With U.S. men’s nation team facing Venezuela in a friendly on Saturday (10 p.m. ET on FS1) and Trinidad & Tobago in World Cup qualifying on Thursday (7:50 p.m. ET on FS1), Bruce Arena has a dilemma.
While Arena called up a predictable roster with little controversy, he will probably need to do something new in the central midfield. Jermaine Jones is injured (and his effectiveness is waning anyway), removing the go-to option as Michael Bradley's partner. Now Arena has to come up with someone new (or even two someones, depending on how he wants to play) to join Bradley in the center of the pitch.
Here is a look at who could start in the central midfield with Michael Bradley:
There is no better box-to-box midfielder in the American pool right now. He has traditionally been more of a defensive midfielder, but at FC Dallas, he has blossomed into a two-way midfielder who propel an attack. FC Dallas lost their No. 10, Mauro Diaz, to injury, and Acosta has taken up many of the playmaking duties there. He’s in great form and he figures to have a big future with the USMNT.
The lingering doubt is whether Arena is ready to put his trust in a player who has never played in the midfield for the USMNT, especially at a crucial juncture in World Cup qualifying. Acosta is only 21 and Arena seems to slightly favor veterans. The question is really just when, not if, Acosta will become a central midfield starter for the USMNT.
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One of the best defensive midfielders in MLS, McCarty is a steady presence in the central midfield. For the Chicago Fire, he’s a vital reason for the team’s drastic improvement this season — they now sit No. 2 in the dominant Eastern Conference. His veteran experience helps his case, too.
While McCarty does offer good attacking bite, the USMNT has better options going forward. He would perhaps make a better replacement for Michael Bradley, but there’s no indication Arena is looking to move on from Bradley, who sits very deep in the central midfield.
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If Arena is looking for someone who can offer a little more playmaking, that might be Nagbe. He’s a versatile attacking threat who has spent his career playing on both wings and as a central attacking midfielder. He’s very good in transition and he is an accurate passer in and around the box. If he starts centrally, it may mean that Fabian Johnson will play on the left wing and Christian Pulisic will play on the right wing, both familiar roles.
The concern, however, is that Nagbe has less defensive chops as a central midfielder. He's a much more attack-minded player and pairing him with Bradley would be putting an awful lot of responsibility on him defensively. He's also been sticking to the left wing lately rather than playing centrally, where he used to play often.
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He's long been used as a right winger for the USMNT, but his best role for the Philadelphia Union this season has been as a box-to-box midfielder. He is better defensively than driving an attack forward, as a distastrous move to a No. 10 in Philly showed, but when he can played a more balanced role, he looks comfortable.
Counting against Bedoya, however, is the sheer number of options Arena has for the central midfield — options that might be more comfortable in that role for the USMNT. Bedoya returning to the wing seems like the likelier option.
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He figures to play as a center back, where he has become a fixture next to John Brooks, but that’s not where Stoke City have been using him lately. Around 90 percent of the matches he played there this year have been as defensive midfielder. With other center back options, notably Matt Hedges, Arena could put Cameron where he is comfortable these days, and that’s in the midfield.
It's still unclear how married Arena is to using Cameron as a centerback. The new U.S. boss used him at right back in March so the question is whether that was a move forced by injuries to other players or not. If not, slotting him into the midfield becomes a viable option. But the Cameron-John Brooks pairing at center back has traditionally been very strong for the USMNT and Arena might be reluctant to break it up.
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Our choice? Give Kellyn Acosta a chance
Acosta is playing well enough for FC Dallas right now that his time to step into the USMNT starting group seems to be sooner rather than later. Against Venezuela, Arena can stick with the 4-4-2 the USMNT seems to prefer, but he should test out Acosta in a central midfield spot in alongside Michael Bradley. The youngster has down he can be effective in transition and he puts in a good defensive work rate that is just an important.
If Acosta struggles, Arena can always change things up before the USMNT’s qualifier vs. Trinidad & Tobago five days later. Arena could switch to something the USMNT has tried before, like Christian Pulisic in the middle above Bradley, or he could switch to a lone striker formation to get an extra player in the central midfield. But we think Pulisic can be just as effective from a wide role and Acosta is the team's best two-way midfielder right now. He's the choice to make the team click through the middle.