For four months, Bruce Arena had planned. And planned and planned and planned.
In fact, he’d been planning for longer than that. Because on Nov. 22, just hours after signing a contract to return as United States men’s national team manager after a decade away from the job, he walked into a U.S. Soccer meeting with a stack of papers in hand charting out what his squad would look like in his second tenure.
There was, after all, no time to waste. After two losses in the first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying, the Yanks were in trouble. Sufficiently so for the once-untouchable Jurgen Klinsmann to be dismissed, even though it meant pulling the plug on an ambitious vision and, likely, paying out a good chunk of what remained on his eight-figure contract.
So Arena planned. Because the USA needs points.
But you can’t plan for injuries.
For all the meticulous preparations, for all the evaluations of how to beat Honduras in San Jose, Calif., on March 24 and Panama in Panama City on March 28 in order to get the campaign to reach an eighth straight World Cup back on track, there’s no accounting for bodies breaking down.
Against Honduras, the first four options at right back will be unavailable. DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj were already injured before the roster was announced last Wednesday. Arena decided, strangely, not to call in Timmy Chandler because he’s suspended for the first game, arguing that he “didn’t think it was worth” him traveling from Germany – even though players travel halfway across the world to play a single game, or even just to sit on the bench, all the time. At the very least, Chandler would have solved half the right back problem.
At any rate, this past weekend, defender/midfielder Fabian Johnson and striker Bobby Wood, also both active in the Bundesliga, got injured as well. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Brad Guzan pulled out of the team to stay home for the birth of his second child – which is understandable and even rather admirable in a pro sports landscape that pressures new fathers to return to work immediately.
Arena was forced to call in four players to cover for the injured: goalkeeper David Bingham, defender/midfielder Graham Zusi, midfielder Sacha Kljestan and defender Matt Besler.
All the same, the loss of as many as four possible starters could have significant ramifications on seven positions, a domino effect that just about turns half the lineup on its head. We don’t know who would have started, of course, because Arena hasn’t had his entire team available to him for a national team game since 2006. But Wood and Johnson seemed like locks to be in the lineup, and Yedlin very well might have as well. Even Guzan was a possibility, considering Tim Howard has only just returned from a long-term injury.
This means Arena can’t play the striker pairing he seemed to be leaning towards of Wood and Jozy Altidore – whose blossoming partnership was one of the few bright spots in Klinsmann’s last year in charge. Instead, Arena might have to draft in Clint Dempsey, even though he has only just returned from an irregular heartbeat diagnosis that cost him the second half of the last Major League Soccer season. Reading between the lines of his many utterances on the subject, Arena seemed to have originally envisioned Dempsey as a sort of impact substitute. Or the second all-time leading scorer might have been an option to play underneath the strikers.
Unless Jordan Morris starts, that is. But this, in turn, would also rob Arena of one of his most fearsome weapons off the bench. When inserted midway through the second half, Morris’s turf-singeing speed has driven defenders to despair.
Arena had expressed his hope to deploy 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Christian Pulisic in the middle, behind the strikers, even though he plays on the flank for his club. But with Fabian Johnson out, who was an option at right back but more likely to play on the wing, Pulisic might be forced back out wide. This further complicates an already murky picture in central midfield, where Jermaine Jones is also suspended for the first game but was called up nonetheless.
At right back, meanwhile, Arena has said he will start either Geoff Cameron or Michael Orozco, even though the former is much more convincing as a central defender or holding midfielder and the latter has also had his best U.S. games in the middle – and even those were mostly suspect.
With Yedlin, or Lichaj, or Chandler, out of right back contention, that also means Johnson couldn’t have played left back – had he not gotten hurt. Instead, the options there are the 34-year-old converted winger DaMarcus Beasley, the untested Jorge Villafana and center backs Tim Ream and Matt Besler. None of those are convincing options.
Which is to say that the injuries, paternity leave and the non-call-up of Chandler could have a knock-on effect on one of the striker positions, at the number 10 (all assuming Arena will play in the 4-4-2 he has hinted at), on one of the flanks, at right back, one of the center back spots, left back and in goal.
That’s a lot of adjustments Arena has to make on short notice. And a lot of challenges he couldn’t have planned for.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.