Bruce Arena needed to get at least a point in Panama on Tuesday to keep the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifying hopes on track, and he did that. It was a good but not perfect showing from the USMNT manager worthy of a B grade.
His hands were tied, but the lineup he chose got the job done
If you took all the injuries or unavailable players for the USMNT heading into Tuesday, you would've had a pretty decent starting XI. But the absences were no worse than at the back line, where a slew of possible starters were missing: Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Eric Lichaj, Michael Orozco and Fabian Johnson.
Arena had no great choices, but he put his confidence in players who weren't quite as battled tested as the likes od DaMarcus Beasley or Matt Besler, but were capable of getting the job done – players like Jorge Villafana, newly-minted right back Graham Zusi and even Tim Ream. Yes, Ream was one of the weaker links on the pitch, but it's not as if Arena had way better options.
Arena could've punished Omar Gonazlez for being the weak link vs. Honduras, but the defender was capable of better and Arena knew it. Giving him another chance was the right call, especially since the Americans needed his height and ability in the air. It paid off.
Where it was possible, Arena seemed to lean on experience not just with the USMNT, but experience in World Cup qualifying. But that didn't prevent him from putting his faith in players whose club performances over the past several months proved they could make an impact for the Americans. As such, we saw players like Darlington Nagbe and Jorge Villafana play vital roles for the USMNT for the first time in World Cup qualifying, and they both rose to the occasion.
The options were there for Arena to play it safe. He could've started the likes of Alejandro Bedoya at the wing or DaMarcus Beasley at left back, but the USMNT would've been missing some spark and dynamism if Arena had. The USMNT manager knew where to forgo experience and rely on form.
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He stuck to what was comfortable, which helped the players
Again, with mounting injuries and what was far from a first-choice 11 on the table, Arena could've tinkered with the USMNT's system to try to make room for more appealing player choices. But Arena seemed to understand the value of keeping disruption to a minimum and letting the players feel comfortable.
He stuck with a 4-4-2, this time with the midfield lines looking a bit more flat, but the point seemed to be keeping players in roles they understood and were comfortable with. That surely helped because playing on the road in CONCACAF can be anything but comfortable. Bumpy pitches, hostile crowds, jetlag, humidity, refs that won't call fouls – there's enough for players to worry about.
Starting Jermaine Jones wasn't the right call, nor was leaving him on the field so long
Although an injury to Sebastian Lletget restricted Arena's options a bit, starting Jones in his place didn't pay off. Jones just looked rusty – he's played 180 minutes of soccer in MLS since the USMNT's friendly vs. Serbia in January, and his touch was off Tuesday. More than once, an attempted pass of his errantly went to a Panamanian player.
But the more concerning part of Jones' performance Tuesday was his inability to add the physicality that the chippy match called for. The referee was happy to let most fouls slide, and Panama was able to upset the USMNT's rhythm. The USMNT needed the Jermaine Jones who can give it right back to them, but he was nowhere to be found. The unfortunate fact is that, at 35 years old, Jones is noticeably slowing down and it affected his ability to impose himself on the match.
Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty were viable options who can play not the exact same style of Jones, but in his two-way role just fine. Sacha Kljestan, a current playmaker who honed his jobs in Belgium as a more defensive midfielder, would've been a fine option, too.
Acosta eventually replaced Jones in the 75th minute, but it probably should've happened earlier in the match.
He set the right expectations and met them with a solid point on the road
Arena could've called the match a must-win and poured the pressure on his players. Or he could've made excuses to get out ahead of a potential loss. Instead, Arena was clear that he wanted to leave with at least a point and thought that was reasonable.
It was the right approach for a result that, all things considered, is a positive for the USMNT. They now sit in fourth place in the World Cup qualifying group and, they aren't completely out of the hole Jurgen Klinsmann dug them, but they are getting close.
A point on the road, given all the injuries and the road circumstances, speaks for itself.
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