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Arena the gambler takes the USMNT to the cusp of Russia 2018

Friday’s 4-0 win was keyed by a huge bet on the American attack

The United States went into Friday’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Panama a nervous wreck. Sitting in a position that only guaranteed a difficult playoff against either Australia or Syria, and holding onto that only via tiebreaker, fed the perspective that this was the biggest USMNT qualifier in over a decade. The Americans entered the match coming off of a home slip-up that threw Bruce Arena’s work in the six Hexagonal matches prior into question.

So when the lineup was released to the wilds of Twitter, a predictable panic ensued. Was this a wide-as-hell diamond in a nearly all-or-nothing qualifier? Was Arena really going to bet so big that the extremely risky formation that ambushed Honduras back in March was going to work again?

Both questions were answered with a resounding “Yes!,” as the USMNT rolled to a 4-0 victory. The U.S. threw numbers at the Panamanian defense, stretching the game from the opening whistle and betting that their attackers would get the critical first goal. It didn’t even take long, as Panama appeared unprepared for this “throw the kitchen sink at them” approach.

The pre-game reactions to the formation were not baseless, though. Arena chose a formation that fell out of use sometime around the turn of the century, and I can show you why it stopped being used in one image:

The circles above are the average spot on the field for each USMNT starter. #4 is Michael Bradley, whose closest teammate on average appears to be Omar Gonzalez (who is still a solid 15+ yards away). Arena sent out a team with one true winger in Paul Arriola, a true attacking midfielder in Christian Pulisic, and told Darlington Nagbe (who normally plays from the left rather than on the left) to fight his normal tendency to drift inside and help out.

That left Bradley all alone in central midfield, and this is an era where teams generally flood central midfield. The 361 derided back in 1998 (back when Arena’s wide diamond was helping D.C. United win eight trophies in four years) is now seen somewhat commonly around the world, because in the modern game winning central midfield means everything. Playing with a lone central midfielder means risking who controls the tempo and who wins the second balls, and exposes your defense to any transition attack that doesn’t run straight into your one and only holding midfield player.

So what got into Arena’s head? Simply put, he decided the rewards were worth the enormous gamble. To Arena, what he got in the exchange — the ability to field Pulisic, two strikers, and still play out of a back four — was better than what he was giving up. Arena’s gamble was that Panama was expecting a more cagey start against a nervous opponent, and that they wouldn’t be prepared for the kind of tactical approach you normally see from a team that is trying to scrap for a late, late equalizer.

It worked like a charm. Panama came out ready to sit deep and narrow in their two lines of four, which left no one in position to hassle Bradley. It meant Arriola and Nagbe had space on the flanks to move play forward. It left Anibal Godoy and Gabriel Gomez struggling to sort out who should track Pulisic, a problem that was compounded by the choice to deploy Felipe Baloy, who was exposed as simply too slow to cope with Pulisic or Bobby Wood. Hernan Dario Gomez pulled Edgar Barcenas in the 26th minute so he could shift his team into a 4141, and then removed Baloy at halftime, but by then the damage was done.

Panama had their looks the other way (arguably the best of which came just moments before Jozy Altidore made it 2-0), but in the end Arena’s choice to bet on his talent advantage paid off handsomely. It may be the biggest successful tactical risk in the USMNT’s history, right up there with shifting to a 352 with Claudio Reyna playing as a wingback against Mexico despite defensive injuries and suspensions back in the 2002 World Cup.

Say, who was it that rolled the dice and won big that day?

Suerte

American fans spent Friday night luxuriating in the relief that routing Panama significantly eased their path to Russia. However, CONCACAF’s ninth round of Hexagonal matches wasn’t done until Saturday night, when Kendall Waston scored a goal just as vital to US hopes as the four USMNT strikes in Orlando, or even Bobby Wood’s equalizer in Honduras back in September.

For Costa Rica, obviously, the goal meant mathematical qualification for the World Cup. The emotion of the moment is why this went viral. It’s an incredible video.

The part that stuck with me, though, is not Waston losing his shirt, or head coach “Macho” Ramirez running in a circle. It’s the shots of the Honduran bench, where Ever Alvarado’s distraught reaction is just short of rending his garments.

This is what the CONCACAF standings would have looked like if Bryan Ruiz hadn’t juked two Honduran defenders and picked out the towering Vancouver Whitecaps center back, or if Waston had not caught Donis Escober going the wrong way:

That’s a path with a lot of outs for Honduras. A home win over Mexico would have guaranteed no worse than a playoff spot, and even a draw would have been enough if Panama were unable to beat Costa Rica tomorrow. There was also a not-impossible path to direct qualification that just involved the USMNT not winning on the road (something that has happened in each previous American road trip during this Hex).

Waston’s header did go in, though, and this is the table we’re working with in this particular part of the multiverse:

The chief beneficiary here is the USMNT, who thanks to goal difference will realistically only require a draw to qualify. Panama and Honduras both winning at home is plausible, but doing so by the margins required is not. Honduras, meanwhile, only holds their fate in their own hands if you think a five-goal win over El Tri is a real possibility. Most likely, if Panama gets a win over a Costa Rica side with nothing to play for, and possibly just a couple days off of a massive party, Honduras is out of even a playoff spot.

That’s just part of the luck involved for the USMNT. Here’s major Honduran outlet Diez’s “we wuz robbed” reaction after referee Cesar Ramos gave 6 minutes of second half stoppage time:

CONCACAF is strangely both forgiving - the Hex remains the easiest path into a World Cup - and utterly capricious. The next time we’re tempted to complain about “CONCACAF being CONCACAF,” let’s not forget how much that caprice benefited the Americans this time around.

One last muddy step

I’m not here to make fun of Trinidad & Tobago for having a partially flooded field. It happens here too, and Mother Nature has never appeared particularly bothered with our various ball games. The point here is that CONCACAF is mostly made up of countries whose climate involves fairly frequent storms and high humidity, which means playing on sopping wet, muddy fields at least once in every Hex.

In this particular Hex, that obligatory game in the slop is tomorrow night. Broadly speaking, that means a change in mentality. Wide-open, high-risk play courts disaster in these conditions, as it’s hard to put together much in the way of sexy soccer. Sending six or more players forward on every attacking move, when the ball can betray you by an unusual skip or stop on a bad surface, is just begging to be exposed with a simple long ball.

Specifically, though, how do you cope with these conditions? One worthwhile move is to select players who excel at winning tackles, recoveries, headers, and all the other “grit” categories. The conditions guarantee more second balls than usual in this one, and to steal from Bobby Warshaw’s article on mentality, the team with more of an I-will-kill-you-for-this-seemingly-and-probably-worthless-loose-ball-in-the-middle-of-the-field mentality has an even bigger advantage in this kind of setting than the substantial edge they’d normally step on the field with.

That could - hell, should - mean a formation change, as it’s hard to win loose balls if the part of the field most of them happen in is occupied by just one player. It means Arena may be looking at the wingers and forwards that started against Panama and trying to sort out which one of them makes way for someone like Alejandro Bedoya or Dax McCarty. It may mean moving to a 352, adding one more center back to cope with all the long balls involved in this kind of game (and also one more holding midfielder, so Bedoya/McCarty again comes up). Personally, I’m quite fond of the latter option, but a 4231 could also be successful.

The USMNT got themselves out of a hole and into position to qualify with a high-wire act of a gameplan on Friday, but to take the final step they’re going to need to be the team that makes the fewest mistakes.