4 of the 24 players Jurgen Klinsmann called into the national team camp have been scratched for the game against Antigua and Barbuda. Landon Donovan and Brek Shea both joined the squad with injuries, which begs the question why they were included in the first place. Left back Edgar Castillo picked up a knock on his foot during training that has ruled him out for the last two qualifying matches of the group stage. Fabian Johnson, the first choice left back, has come down with a bad case of the flu and Klinsmann removed him from contention for Friday’s game in Antigua to allow him to recover better for the tougher match at home against Guatemala on Tuesday. Where do these absences leave the team’s lineup for the match in Antigua?
The loss of both natural left backs leaves a considerable gap in the team’s defense. Steve Cherundolo will start in right side of the back four, while Geoff Cameron will partner with either Carlos Bocanegra or Clarence Goodson. Bocanegra could play as a left back, like he did in the second half of the first game against Antigua, but I’d rather see Michael Parkhurst get the nod there. For the United States’ first World Cup Qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda in June, both Castillo and Johnson were unfit. In their place, midfielder Jose Francisco Torres played in defense. This time around, Torres is recovering from a foot injury and wasn’t called into the squad.
Though he is naturally a right back, Parkhurst has filled in across the back line in his career. This season in Denmark, the American has played 9 times as a right back and once as a center back. Last Danish Superliga season Parkhurst played right back 17 times with two assists and a goal, center back 10 times with one assist, and left back 3 times with one assist. That year, Parkhurst was most offensively productive as a left sided defender and has shown the ability to get up the outside throughout his career in MLS and the Danish Superliga.
Klinsmann cited Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon‘s ability to win balls out of the air as the reason for their inclusion in the national team squad. This points to the manager wanting wide players to serve balls into two forwards in the penalty box. Johnson is on red-hot form for Seattle Sounders this season after finally turning his career around. He will have to beat out Herculez Gomez for a starting spot as the advanced forward for the Nats. Clint Dempsey is settling into the central attacking midfield role with Tottenham Hotspur, but he should start up top for the national team as a slightly withdrawn forward. Alan Gordon could make a late appearance if the team needs a late goal, as the San Jose forward has a penchant for stoppage time goals.
The midfield has a few more options available for the match against Antigua. Although the team doesn’t have any natural wide players with injuries to both Shea and Donovan, Klinsmann will look for midfielders playing balls into the box from wide areas. Graham Zusi started at right midfield against Jamaica in Columbus, a game the U.S. won, and played an attacking midfield role against Mexico during that historic win at Estadio Azteca. It seems fairly certain Zusi will start on the right side of midfield in Antigua.
The left side of midfield is a bit trickier. Torres, Shea, and Donovan have all played on the left for the national team recently and are all unavailable for the upcoming games. Dempsey could play on the left side but that removes his deft touches and lethal shots from the penalty area. Another option on that side is fringe player Sacha Kljestan. Kljestan is capable on the outside as he has split his career with Chivas USA and Anderlecht between central midfield and the left side.
Defensive midfield is a crowded position in this U.S. squad. Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman, and Danny Williams are all naturally defensive midfield players. Edu was listed on the official roster as a defender and could be seen as more of a back-up central defender in Klinsmann’s eyes. Kyle Beckerman is an MLS All-Star and has flashes for the national team, but he seems out of his playing depth at the international level. Jermaine Jones could start against Antigua but his weak performances in recent games point to Danny Williams getting the nod.
If Klinsmann plays two forwards up top, the other central midfielder will need to be less of a ball carrier and more of a passing playmaker. While Dempsey, Kljestan, Zusi, or Corona could play behind two forwards, Michael Bradley will probably start in central midfield. Bradley missed the qualifiers against Jamaica with a quad strain in his right leg, but capped his return to fitness with a goal for club side AS Roma recently. Bradley has played on both the right and left side of midfield on a number of occasions in the past calendar year, but he can serve the team better operating in the center of midfield.
This first formation is what I think Klinsmann should pick because it accentuates the strengths of several players. Generally the lineup looks like a traditional 4-4-2, but the dynamism of the players on the field will allow Klinsi to shake things up and adjust his tactics during the course of the game. Kljestan and Zusi man the flanks and will need to play in lots of balls to Dempsey and Gomez, who have both shown a scoring ability with their heads. Bradley will sit on the edge of the area to take shots from range or recycle possession around. Williams will marshal the midfield and provide cover when fullbacks push forward.
This second formation is another option that has a lot of similarities to the first. A 4-2-3-1 gives Jermaine Jones another chance to prove himself for the U.S. and gets Bradley more involved in and around the penalty area. Clint Dempsey will drift inside and look to have the ball on his foot so both Danny Williams and the left back (in this instance Bocanegra) will have to be aware of the space behind Demps. Cherundolo will be important getting forward on the right side and Bocanegra may have to play inside to allow Parkhurst to get up the left. Williams and Bradley will be crucial to any success the U.S. finds in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
Whatever the formation and lineup Jurgen Klinsmann chooses on Friday, or the weather in the Caribbean, or the condition of the pitch in Antigua, there is no way to escape the fact that the United States needs to win this match. Antigua and Barbuda are truly minnows in comparison with the perennial World Cup Qualifiers. With national pride on the line and needing 3 points to continue their chance of advancing to the Hexagonal Round of Qualification (but still mathematically possible), Antigua may be forced to play a more open style of game. No matter which players walk out on the field on Friday night, the U.S. needs to attack Antigua early and set a quick tempo to the game. Anything less than a win for the Yanks is a failure.