Five winners and five losers of the USMNT's World Cup qualifiers

Bruce Arena’s return as U.S. coach has helped steady a sinking ship.
Bruce Arena’s return as U.S. coach has helped steady a sinking ship.

With Bruce Arena in for the fired Jurgen Klinsmann, the four points pulled the Yanks up from sixth and last place in CONCACAF to fourth, where they are squarely back in the thick of things for an eighth straight World Cup berth in Russia next year.

Let’s sift the winners from the losers

WINNERS

Bruce Arena
He was brought in to rescue a flagging campaign under Klinsmann’s spiraling management, and Arena started off with an emphatic win in which a side of much the same players looked reborn. The Panamanian stalemate wasn’t nearly as impressive or convincing, but a point on the road is still a point. Especially in CONCACAF.

The decision for the managerial switch was immediately vindicated as Arena’s deft hand steadied things in short order.

Christian Pulisic
Perhaps we, the American soccer community, are the real winners here for Pulisic being born and raised an American. The 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund phenom didn’t just score a goal, give three assists — on both the goals that cumulatively secured four points — and create a fifth goal in just two games, but he learned to cope in the hostile circumstances of a CONCACAF away game.

Along the way, he didn’t exactly dispel the growing realization that he’s already the USA’s best player.

Tim Howard
At 38 and coming off an adductor injury, there were questions about Howard’s effectiveness in goal. Was time at last running out on a great American career? Nope. Howard stood tall in both games, shutting out Honduras and making several saves against Panama, including one that likely salvaged a point.

A year and a few months out from the World Cup, the veteran New Jerseyan has re-positioned himself as the favorite to start in goal in Russia.

Clint Dempsey
The national team program’s second all-time leading scorer hadn’t played for the U.S. since June and missed the second half of his Seattle Sounders’ Major League Soccer season last year, looking on as the club made an unlikely run to the championship. An irregular heartbeat even threatened to end his career, in spite of the 34-year-old playing well before two reported procedures.

Arena originally said he didn’t expect Dempsey to be fit enough for these games. But when he looked much like his old self in the Sounders’ first games of the year, he was called up anyway. And when Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris were injured, Dempsey had to start. He delivered four goals in two games — a hat-trick against Honduras and the go-ahead goal against Panama — bringing him within one of Landon Donovan’s all-time national team scoring record at 56, and firmly placing him back among the team’s core players.

Jorge Villafana
The left back position for the national team has been a revolving door in recent years. This free-for-all spot has seen so many different names on the lineup sheet that we’d bore you terribly if we listed them all. The 27-year-old Santos Laguna player, however, who got his professional start through the Sueno MLS game show, looked comfortable and useful out there over 180 minutes.

While there are still a few other options out there — namely Greg Garza and Fabian Johnson, although the latter might be more useful in midfield — Arena may have found a solid option going forward.

 

LOSERS

Jermaine Jones
In the larger national team subcategory of do-they-still-have-it? Jones was the only 30-something to fail his test. Suspended for the first game, Sebastian Lletget and his substitute Alejandro Bedoya played well in his place. And in Panama, the long-time midfield enforcer was invisible but for the moments when the other team was dangerous. In all fairness, he was also the one that sent the long ball that Pulisic somehow turned into Dempsey’s goal.

Overall, the growing chorus that Jones’s best days are behind him only grew louder.

Jurgen Klinsmann
It might not be entirely fair to the German to take only his last two games in charge when his body of work is laid side-by-side with Arena’s, but the difference was nevertheless startling. A refreshed and newly inspired national team looked like it was enjoying its soccer again, and it had been an awfully long time since this had been true.

Legacies are subjective and capricious things, but these two games were not good for Klinsmann’s.

Sebastian Lletget
The Bay Area native only went and scored the opening goal and game-winner in San Jose on Friday, in his first competitive national team game. And then he got injured about 10 minutes later, forcing him off in the 19th minute. He was seen leaving the stadium in a boot and, soon enough, word got out that he would need surgery and be out 4-6 months.

That’s a rotten bit of luck for the talented 24-year-old, whose circuitous career path had finally brought him to a place where he looked set to become a national team regular. Instead, he will miss several qualifiers as well as this summer’s Gold Cup — when promising young players like him tend to get lots of opportunities to shine.

Tim Ream
The 29-year-old center back has been a part-time national teamer ever since he moved to Bolton Wanderers five years ago, after which he signed with Fulham in 2015. He’s had a good career in England second-tier championship but drifted in and out of Klinsmann’s picture.

He got two chances to show himself to Arena in the past week. Against Honduras, coming on for John Brooks, who was too sick to continue, in the 70th minute, Ream was solid. Versus Panama, however, he had a performance that could most generously be described as mixed. While he made a few good challenges, he also misread several balls and bungled a few clearances, resulting in prolonged Panamanian attacks. With a cluttered depth chart at center back, this is not how Ream wanted to perform.

Brad Guzan
There’s a reason professional athletes tend not to take much paternity leave, if any. Lamentable as their missing out on the magic of childbirth and the first days of life is, not being around tends to be bad for your career.

Guzan, at 32, will soon leave Middlesbrough and the Premier League for Atlanta United in Major League Soccer. He was a strong candidate to start one or both of these games and cement his worthiness under a new manager. In Guzan’s absence, Howard gave such strong performances that he seems to have the job locked down for a while longer.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

Bruce Arena’s return as U.S. coach has helped steady a sinking ship.
Bruce Arena’s return as U.S. coach has helped steady a sinking ship.

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