CARSON, Calif. — Dax McCarty was growing accustomed to taking most of January off. This month comprises the heart of the MLS off-season, and the veteran midfielder hadn’t played a part in the U.S. national team’s winter camp in three years. And he hadn’t been capped in six. So McCarty scheduled his wedding. It’s this Saturday.
Chris Pontius had planned a trip to Costa Rica. The 29-year-old attacker was thrilled to have completed a productive, injury-free season with the Philadelphia Union and expected a relaxing vacation before reporting to preseason camp. It didn’t turn out that way.
“Our training staff in Philly, we looked at the hotels I was staying at,” Pontius said. “‘O.K., this one didn’t have a gym, so you go on longer runs that day. Figure out body exercises. The next hotel has a gym, so here’s your weight exercises for those days. And you’re still running.’ My girlfriend was a real trooper about that.”
Pontius had to maintain his fitness while away because for the first time since the summer of 2011, he had been called up by the U.S. He’d enjoyed a strong 2012 with D.C. United (a year after breaking his leg) then missed a chunk of 2013 and nearly all of 2014 with hamstring issues. He’d been an All-Star and a member of the league’s Best XI. But by the time he was traded to the Union, the national team was far from his imagination. He was hoping simply to continue his career.
“I didn’t think my body would recover at a high enough level for me to play here,” he told SI.com at U.S. camp on Thursday morning.
The first two days of this January’s U.S. camp have been an ideal combination of casual and competitive. That’s largely the result of a regime change—the departure of Jurgen Klinsmann and the arrival of Bruce Arena, who, like any manager, will have personal opinions and preferences regarding certain players. Standing alongside the artificial turf practice field just west of the StubHub Center stadium, you could contemplate retirement if you had a nickel for every time a player used the words “clean slate,” “breath of fresh air,” “excitement” or “energy.”
For most U.S. players, Arena’s arrival represents a chance to regroup and rediscover a collective identity ahead of two critical World Cup qualifiers in March. For McCarty, Pontius and new/old U.S. teammates Benny Feilhaber and Chad Marshall, and perhaps one or two others, it means a whole lot more—the chance to restart a national team career they thought was dead.
“I had figured that ship had kind of sunk,” said Marshall, 32, who won his second league championship last month with the Seattle Sounders.
“I think Bruce is looking at everybody and taking into consideration what guys have done for the national team and their club teams for the last four or five years, but also what they did before that,” said Feilhaber, who was outstanding at the 2010 World Cup but fell out of favor with Klinsmann. “It’s a new life, man! Reborn!”
Among the four, Feilhaber, 31, was Klinsmann’s most controversial omission. He plays a position of need as a creative attacking center midfielder, and he plays it well. Few have questioned his talent over the years, but consistency and commitment had been an issue at times. Then he joined Sporting Kansas City and found his form under the demanding Peter Vermes. Feilhaber helped the club to the 2013 MLS Cup title and put together a Best XI campaign in 2015. But a poor U.S. camp in January 2014 was his undoing, at least in Klinsmann’s eyes. Feilhaber was done, and there was no club exploit that would change the manager’s mind. Feilhaber poked and prodded with a couple public comments, then went all in while meeting with reporters a year ago.
“I don’t think that Jurgen calls in the best players that are available to him. That for me is a problem,” he said. “That is my biggest problem with how Jurgen selects his players. It’s not based on on-field performance. I don’t know what it’s based on, but it’s not based on on-field performance.”
Feilhaber didn’t just burn the bridge. He nuked it.
“I don’t think there was a bridge there anymore,” he told SI.com following Thursday’s practice. “I’d kind of closed that chapter. Unfortunately, it was closed for me, and I was willing to be honest where it’s difficult for some players to be brutally honest for that exact reason. You don’t want to jeopardize your career. Now it’s a fresh start for everyone.”
Arena confirmed that Wednesday, saying, “As far as I’m concerned, I have an open mind about how we’re going to look at this group and the other players in our pool as well.”
Regarding Feilhaber, Arena said, “I think he’s just a very good player and to be honest, I haven’t checked his history with the national team after 2010.”
While Feilhaber established himself as one of the country’s top midfielders, McCarty was doing the same as the captain anchor for two Supporters’ Shield-winning sides in New York. There’s more U.S. congestion at that spot than others, but even as McCarty put together a Best XI season in 2015, he couldn’t crack Klinsmann’s depth chart. His Red Bulls teammate, Sacha Kljestan, finally returned to the fold in September. But still, McCarty waited.
“When Jurgen lost his job and when Bruce got hired, I think a lot of players probably had a renewed sense of hope and optimism they’d get a chance for the national team, and I was one of those guys,” McCarty told FourFourTwo. “Bruce is the type of guy [that] if you’re playing the best soccer in camp, he’ll give you a chance. For players’ confidence and mind-set that’s the best thing a coach can do.”
Feilhaber summed up that sentiment more succinctly with this tweet the day Klinsmann was dismissed:
Marshall, meanwhile, had next to no opinion of Klinsmann. Despite making the provisional 2010 World Cup roster, he didn’t speak to the coach once during his five-year reign. Marshall missed some time in 2012 with concussion problems but otherwise was almost ever-present for the Columbus Crew through ’13 and then with Seattle from 2014 to last month’s MLS Cup final, where he helped shut out high-powered Toronto FC. Even as the U.S. struggled with center back issues in 2015, the year after he won his third MLS Defender of the Year award, Marshall never got a look.
“It was disappointing,” Marshall told SI.com. “I wanted to be part of the team. I kind of had to tell myself that it’s one person’s opinion—obviously it’s an important opinion—but yeah, I’ll look back and wish I had a bigger role.”
Now, alongside the veteran core and the uncapped players hoping to launch a national team career, Feilhaber, McCarty, Marshall and Pontius have another, unexpected shot (McCarty will commence training on Monday). They’re joined in Carson by FC Dallas center back Matt Hedges, a two-time Best XI honoree and 2016 MLS Defender of the Year, who’s been capped just once. Portland Timbers playmaker Darlington Nagbe, who may have been in Klinsmann’s doghouse after declining a U.S. invitation in October, is one who likely appreciates a clean slate. Sebastian Lletget may have wondered if he’d ever get a chance. Perhaps Greg Garza feared his long-term hip injury ruined his.
Every player has something to prove, of course, and every coach has players he trusts and others for whom he simply doesn’t have room. There’s nothing scandalous about a long international absence. But there is something compelling about the ones that have just ended for Feilhaber, McCarty, Marshall and Pontius. Each put disappointment behind him and excelled for his club, and now fate has handed each another chance. If they seize it, they’re more than capable of helping the U.S. reverse its qualifying fortunes or make a run at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. If they don’t, at least they won’t be able to say they didn’t get their shot.
“There’s spots for grabs. You can see it. Everyone’s flying around here trying to earn a spot,” Pontius said.
“I’m just trying to enjoy it,” Marshall said. “It’s been so long. I’m just going day to day, just seeing how it is. I’m not putting too much pressure on the situation. I want to play well and show my best … I’m just enjoying it and hopefully something good comes out of it.”
For Feilhaber, who agitated for this opportunity, the pressure is higher.
“I’m not contemplating the past because I think I’ve done that enough,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m playing with house money and I’m not thinking about my legacy, that’s for sure. I would say it’s like a crossroads. I want this really bad. There’s no doubt about it.
“I loved my time with the national team when I was playing consistently with Bob [Bradley] and if I were to let this opportunity go without really giving my full effort, I would regret it for a long time. It’s a crossroads for me and I don’t feel like I’m just happy to be here … I think everybody’s excited. I know I am. And I want to make an impression.”