CONCACAF World Cup qualifying: Sizing up the USMNT lineup options versus Costa Rica

Bruce Arena has a wealth of options in attack and central defense as he tries to pick the right team to earn three vital World Cup qualifying points

Back in March, the injury bug had Bruce Arena scrambling for attacking options, and in the end his team still managed to drop six goals on Honduras in a big World Cup qualifying win. More than five months later, his attack is now healed up and overflowing with options heading into a challenging World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.

Arena has three top-level options at forward, and a fourth strong one in Gold Cup hero Jordan Morris. Fabian Johnson’s return from a back injury serves to bolster a midfield led by an in-form Christian Pulisic.

“I like our strikers here. The combination of (Jozy) Altidore and (Bobby) Wood and (Clint) Dempsey and Jordan Morris and Chris Wondolowski gives us a lot of options,” Arena said. “They’re very good players and I think the one thing that gives me so much optimism is the fact that they’re all in very good form right now, and that whoever we choose over these next couple of games are going to be dangerous.”

Arena will have a tough call in choosing two starters from that group of strikers, but his players believe the increased competition for playing time is only going to push the team’s level upward.

“(Competition) is only good for the team, it makes the team better, pushes everybody,” Clint Dempsey said. “Everybody has the same goal, trying to qualify for the World Cup, so it’s all about working hard, pushing each other, having that competition for spots, and raising our level of play.”

Dempsey showed his willingness to contribute in a reserve role during the Gold Cup, where he came off the bench to help lead the Americans to a pair of victories. With Bobby Wood in excellent form, Arena could deploy Dempsey as a super sub yet again.

In midfield, a quartet of Pulisic, Johnson, Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe makes sense, assuming Johnson can handle going 90 minutes. He is coming off a back injury that had sidelined him in recent weeks, but stated on Wednesday that he feels good and believes he can play 90 minutes.

“I had a whole preseason that helped me to get my shape, and I think I’m ready for the game,” Johnson said. “I think the only reason why I didn’t play the whole 90 with my club team is because I just trained like one time. Obviously it’s not enough to get into the starting 11. I’m in good shape now.”

The defense has some questions as well, with center back being the hardest to predict. Geoff Cameron looks like a safe bet to start, but determining his partner is a little trickier. Tim Ream appears to be the leading candidate for the role, though Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are also good choices. If Arena plans to rotate his central defenders, he could save Gonzalez and Besler for starting roles against Honduras, with Cameron and Ream focusing on stopping Bryan Ruiz and Costa Rica’s dangerous attack.

The left back position seems set with Jorge Villafana back in a starting role at Santos Laguna, but DaMarcus Beasley showed against Mexico in June that he can still contribute as a starter and Arena could choose to have them split games, with Villafana a better bet to handle the rigors of playing in San Pedro Sula against Honduras.

At right back, DeAndre Yedlin’s absence will likely lead to Graham Zusi reprising his starting role after being the team’s lead right back at the Gold Cup.

Despite missing John Brooks and Yedlin to injury, Arena insists he’s confident his defense can hold up against the Ticos on Friday.

“Injuries are part of the game. You never like to see it, but we’ve been through a number of games this year with a number of players missing, either in the back line or elsewhere,” Arena said. “When we started in March against Honduras we were missing a large contingent of experienced players and yet we survived. I anticipate this time around, despite the fact we’re going to be missing some good players, our back line will be fine.”

Here’s a look at Goal‘s projected starting XI for the USA against Costa Rica. 

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