Chivas player was recently loaned to Marco Fabian’s Eintracht Frankfurt after being loaned to Fiorentina this past season. He has played far more RB for El Tri than CB despite it being his natural position. He’s not bad it
This brings us to another even younger centerback: Edson Alvarez. The 19 year old Club America product played the entire Gold Cup out of position at RB yet he seemed to have earned the most plaudits with his play and demeanor off the pitch. He’s big, at 6’3” and hadn’t played RB in any of his 21 Club America appearances. But I think because of the depth at centerback and the lack of it at RB, Alvarez’s best chance of making the World Cup squad is at RB.
The only thing I’m nervous about when it came to selecting this roster is that I didn’t pick a second left-footed centerback. Osorio on multiple occasions has stated his preference for having two left-footed centerbacks on the roster. But I didn’t pick one. Oswaldo Alanis after his great performance in Chivas de Guadalajara’s playoff run got to go to Russia, but didn’t cover himself in glory. But really, there’s no one else except maybe Yasser Corona who last got some run with El Tri at the 2015 Gold Cup-so it’s been a while. I think if Alanis does make it, having it be at the expense of Jesus Gallardo would make the most sense. Especially since six centerbacks wouldn’t be overkill knowing Osorio’s penchant for three CB formations.
And finally, we should discuss quickly the undead creature that is Rafael Marquez. The Mexican legend is almost 39 years-old and has 143 National Team appearances to his name. He was taken to the Confederation’s Cup but he didn’t play until the third place match mostly due to injuries. I can honestly say that I was having trouble imagining a scenario in which he’s doesn’t somehow squeak his way into the picture. He’d almost have to be arrested to be stopped.
Goalkeepers: I think the goalkeepers are all set. I can’t picture anyone besides Guillermo Ochoa, Alfredo Talavera, and Jose de Jesus Corona getting picked. While it would be nice to have a fourth keeper banging on the door to keep the competition sharp, it just hasn’t happened. Jonathan Orozco has been around forever and never really threatened. Rodolfo Cota seemed to be picked for the Confederations Cup more as filler so Corona could be the Gold Cup starter. Moises Munoz seems too old now, despite his steady presence. And Jesse Gonzalez of FC Dallas is, well American now. Raul Gudino at FC Porto still hasn’t played a game at senior level yet and I’m having trouble coming up with more names.
The one big development this summer has been that Guillermo Ochoa has finally seemed to cement his spot as the #1. He and Talavera had at times seemed to be rotated for tactical reasons with the bigger Talavera used against the US in Columbus and New Zealand in Russia. But in the knockout round Ochoa started both matches.
As if I haven’t already gone into a deep enough dive on the El Tri player pool, here’s my stab at Osorio’s seven injury replacements:
Rafael Marquez, CB (Club Atlas)
Oswaldo Alanis, CB (CD Guadalajara)
Jesus Molina, CDM (Monterrey)
Jurgen Damm (Tigres UANL)
Elias Hernandez (Club Leon)
Alan Pulido (CD Guadalajara)
And 1 of:
Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CF Pachuca)
Orbelin Pineda, CM (CD Guadalajara)
Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CD Guadalajara)
How Would I Do It?
Now, I know what you’re all asking: So, Jon how would YOU go about selecting a roster? Never fear, I’m about to tell you.
If I were the Mexican National Team Manager this would be my roster for the World Cup right now barring injuries (which have seemed to crop up in several cases).
My only would make three changes from what I anticipate Osorio will do. I would take Paul Aguilar if he’s healthy. I know he’s getting up there but his ability to play RB or RWB and join the attack is a great weapon. And at 31, he’s still got good pace (at least hopefully he will still have it despite the injury).
I would also take Jorge Torres-Nilo which I know would cause the El Tri faithful to unanimously emit a choral groan of “Ugh, him again.” type apathy. I know what his critics will say. He’s already got 45 caps and has never given a reason to get excited about him. But I like him for several reasons:
1) He’s experienced both at the National Team level and at club level. Ricardo “Tuca” Ferreti of Tigres is a good coach and he has a very talented squad at his disposal and they’ve played a lot of big games both domestically and internationally. And through it all Torres-Nilo has maintained his spot in the XI steadily throughout Tuca’s reign in Monterrey.
2) He’s big. At 5’11” Torres-Nilo is capable not just playing LB but LCB in a back three. So, in that sense he brings some versatility since there won’t be another left-footed CB besides Hector Moreno.
3) He’s a defense-first LB. Doesn’t hurt to have those kinds of players, for at the least, late game situations.
4) I want at the very least three true fullbacks. Because of Miguel Layun’s ability to play either side I don’t need four fullbacks. But I at least want three.
And my last change to my Osorio predictions is that I want Jose Juan Vazquez on the roster. JJ Vazquez has never once been called up by Juan Carlos Osorio despite being a key component of Miguel Herrera’s squads. Maybe I’m biased as a Chivas fan but I think it’s astounding that a player like Vazquez who was a major piece of Chivas’ Championship last season and who had three excellent starts at FIFA World Cup 2014 would be this far removed from the National Team. I think it may in large part be due to Vazquez’s lack of height, But if Osorio, who I know is a student of the game, looks he doesn’t have to try too hard to realize some of the greatest CDMs of all time were small.
I would add the following seven players as my reservists/injury replacements for now:
With the Gold Cup over and as this over-the-top Michael Bay of a summer transfer window winds down to its absurd conclusion, it’s time to take stock of the USMNT depth chart. There were lots of words written about how the Gold Cup was needed to test out the deeper end of the player pool and find the right players to solidify the end of the USMNT’s bench. Some even went so far as to say that this objective was a higher priority than even winning the tournament.
While I’m not sure whether that was true or not, what is true is that the USMNT has only four official matches left between now and next June when FIFA World Cup 2018 kicks off in Moscow. And not only are those four matches vital, being that qualification for Russia is not secured, but they’re vital because there may not be much time left for experimenting.
With that in mind, perhaps it might be prudent (or at least amusing) to try and dive into the mind of one Mr. Bruce Arena and guess exactly which 23 players he likes the most right now.
One of my biggest pet peeves, especially from MLS fans, is that whenever a player is playing well there are natural calls for his inclusion into the Men’s National Team. However they do this without ever considering tactics, formations, or which players would have to be removed from the roster due to their inclusion. You can’t have 34 player on the USMNT. I always remember Jurgen Klinsmann now infamous platitude: “There are others ahead of him.” But it’s true. You can’t take them all. Cuts need to be made. And often times, cuts near the end of the bench are more about fit and need than talent which is why guys like Sacha Kljestan, Christian Roldan, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, CJ Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Sebastian Lletget and other guys MLS fan boys clamor for just don’t have a spot. In fact a lot of these guys aren’t really even close when you kind of map it all out like I did below. But I digress.
So without further ado, let’s predict who Bruce Arena might have penned (or merely penciled) in at the moment and then we’ll get into what my thoughts are.
The following picture is a diagram I designed to help flush out all the names in the player pool and how I think Bruce perceives them:
Using this as my guide: I came up with the following roster:
Now let me explain how I got to these conclusions briefly before going player by player. I figure, after Klinsmann’s disaster in not having a backup for Jozy Altidore after his injury in 2014, I think Arena will attempt, for the most part, to take two of every position. For example, I think Dax McCarty will be on the roster simply to break in case of an emergency, i.e. a Michael Bradley injury. I’m not sure he’ll really have any other chance of starting alongside Bradley, save for a late 5-10 minute close-out. In that vein I arranged the roster in anticipation of Arena truly trying to build a roster rather than a collection of the 23 most talented football players in the country. This roster should be based on some variation of a 4-4-2 or possibly 4-2-3-1 (although as I’ll explain later, I wouldn’t be surprised if he whipped out the 5-3-2 again).
Forwards: I don’t think saying Jozy Altidore is a lock is any kind of stretch. The likelihood is somewhere around 99.4% that he’s starting the first game of the World Cup against whomever that is.
Bobby Wood too should be fairly secure in his place. He’s played well for the States for a couple years now, whether off the bench or as part of a striker tandem. The only reason I didn’t lock him in is because when you’re playing in the Bundesliga your career can crater quickly with all the talent around you and there’s pressure to perform week in and week out. So long as he can start regularly he should be in.
As for what happens after those two is tricky. I think most of us still want Clint Dempsey to be involved even if it is as a super-sub. But for a 34 year old, with a heart condition on his medical history, 10 or 11 months is a long time and a lot can happen. I think Bruce should assemble his roster under the assumption that between now and next June Dempsey will dip in form or health simply out of due diligence.
If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Jordan Morris would be the last man in. Up until he scored the Gold Cup Final winner I had him as the first man out. Why? Because someone had to be. The way I see it, the biggest battles to be in or out of the squad are for those last forward/winger hybrid spots and they’re between Arriola, Morris, Zardes, and Lletget. I only see two at most of that four getting in. Maybe a third could get in if Dempsey is somehow out of the picture by next summer. I think guys like Rowe, Joe Corona, Dwyer, Agudelo, Chris Wondolowski, and Sapong are mostly out of the picture and they will be scrambling for a reserve spot with the last two in the first group. Remember you can only take 23.
But Morris’ versatility will help him, especially since we’re really thin when it comes to players who can play “out wide.” As of now, this roster really only has Fabian Johnson and Paul Arriola to supply width. While Nagbe and Bedoya may lineup in “winger” positions we all know that’s not who they are. By design much of the width will come from the fullback positions via DeAndre Yedlin.
The Dom Dwyer situation is harder to read. Being sent home early wasn’t good, but I could see him as the kind of guy Bruce calls for CONCACAF qualifiers and then leaves home for the big show. While his MLS production is excellent and while he probably is the 3rd best true striker in the US pool I still think he’s already done in terms of making the tournament roster. After that, it’s all really just a stab at a bunch of different albeit flawed candidates like Agudelo, Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson, Christian Ramirez, or whoever else.
The last question to ask is: Could Arena take a fifth forward? It’s definitely possible give our program’s predisposition for playing two strikers at a time. A hybrid forward/winger like Zardes could be useful in order to provide deep cover at two positions but I think he’s more in competition with the winger group.
Wingers: The reason I have Pulisic listed as a winger even though he will almost certainly play as a typical #10 is because in reality, for his Club Borussia Dortmund he’s a winger. The #10 role will require him to play further forward than he does at even his club because he’ll be expected to contribute goals not just assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually wound up being more of a second striker in the end. Or maybe he will play as part of a three man midfield and Wood can start with Jozy. The possibilities are endless with him. Or maybe his talents may even permit the USMNT to play with Jozy Altidore a sole striker in order to get an extra midfielder in the center of the park which hopefully would prevent the USA from being once again overrun in the possession battle as we have been in the past with teams like Mexico, Ghana, Germany, Belgium, etc.
As I alluded to earlier, this is by far the USMNT’s weakest position. It’s so weak in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Bruce Arena whipped out a 4-4-2 diamond or a 5-3-2 just to find a formation which best catered to the strengths of our best players.
In fact, two of the four wingers I predicted Arena will select and utilize aren’t really wingers at all: Darlington Nagbe and Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya doesn’t even play as a winger for his club; he plays as a number 8, which is far more suited to his skill set and his tendency to hustle at both ends of the pitch. However, while Nagbe does play as a left midfielder for the Portland Timbers, you could easily find some very smart Timbers fans and MLS fans who don’t believe this is his best deployment. When Portland won the MLS Cup two seasons ago, they did so with Nagbe in the central of the park. But, Arena seems to agree with Caleb Porter that Nagbe is best suited as an inverted winger.
This point brings me to the only other full blown lock of the group: Fabian Johnson. Johnson is an excellent footballer playing at a consistent level in the German Bundesliga mostly as a wide left midfielder. While he is versatile and capable of playing a myriad of positions, I still have a sneaking suspicion he could wind up as a left back.
Why? Partly it is because I’m still not sold on Jorge Villafaña. It’s not the he’s a bad player, he’s a fine player and a good quality CONCACAF level player. But while he’s been a steady starter for Bruce Arena, I’m not convinced that his club career and his form will be steady over the next eleven months. He’s only made 35 appearances in all competitions over the past year and a half for Santos Laguna.
And partly it’s because I think Darlington Nagbe has made a nice little case for being one of the starting “wide” midfielders. Although I guess one solution to that issue could be to move Fabian Johnson to the RM or RW position in order to keep Nagbe wide. It’s not as if that RM position is anything closed to being locked down.
And lastly, I have DC United’s Paul Arriola as the final man in beating out the likes of Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes, Kelyn Rowe and Joe Corona (who really isn’t a winger anyway). It seems like Paul Arriola as much as anyone has improved his stock this summer between his game in Mexico City and the Gold Cup. He brings a youthful dynamic to the group and if needed can provide some width if it’s ever called for late in a game. In essence he’s Alejandro Bedoya’s back up who can pretty much do all or close to all of what he can do.
Who else could slide in? I guess Zardes with his LA Galaxy connections is always hovering around the selection and Jordan Morris is a nice fit because he can play two positions, but after that I’m not really sure. Could Bruce take 5 wingers? I doubt it as it isn’t a focal point of our tactics nor do we really have the depth at the position to justify it. Not to mention the fact that Pulisic is actually our best player at the position.
Midfielders: As has been the case for nearly 7 or 8 years now, Michael Bradley is the first name picked for the USMNT midfield whether positioned as a holding midfielder, a box-to-box guy, or even for a short time as a #10. These days he’s been regularly placed as as a #6 and the team has been essentially constructed around that deployment.
Because of this need to put Bradley into his favorite position, the USA often lines up in lesser known formations such as 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-4-1, or the 4-1-3-2. While I’m not a fan of these they are oddly suited to the US personnel. The other common formation is the flat 4-4-2 which never seems to do Bradley any favors and in my recollection usually guarantees that the USA’s possession percentage will hover around 40%.
After Bradley it gets hazy quickly. As I said before I think Dax McCarty makes the roster simply as the poor man’s Michael Bradley. He’s the closest approximation to Michael Bradley when the Captain plays as a 6. In fact, at the MLS level, I really don’t see that much of a difference between McCarty and Bradley’s ability. Unfortunately for Dax his steady play has not yet translated to the international level. I think it could if he was able to play alongside Bradley in order to become this cycle’s Kyle Beckerman: a defensive minded player who gives Bradley more ability to help the team with all the good offensive things he does. But it doesn’t seem to be in the cards in Bruce Arena’s eyes. C’est la vie.
I think Kellyn Acosta is pretty close to being locked in. He’s a phenomenal MLS player and his upside will carry him farther than perhaps his performances alone would. I know the MLS crowd loves him and rightfully so, but I’m not sure I want him out there against France or even a Croatia in a World Cup group stage match. But I think as of today that may be Arena’s move.
The last man out for me was Sebastian Lletget-if he can get healthy and in form enough to get called into some matches-would be Sebastian Lletget. (I don’t know if it’s possible but maybe he could aim for a call up to the October World Cup Qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.) Again he may not be known as a top USMNT talent, but he has a couple things going for him. 1) Versatility. That’s always a good thing to have from a coach’s perspective. 2) Connection to Bruce Arena. Never hurts to have an “in.” 3) He was last seen scoring a goal in the 5’ minute of his USMNT debut. And like Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens (Admit it millenials, you have no idea who either of these guys are!) you’re always more fondly remembered if you go out when you were at your peak. If he gives Bruce Arena any reason to take him he will. In fact, I had him in and Jordan Morris out all they way through the Gold Cup Final. But Arena’s trust to start Morris in the semi-final and final changed my mind.
The big wild-card here of course is Germerican Danny Williams. After several years in the Championship with Reading, Williams has made the big move to Huddersfield Town AFC in the Premier League. I don’t have him on this roster because I do buy a little into the conspiracy theory of Bruce Arena as an MLS-approved candidate. I think that for a player based abroad to get selected he’ll have to be so much better than MLS rival that it will be impossible to ignore. Otherwise, I don’t think Arena will pick them. Now, I can’t claim to have seen a ton of Danny Williams at Reading. But I do know that if he gets 25 or 30+ starts in the English Premier League it would be unprecedented not to take him. Did you ever think the USMNT would be in a place where it would be turning down the chance to call up an EPL regular? I certainly never did.
Actually, the bigger wild card here is Jermaine Jones. The dude will just not die. He turns 36 in November and has been injured almost the entirety of the season. But even Bruce Arena couldn’t quit him. I was stunned back in March when Bruce Arena called Jones into the squad for qualifiers against Honduras and Panama even though Arena knew Jones would be suspended for the first game due to yellow card accumulation. And then he started him in a flat 4-4-2 midfield alongside Michael Bradley in the second game despite the fact USMNT fans have been screaming for years that alignment doesn’t normally pan out in our favor (which it didn’t in that game). He may not be healthy now, but I’m not going to count this guy out until he’s six feet under.
Fullbacks: As of now, I think the only lock at either fullback position is DeAndre Yedlin. He’s got pace, he’s got World Cup experience and he’s coming off a good season for Newcastle United in the Championship. But while I hear every USMNT fan and pundit writing him in as the starting RB with permanent marker, there are a couple things to worry about. The first is that Newcastle is in the Premier League now and they’re a big club. If he can’t do a job or has even one bad game, he won’t get the next start. Also worrying is the fact that Newcastle signed 23 year-old Javier Manquillo from Atletico Madrid (on loan with rivals Sunderland last season) in the transfer window. Even starting out as Newcastle’s opening day RB will be a tough battle.
For now Jorge Villafaña seems a likely choice. But why did I place Jorge Villafaña on Bruce Arena’s roster even if I think he could be up for a rough year at club level? Because Bruce trusts him and will want a true left back on the roster. But that doesn’t mean that he has to play him when the time comes to face off against a World Class international team. I would think that Johnson and Nagbe is a much stronger left side than Villafaña and Johnson. I have a hunch at some point Bruce will have this come-to-Jesus moment. Or maybe he’ll simply use Johnson as a LWB after adopting some kind of three centerback formation.
After those two the player pool gets murky. Graham Zusi got the key starts at the Gold Cup over Championship veteran Eric Lichaj. But Graham Zusi will be a 31 year old winger with only a season and a half of RB under his belt by next summer. I was amazed that he was more trusted than lifelong and steady professional right back Lichaj. But if his job is just to be there in case something happens to Yedlin, he may make the roster. His versatility and late dead ball ability may be something Bruce Arena really likes as a tool on his bench.
This last fullback spot was the roster slot I spent the longest time trying to figure out. So hard in fact that I think Arena may just figure Fabian Johnson and Jorge Villafaña are all the cover he needs at leftback and he can take someone else like Lletget or Zardes instead. But assuming he takes two true leftbacks, I chose Greg Garza for a few reasons. Firstly he’s similar in style to Villafaña. Secondly, it wasn’t long ago before his injury when Garza during his days at Club Tijuana was the LB from Liga MX du jour. He’s an MLS All-Star level fullback and he might already be the best LB in MLS, American or foreign. Also, he’s 2 years younger than Villafaña. But if Villafaña has already secured a roster position and Arena wants a like-for-like backup for him then Garza is his man.
The last man out for me was DeMarcus Beasley. Talk about people who never die. Beasley will be 36 years-old next summer and despite “retiring” from the National Team already, I can’t imagine he would turn down the chance to go to a freakin’ fifth World Cup (He’d be only the 4th person to do it; or tied for fourth if the corpse of Rafa Marquez also makes it, though that seems likely now with his legal issues). Beasley was last seen playing for the USMNT as a LWB at the Azteca. Could he rise again? I will never doubt him.
And as I’ll discuss later, I think the second left back spot could be sacrificed. It could be sacrificed because Fabian Johnson will be the backup left back or because for a fifth centerback. That fifth centerback would likely Tim Ream who can also provide the “break in case of emergency” cover at LB as well.
Another major player for a fullback position is Timothy Chandler. Again, like Danny Williams, it’s funny to think that the USMNT is in an era where it could seriously consider not taking a player who is a week-in, week-out starter for a German Bundesliga club. But, his bad play in a USMNT shirt, his seeming disinterest in making some of the call-ups, and the fact that Yedlin is almost certainly the starter make his selection far more doubtful than I could’ve imagined.
Centerbacks: The centerback position was fairly straightforward. Ideally Bruce Arena wants to take four centerbacks. Preferably two right-footed and two left footed. Luckily the top four centerbacks seem to fit that mold. If we presume John (don’t call me Anthony) Brooks and Geoff Cameron are the starters, then Omar Gonzalez (a long-time Bruce Arena disciple) and the left-footed Matt Besler make the most sense because they have such experience and familiarity with the program. Despite the talent of the “Matts” Hedges and Miazga it was Besler and Gonzalez that Bruce trusted in the end.
The only other player I could see fighting his way in is Tim Ream. Beside the fact that he’s Besler’s only real rival as a left-footed CB, I think the Fulham man would be a smart addition (if perhaps necessary) addition to the roster if Bruce Arena does go with a three centerback formation. When a team goes with three centerbacks it makes taking five centerbacks mandatory. He may benefit the most from that after he played so well as a LCB in the away match against Mexico.
I know the “Matts” will make a push and I agree that they’re very promising I just don’t see how they leapfrog Besler and/or Gonzalez. Simply put: “There are others ahead of them.”
Goalkeepers: OK, I lied. Goalkeeper was the most straight forward position to select. I have a gut feeling; actually it’s more of a hunch that Tim Howard and Brad Guzan will be the #1 and #2 goalies.
After that I had kind of a three way scramble for the final spot between Ethan Horvath, Bill Hamid, and Jesse Gonzalez.
Horvath is 22 years old and all the Brian Sciaretta types seem to think highly of him. If Arena thinks he’s the next great goalkeeper, maybe he takes him. Gonzalez however is 15 days younger than Horvath and in my opinion is already a top three MLS ’keeper. After all the fuss USSoccer made to convert Jesse from El Tri to the USMNT maybe he should be the one.
But I think it will be Bill Hamid. He’s 26 and, believe it or not, he’s been a pro since 2009. You’re going to want someone Hamid’s age (26) to bridge the generation gap between Guzan and Horvath/Gonzalez. Plus I think when push comes to shove if you actually had to put someone in a game I think you’d prefer Bill to Ethan or Jesse.
Reserves: And as for Bruce Arena naming those seven reservists/injury replacements? If I had to predict Bruce’s 7 I think we might be looking at something like:
Tim Ream (Fulham): You always want that extra left-footed CB.
Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest): He’s veteran professional capable of playing LB and RB
Danny Williams (Hudderrsfield Town): It will be tough to ignore an EPL player even if he’s only a part time starter.
Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy): He’s a Bruce Arena favorite and in his 12’ USMNT minutes he already has a goal.
Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution): He’s kind of like a slightly more athletic and versatile Brad Davis. But not as Good.
Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy): His game kind of reminds me of an American soccer version of Danny Welbeck. He looks like he should be good, but isn’t good enough in front of net to play striker. But coachable and dedicated enough to get starts out wide.
Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes): C’mon, look into your heart; you know it to be true.
But that is a total stab in the dark.
WHAT WOULD I DO?
And with all that said, we now come to what I would do, if I were picking the USMNT roster. Here’s how I’d have it and why.
As I’ve continually reiterated throughout this overly lengthy analysis, there does exist a more than just a token chance that Bruce Arena does something funky. Look, if after only three days to practice he can implement and play a three centerback formation at the Azteca with mostly backups then he can do it in preparation of the World Cup. Yes he may be unwilling to implement it again down the final four game stretch of the Hexagonal, but once the October games are over, provided the USA qualifies, Bruce Arena will have nearly four months to plan and scheme.
Once he starts all his little plans and schemes he’s going to realize a few things. One that Omar Gonzalez is a better centerback than Bedoya is a RM or Kellyn Acosta is a CM. I also think he’s going to realize the best wide players on the pitch are Johnson and Yedlin. I also think both those players make for better wingbacks than fullbacks as both lack the defensive discipline for that at the international level. I’m also convinced that at some point Danny Williams is going to become impossible to ignore. I also think he’s going to realize that he wants Johnson and Nagbe on the pitch together to maximize our talent (ability to maintain possession). And I personally, I am really in favor of this. I really think this could be our eventual formation and lineup.
For those of you counting at home the league breakdown of the starting 11, it is: 4 MLS, 3 German Bundesliga, 3 EPL, 1 Liga MX.
For my fantasy roster as a whole it is: 13 MLS, 5 German Bundesliga, 3 EPL, 1 Championship, 1 Liga MX.
(Turns out my roster is far more MLS-centric than I figured it would be. But then again the USMNT is far more MLS-centric than it probably should be.)
Yes, missing out on nice promising players like Arriola, Acosta, Morris, Hedges, or Miazga may seem cruel, but are those guys really going to be the difference between us winning a game we might not otherwise have won? No, I don’t think so. One other criticism I would anticipate is that the lack of youth on the team doesn’t keep the team “hungry” and “energized.” People will point out Arena’s failure at FIFA World Cup 2006 was largely due to the fact that he picked an old squad that aged overnight and was complacent.
While Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber aren’t spring chicken’s anymore, I don’t think you’d have to worry about complacency with either of them. Both would be totally energized at the prospect of playing in a World Cup-Kljestan for the first time.
Also some of the “older” players like Dax McCarty, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi would have their own reasons for being motivated. Dax because it’s his first trip, Zusi because he’s at a new position, and Dempsey because he’s Deuce and is as fiery as they come, especially now that he’s been doubted.
Guys like Danny Williams, Tim Ream, Darlington Nagbe would also all be first timers and motivated. And several young guys like Pulisic, Yedlin, Brooks, Wood, and Jesse Gonzalez would play integral roles pushing guys to maintain their energy levels.
As for the reserves I think these seven would be good:
Matt Hedges-Best young American CB in MLS.
Jorge Villafaña/Garza-Either would work for me as true LB.
Eric Lichaj-I like his experience.
Kellyn Acosta-He’s still a talent.
Paul Arriola-Love the energy, but he wouldn’t have a position in the 5-3-2.
Jordan Morris-If a striker goes down he’d be the next in line.
Dom Dwyer-Can never have to many out-and-out goal scorers.
Also aside from Acosta, who could serve a role on this roster, Morris nor Arriola are going to have a fit because of the lack of width. I guess Morris could play as a striker, but he’s not as good as solo striker as Jozy or Wood.
In the end, I do expect this three centerback formation to pop up again in an important spot for the USMNT. But no, I don’t expect my roster to be Bruce’s even if he does go back to 3 CBs. In fact his 3 CB formation might implement wingers as he used more of a 3-4-3 at the Azteca in March.
Anyway I hope we’ve had a good look at the depth of the player pool and what exactly the USMNT roster looks like at this particular moment in time. Again it’s easy to say someone deserves a look. It’s much harder to pick the 23 and start cutting people when you realize you have to make choices. Maybe we’ll update this after the two September qualifiers as we see Bruce integrate the European contingent for the big home match against Costa Rica in Harrison. Those two lineups will tell us a lot about what he learned during the Gold Cup.
I’ll be back in a few days to break this down from the Mexico National Team perspective. Vaya con Dios mis amigos.