Arena’s first matches, a pair underwhelming January performances against middling sides like Serbia and Jamaica, did not plug up the #PANIC completely.
For all the recent #PANIC that consumed Minnesota’s soccer fan base, we are still a far cry from the #PANIC that consumed US men’s national team last November. Zero points from a pair of crucial qualifiers will do that to you. Falling to the bottom of your qualifying table will do that to you. Digging yourself a canyon-sized hole will do that to you. Firing an elite player-cum-manager will stem the #PANIC, but only so much.
This weekend marks the first World Cup Qualifiers the USMNT will play under new/old-manager Bruce Arena. However, Arena’s first matches, a pair underwhelming January performances against middling sides like Serbia and Jamaica, did not plug up the #PANIC completely. Still, there is a clear sense that Arena is a war-time consigliere. And knowing that CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying is as close to “war-time” as North American soccer gets, Arena is an obvious choice.
Obviously, if you’re going to the mattresses, you want your most trusted lieutenants with you. So Arena has to be happy to see reliable veterans Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey return from injury. Additionally, while the defense is diminished by injury (DeAndre Yedlin) and suspension (Jermaine Jones), the surging form of younger attacking talents (Christian Pulisic, Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta) offers tantalizing potential.
Many are calling for Arena to avoid a lineup with a bulging midfield. A slimmer, swifter attack could expose gaps in their defensive-minded opponents. Honduras (Friday, March 24 in San Jose, CA) often employs a five-man back line, though they still concede about a goal per game. Panama (Tuesday, March 28 in Panama City) also prefers a bunker mentality, particularly in their hostile home grounds. A simple three-man midfield could decrease the pressure on one midfield playmaker (Pulisic or captain Michael Bradley). It could also increase the attack options if Dempsey needs more time or Jozy Altidore looks isolated.
If you’re hoping to see a local player in Panama, you may need to buy them a plane ticket. Arena’s least-experienced team members are domestic darlings already familiar to Arena. So unless Christian Ramirez buries goals by the bucketful, or Miguel Ibarra gets rebooted as a younger Batman, their phones will not be ringing for a while.
Los Ticos are firmly in control of their own destiny in “The Hex”. The darlings of 2014 certainly played like a team of destiny in 2016. But with the switch of the calendar, the certainty got a lot squishier. A lackluster Copa Centroamericana saw them grab just one win against Belize. (Many assume that not having Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas on hand hurt those chances). So coach Oscar Ramirez will have to bring out the team’s best as they head to Mexico City Friday and to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Tuesday. (Hint: count on Navas seeing all 180 minutes, even if he has to be duct taped to the posts.)
Costa Rica isn’t only worth watching for their overarching story line. Minnesota fans should be watching the intimate stories of local stars Francisco Calvo and Johan Venegas. Calvo had a better Copa Centroamericana than most Ticos. His piercing goal past the stalwart Honduran defense announced his presence with authority.
However, Calvo has yet to be tested in the daunting din of Azteca. He may be more likely to see time in Honduras or as a substitute. Venegas has worked his way into Coach Ramirez’s good graces. So, despite the return of Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell from European competition, he may get another start.
The Soca Warriors are at the precipice of a new era. One that looks a little bit like their World Cup heyday in 2006. It looks a bit like that because, if you squint at the sideline you might recognize some old friends. Former Trinidad and Tobago central defender Dennis Lawrence will manage his first competitive game on Friday (against Panama). Lawrence even brought in old pals Sol Campbell and Stern John. (That makes a trio of talented ex-players and a trio of novice coaches). Lawrence fielded a fairly standard 4-4-2 against Barbados two weeks ago, but that was without many of his best players. The good news is that Lawrence will have a stronger selection of players to draw from, and two home matches to get his feet underneath him this week. (Mexico plays in Port of Spain on Tuesday.)
Among the selection for the next matches is Minnesota United’s own Kevin Molino. Unlike other Minnesotans on international duty, Molino is a probable starter. With captain and top striker Kenwyne Jones still working his way into regular time with Atlanta United, Molino may need to develop a partnership with 23-year-old Jamille Boatswain. Boatswain has only one senior team appearance. But it did happen two weeks ago, with Lawrence in charge, and did involve two goals.
If Molino can’t build a connection with a striker, he may need have to carry his country on his back. (INSERT ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON PLUG HERE.)
Schüller’s instincts have made him an intriguing if inconsistent player in Minnesota. He seems able to provide a valuable two-way presence but has been limited to a defensive mindset.
The final team with a clear Minnesota soccer connection is Finland: home of Midfielder Rasmus Schüller. The Eagle Owls were unfortunately lumped into the most competitive group in European World Cup Qualification. Four teams from last summer’s UEFA European Championship are there: Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, and Iceland. That leaves new manager (noticing a pattern here?) Markku Kanerva’s team as underdogs to qualify. They’ll face a wobbly Turkey on Friday (they only shut out Kosovo), before a mid-qualification friendly against Austria on Tuesday.
Schüller’s instincts have made him an intriguing if inconsistent player in Minnesota. He seems able to provide a valuable two-way presence but has been limited to a defensive mindset. Last year, while with the national team, he mostly came on as a substitute, and all the players he came on for are healthy enough for this weekend’s matches, so it’s probably back to the bench for Rasmus. It may be best to keep an eye on NYCFC’s Alexander Ring, who has been the primary holding midfielder for Finland in the last year. If Ring seems to struggle against Turkey, Schüller could start in the friendly and offer a viable alternative.
Other national teams linked to Minnesota will be on the pitch this weekend as well. Unfortunately, sizable local communities from Somalia and Ethiopia will not see their nations of origin in action. Neither will locals from Liberia, which comes as a particular disappointment given that Minneapolis City SC’s Martin Browne appeared to be on the verge of his international debut. Gambia will play when they travel to the Central African Republic for a friendly on Monday the 27. Already eliminated from FIFA and CAF cup qualifying, if they continue to struggle (and even if they don’t) it seems worthwhile to ask if Ismaila Jome is available for an appearance.
There will be more action for Asian-Minnesotans, as 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification kicks off for those already eliminated from the 2018 World Cup. On Tuesday, March 28, Cambodia will travel to Amman, Jordan and Vietnam will travel to Tajikistan in order to play Afghanistan. Finally, Thailand hosts Saudi Arabia Thursday, March 23 and travels to Japan on Tuesday, March 28 in a pair of do-or-die World Cup Qualifiers. The War Elephants are a long shot to make it to Russia at this point, but who doesn’t love a long shot?
In Europe, top of their group Switzerland are at home to Belarus on Saturday, and while Jérôme Thiesson has impressed in his first games for Minnesota United, it would take a plague of biblical proportions to open up a spot in the stout Swiss defense. The Scandinavian bloc that so dominates local culture will have much to follow as the Zlatan-less Swedish side hosts Belarus on Saturday. And on Sunday Norway and new coach Lars Lagerbäck (formerly of Iceland) travel to Northern Ireland, while Denmark will be away to Romania. (Minnesota United players eligible to play for these nations, including John Alvbârge, Mohammed Saeid, Vadim Demidov, and Bashkim Kadrii, appear to be outside of their nations’ international plans for the moment).
Many eyes will be on Argentina and Chile’s Thursday night match in Buenos Aires as both teams sit on the edge of World Cup qualifying berths and bring two years worth of competitive rancor into the game. However, a game with equally fraught consequences will take place on Tuesday night in the thin air of Quito, as Ecuador face Colombia. Los Amarillos are ahead of several more “prestigious” South American powerhouses, and if they continue their form against top opponents (having already beaten Uruguay and Chile at home, and Argentina on the road) they could deliver supposed “rising power” Colombia a serious setback in their quest to remain a hip pick for global glory next summer. If you want to make a night of it, you could even grab a bite at Chimborazo in Minneapolis and cheer on Ecuador with local fans.