A significant storyline emerging out of USMNT camp ahead of two make or break World Cup qualifiers is the rash of injuries to key players. This is especially the case at fullback. Both DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson pulled out of consideration for the games against Honduras on Friday (San Jose, CA; 10:30 ET; FS1) and Panama next Tuesday (Panama City; 10 ET; beIN Sports).
Both have been fixtures out wide on the US back four. Though Johnson plays more advanced for his club team (Borussia Mönchengladbach) in Germany, his presence at left back for the Stars and Stripes is critical given the lack of depth there. Their absence presents a quandary of sorts for Bruce Arena as to his starting XI for these two critical fixtures.
But it also provides a chance for others called into the side to potentially make their mark. A few players to keep an eye on in this regard are Graham Zusi and Jorge Villafaña. Though Arena has some other options to slot in at fullback, it’s possible these two get put into the mix starting Friday night. And both are intriguing in their own unique ways.
USMNT Injury Situation Provides Opportunity for Graham Zusi, Jorge Villafaña
For most of his club and international career, Zusi played higher up the pitch as a midfielder. But beginning this season, the four-time MLS All-Star began a transition to right back. Arena played him there in friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica earlier in the year. And after roughly a month of MLS action, he’s played every minute for Sporting KC in the role.
Thus far at club level, it looks like the move will pay dividends in the long run. He continues to be dangerous providing service from the flanks, something that’s always been a staple of his game. Only now, it involves making runs into the final third from deeper positions as part of wing overloads.
Through three games, Zusi is among SKC’s top chance creators. His three key passes leads all defenders and he provided an assist on Benny Feilhaber’s wonder strike against the San Jose Earthquakes last week. And despite his deeper role, he remains a goal-dangerous outlet himself getting in behind the defense. He did so in the 72nd minute against San Jose although the Quakes recovered well to deny him from putting the ball on net.
The biggest concern moving into this role is whether or not Zusi can put in the defensive work required of the role. Through his combined 428 minutes for both club and country in 2017, Zusi has all but assuaged such misgivings. His work rate in winning possession is on full display in the following graphic. It showcases the top seven SKC players in combined recoveries, interceptions and tackles per 90 minutes.
For the US, Zusi also demonstrated quite a bit of industriousness on his side of the field. Against Serbia, he played the full 90 and registered 17 defensive actions (including clearances along with the above three statistics). That tied Michael Bradley for the highest total among US players.
Should he earn his 45th cap Friday, Zusi is in for a formidable challenge against a Honduran attack where he’ll likely have to slow down Romell Quioto. His dynamic play down the left hand side for the Houston Dynamo is a major factor behind their fast start to MLS play. With the team against the wall in the Hex as well as being short-handed at right back, this is certainly Zusi’s time to shine if Arena calls on him.
As mentioned above, Johnson plays more as an attacking winger for Gladbach than an out and out fullback. But he’s been reliable for the US when slotted there. Given his looming absence, there’s a void at left back which Jorge Villafaña has his own chance to fill.
Portland Timbers fans are well aware of Villafaña’s quality as an overlapping left back. He contributed greatly to the club’s 2015 season which resulted in an MLS Cup title. Villafaña registered a goal and five assists during the regular season and, when combining the playoffs, led the team in total minutes played. Advanced statistics site Whoscored.com actually gave him a higher player rating for the season than MLS Cup MVP Diego Valeri.
Villafaña signed with Santos Laguna in Liga MX the following off-season. Though he’s been in and out of the starting lineup since he joined the club, he saw his first action of the 2017 Clausura campaign last Friday. He played the full 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Tijuana before joining national team camp.
The 27-year-old defender is certainly much more wet behinds the ears than Zusi when it comes to international experience. Though he boasts time with the U20s and U23s, Villafaña’s only minutes with the senior team came in this year’s January/February friendlies. Arena is certainly taking a risk if he starts him in these next two matches given the stakes.
Villafaña loves to venture forward and create chances from out wide. In addition to his five helpers during his last season in Portland, he added 23 key passes. That number led all defensive oriented players on the Timbers that year.
If called into action for these next two games, he’ll have to use caution in timing those overlapping runs. Both Honduras and Panama will almost certainly sit deep and look to opportunistically smash and grab on the counter. Friday’s game is of particular concern, with Quioto and his Dynamo teammate Alberth Elis dynamic and pacy on the ball.
Other Options and the Final Analysis
In addition to the above mentioned names, there are some others at Arena’s disposal.
Geoff Cameron does just about everything at Stoke City in the Premier League. This year, he’s seen time as a holding mid and on the back four. But he tends to play center back for the US. Nevertheless, there are indications he might suit up at right back on Friday.
Like Villafaña, Michael Orozco plays in Liga MX and the two shared the field on Friday as Orozco started for Tijuana. However, Orozco’s record at right back in a USMNT uniform has been streaky at best. And overall, Zusi owns more World Cup qualifying experience up to this point.
DeMarcus Beasley is an option on the other side of the field. His experience is unquestioned, with only Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley having more national team appearances in this squad. But he’s no spring chicken at 34 and his inclusion came as a surprise to some observers.
Though listed as a midfielder, Kellyn Acosta is another option for Arena to consider. The 21-year-old is enjoying a fantastic start to 2017 for FC Dallas, both in MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League. That said, his early season heroics have originated from where he’s listed on the roster: in the midfield.
And finally, there’s Fulham’s Tim Ream. His time with the English second-tier side includes nearly 2,000 minutes and 18 starts during the 2016-17 season. However, those minutes largely came in a central defense role despite his experience at fullback.
Yedlin and Johnson have been fixtures at fullback for this side. But injuries are an inevitable part of the game and the Yanks need to hammer out a starting XI without them. Two players who USMNT fans don’t normally see at fullback will ultimately suit up for the Stars and Stripes for these two crucial ties. Whether or not it’s Zusi and Villafaña will be something to watch for when Arena releases the lineups late Friday night.