The shambolic performances against Costa Rica and Honduras proved that the United States still needs a playmaker. At the very least, Bruce Arena needs to always actually play Christian Pulisic as a playmaker.
To be clear, Arena definitely fielded players that should have been able to keep possession and slice up Costa Rica and Honduras. The players definitely deserve the bulk of the blame.
Arena and the United States had a formula that worked. That formula was Michael Bradley as the lone defensive midfielder behind three attacking midfielders and two forwards. The U.S. players should have been able to adapt to the 4-4-2 formation and still possess the ball well, but they didn’t.
Against Costa Rica and Honduras, U.S. coach Arena went with the empty bucket formation, and the team’s passing suffered. In both games, Pulisic was playing wide without Mario Götze there to be the playmaker like at Borussia Dortmund.
Christian Pulisic Has Impressed as a Playmaker
Pulisic has been impressive in the past as a playmaker for the U.S. It’s hard to remember another American player besides Benny Feilhaber who showed real artistry and boldness in his final balls.
Probably the biggest evidence of Pulisic’s playmaking abilities for the U.S. was how in the past he knew exactly how to feed Clint Dempsey and executed it. Pulisic saw and executed passes to Dempsey a second or so faster than other American players were able to do. Pulisic has quickly chipped the defense to find Dempsey, and he has hit him on the break in stride.
Darlington Nagbe at Playmaker Hasn’t Worked
Arena has tried to force Darlington Nagbe into something of a playmaker role, but it doesn’t work. Nagbe doesn’t have many playmaking qualities. That’s not to say that Nagbe can’t pass. It’s simply saying that Nagbe doesn’t play the balls that Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Sebastian Lletget, or Kelyn Rowe play.
Nagbe doesn’t dictate that the team play through him by presenting himself as a return passing option once he releases the ball. The Portland Timbers midfielder also doesn’t play the type of incisive passes needed to slice up an opponent.
Nagbe mostly makes dribbling forays, and he’s good for a spectacular goal every once in a while. Nevertheless, looking to orchestrate the team’s passing more is likely in his wheelhouse.
The United States Has Other Playmaker Options like Lee Nguyen
After seeing the United States’ inability to pass against both Costa Rica and Honduras, Arena would be wise to recall Lee Nguyen, who is a gifted playmaker who also has quickness and 1v1 skills. Nguyen also knows how to score. Nguyen can’t be accused of not having the pace or intensity needed for international play.
Even when Pulisic plays wing he will have plenty of freedom to cut inside and play centrally. Calling up Nguyen gives the United States both a backup playmaker and a playmaker to start if Pulisic plays wide.