The debate over how the U.S. national team should line up rages on, especially as we get to see a newer group join up this summer for the Gold Cup, a tournament that often fosters tactical experimentation from CONCACAF coaches. The Michael Bradley’s and the Jozy Altidore’s won’t be around this July and instead, Bruce Arena will get Dax McCarty and Cristian Roldan, and Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo.
In the USMNT’s last few competitive matches (all crucial World Cup qualifiers), Arena mostly used what can be interpreted as a 4-1-3-2, with Bradley as a lone d-mid and Christian Pulisic higher as a No. 10. It necessitated inverted defensive work from the wingers and encouraged high overlapping from full backs DeAndre Yedlin and Jorge Villafaña.
Mostly, the goal of this formation was to play with both a true 10, because that’s the U.S.’s best player’s best position, and two forwards, because the US’s most talented non-Pulisic attackers are forwards. It’s not a foreign formation — Jurgen Klinsmann primarily used in the initial qualifiers last year — and it was a safe option for games that were all too important to mess around in.
Entering the Gold Cup, Arena can afford to try some things for the first time in his second tenure as USMNT manager. Panama, Martinique, and Nicaragua are the U.S.’s group state opponents, and with Mexico and Costa Rica not likely foes until the semifinals and final, the hosts won’t have to stress too much about cruising through the local minnows.
Now is the perfect time to try for the first time a formation that, on paper, fits the U.S. better than any other: the 3-5-2.
This formation utilizes personnel that plays right to their strengths. It requires three center backs (the U.S. have some serious depth there) that are mobile and can drift out of the backline to make plays, something players like Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez have shown the ability to do, particularly in the 5-4-1 used in Mexico earlier in June. Both Geoff Cameron and Matt Hedges are natural leaders, the natural center center back in three-at-the-backs.
The biggest question surrounding this formation is whether a team has capable wing-backs, and that’s a question the U.S. can answer with a resounding yes. DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson were, for the longest time, both wingers and full backs under Klinsmann, who for whatever reason was unable to figure what position either of them played (Yedlin is a right back and Johnson is a left winger, for the record). Both of these players would be perfect wing-backs.
Beyond them, Justin Morrow has excelled at the position with Toronto FC, and while DaMarcus Beasley is a bit past his prime, he’s a capable defensive option, as shown in the Mexico game. Villafaña is the obvious backup for Johnson, and Eric Lichaj has a chance to prove himself at the Gold Cup. Graham Zusi just converted from right midfielder to right back, so if the running doesn’t prove too much for his 30-year old legs, he could be a depth option as well.
By the way, this is the perfect position for Yedlin, who is probably one the USMNT’s top three or four players overall. His actions map against Mexico (in which he got to show us his talents at the position) shows a tireless work rate and a player willing to play fully both ways:
Yedlin runs more than anyone in the U.S. player pool, with the obvious exception of Bradley, who might actually be a machine. In addition, the Newcastle United star is blazing fast, another good attribute to have as a wing-back.
Whereas a primary weakness of the 3-5-2 is the need for capable wing-backs (a rare breed) and the lack of potential for odd-man rushes down the wing, a primary strength being the opportunity to have both three center midfielders and two strikers on the field. In a 3-5-2, the U.S. could have Bradley as the No. 6, Kellyn Acosta as the No. 8, and Pulisic as a No. 10, with Altidore and Bobby Wood up front.
That’s a solid first-choice look. A first-choice lineup could then look like this:
For the Gold Cup, start Bill Hamid in goal, Hedges, Gonzalez, Matt Miazga in central defense, Morrow and Lichaj as wing-backs, Dax McCarty, Cristian Roldan, and Acosta in midfield, and Morris and Agudelo up top. Simple, right?
Not quite. Learning formations and implementing formations are two completely different things, and the U.S. have not learned this formation. It takes time to develop cohesive, repeatable tactics, and even if it should work perfectly on paper, throwing it on the field without preparation and a serious discussion of roles does not work, no matter who the players are.
Did Greg Vanney turn one week and tell Sebastian Giovinco that Toronto FC were going to play a 3-5-2 that day? No. He sat down and diagrammed spatial roles with assistants, and then they designed a training session that enforced and reinforced those roles and strategies with players. This is what Arena did in the weeks and even months leading up to the Mexico game, when the U.S. unveiled a specially-designed 5-4-1 that earned them a point at the Estadio Azteca.
Klinsmann played a 3-5-2 that looked remarkably similar to the one above at home against Mexico in November. It flamed out, and after a disastrous 25 minutes and a Mexico goal, Klinsmann reverted back to the 4-1-3-2, probably at the urging of Bradley. Clearly, Klinsmann had done little preparation, and decided to throw his players on the field and hope the blame would go to them if it failed. Finally, the blame from Sunil Gulati was placed on him, and not long after he was out as manager.
This is why Arena is different from Klinsmann. But that’s a topic for another day.
While the execution was horrid and indicative of a subpar manager, Klinsmann had the right idea with the 3-5-2. As detailed above, it would work as a USMNT formation. Arena, it seems, knows this. He’s experimented with three-at-the-backs in friendlies so far in his tenure, and the addition of the wing-back extraordinaire Morrow to the Gold Cup roster should tell you something about his intentions this summer.
Don’t expect to see it in September, when the US resume playing must-win qualifiers and still can’t afford to try unproven formations. But if they have qualifiers after having clinched a spot? Or in the many pre-World Cup friendlies? Sure, Arena should take a look. And at the World Cup next summer? You never know.