After three weeks, the optimism that was so prevalent back when the U.S. national team opened its January camp doesn’t appear to have waned. Bruce Arena, a new (and former) coach with a proven track record and collaborative approach, has set the tone. In addition, veterans with a refreshed outlook and newcomers who are relieved and excited by their chance to impress have infused this annual January gathering with a welcome spirit. And that spirit generates energy.
“Bruce has come in and it’s been a breath of fresh air in there,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said this week. “The vibes are loose. The atmosphere is a little bit more looser in terms of everybody is a little bit more free to express themselves, and I think that’s worked out well. In training, you definitely see guys competing hard.”
Captain Michael Bradley told reporters that Arena, who he’s known since he was a child, has brought a contagious zeal.
“You can see how excited he is,” Bradley said. “At times on the outside, Bruce isn't one to give much away. But he's excited. He’s motivated. There’s energy. There’s a real enthusiasm to the way he pushes the group everyday, and I think that part of it has been great.”
Now it’s time to funnel that enthusiasm toward a tangible goal. The circumstances that led to Jurgen Klinsmann’s dismissal and Arena’s arrival have remained in the ever-present background. The USA is at the bottom of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings at 0-2-0 and simply put, it must secure at least four points in the March matches against Honduras and Panama to avoid a crisis. This camp represents the only extended time Arena will have with any of his players before those qualifiers. And Sunday’s friendly against Serbia in San Diego and then the February 3rd meeting with Jamaica are the only times he’ll get to see them in action.
“There's a real sense of urgency, a real sense that now we've let some things slip and as a result have been punished and find ourselves in a situation in World Cup qualifying where we have little to no margin for error,” Bradley said, according to FourFourTwo. “And I think Bruce has come in and has done a very, very good job of setting the right tone.”
The roster has evolved this month as injured players have stepped away and replacements were called in. Arena’s intention was to cut the squad to the 23 men who will be available for the upcoming friendlies. He said his campers had done their part, “making the task of trimming this roster basically impossible.” But the players he takes to San Diego will make up only a portion of the team that tries to re-invigorate the country’s World Cup prospects—those based in Europe and Mexico remain with their clubs this month. So Arena must work out who from the current camp is ready to contribute and how those players will mesh with the ones coming in from abroad.
“At the end of the day, we’ve go to compile all this stuff after the camp and start looking at our pool of players that are in Europe as well as Mexico to try to see what makes sense for the games in March. It’s not going to be an easy exercise,” Arena said. “The part that’s confusing is the players that are abroad now and try to an analyze them and see how they’ll fit in with this group and can they do the things we’re asking our group to do.”
The process started with Friday’s unveiling of the 23-man friendly roster.
“It’s important that I think we we get off to a good start, that we play well, that we respond well to the things we’ve been working on in camp,” Arena said of Sunday’s match against Serbia. “And If we can accomplish that and win the game, it’ll be a great day.”
Here’s a look at the squad:
David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)
Assuming Tim Howard is ready to go after recovering from the groin injury he suffered in the November qualifier against Mexico—he said this month that is “progress is good”—he’ll be the heavy favorite to start. With Brad Guzan on the bench at Middlesbrough, the race to be Howard’s back-up appears to be among the three goalies listed here. Rimando is the most experienced international with 21 caps.
The Galaxy's Brian Rowe was cut.
DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Greg Garza (Atlanta United), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
There’s plenty of intrigue here, especially because players who represent the closest thing the USA has to an established starting back four are all in Europe (Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin).
Arena praised FCD’s Zimmerman this week, but a player with his lack of international experience is more likely in frame for this summer’s Gold Cup. Birnbaum and perhaps Marshall are more likely to push for a spot on the qualifying roster. The most interesting project has been Zusi’s withdrawal to right back. He may not have the speed of others in the pool, but his work-rate, vision and crisp, accurate delivery make him a possible option. He also has World Cup experience. If Zusi gets the chance, it’ll be worth paying attention to his performance against Serbia and Jamaica.
Outside backs Taylor Kemp of D.C. United and Keegan Rosenberry of the Philadelphia Union will return to their clubs.
Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union)
Bradley and Jones remain the linchpins.
“I think some of the veteran guys continue to demonstrate why they’ve been leader with the team,” Arena said. “I would say Bradley, [Jozy] Altidore, Jones—they’re really impressive individuals on a daily basis and they bring a lot of character and experience to the team.”
How Arena fits those two in with playmakers like Kljestan or Feilhaber will be critical. Klinsmann never settled on a formula.
The revelation this month according to several accounts has been Lletget, the energetic Galaxy midfielder who has nine goals and 10 assists in two MLS seasons. Lletget offers a combination of strength and technique that had many calling for his inclusion under Klinsmann, but it took his club coach’s appointment to open the door. And his new U.S. teammates approve.
“I’ve been a big fan of Sebastian Lletget,” Altidore said when asked who’d impressed him at camp. “I think he’s a player that in terms of the new faces that’s come in and done really well—good tidy player and I think he’s made a really good impression on a lot of the guys.”
Said Bedoya, “I’ve definitely been impressed by Sebastian’s style, the way he’s so balanced, strong on the ball and has really good feet. So I’ve enjoyed playing with him.”
Apart from Christian Pulisic, most of what should be Arena’s midfield in March will be at his disposal in the upcoming friendlies. We may learn a thing or two about the manager’s intentions. The permutations are plentiful.
Columbus Crew SC’s Wil Trapp was released.
Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
The Serbia game is a big one for Altidore. The reigning U.S. Soccer player of the year had a fantastic fall and is as healthy and in form as he’s been for some time. He’ll have a massive role to play in March. But as much as Sunday is a spark, it’s also a milestone. Altidore, 27, is expected to become the 17th man to earn 100 U.S. caps.
“Any time you can fulfill a childhood dream, it means a lot to me. I’m incredibly proud and incredibly honored to have gotten his many opportunities for the national team and to join some incredible company means a lot to me,” he said.
His potential partnership with Morris, who had a stellar rookie year with the MLS champion Sounders, also may mean a lot. Altidore and Bobby Wood certainly meshed well at times, but Morris’s trajectory suggests he’ll be challenging for a starting spot soon. The Serbia and Jamaica games represent chances to stake a claim.
Gyasi Zardes, who had a strong camp and who will play a significant role for the U.S. in 2017, according to Arena, was left off the team because of a knee contusion. Veteran Chris Wondolowski was returned to the San Jose Earthquakes.