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January camp is no cupcake for U.S. hopefuls eyeing Arena's favor

The January camp offers a glimpse into Bruce Arena's edition of tinkering with the U.S. and which players could make an impact for meaningful games down the line.

Bruce Arena’s early list of potential January camp invitees, which was at the ready in November when he signed on to replace Jurgen Klinsmann as coach of the U.S. national team, already represents a small piece of American soccer lore. A jumpstart, or even a new direction, was needed following a miserable 0-2-0 start to the Hexagonal and Arena, who coached the U.S. from 1998 through the 2006 World Cup, had been fashioning his blueprint and was ready to get to work.

On Thursday afternoon, Arena unveiled plans for the initial phase, a three-week camp in Southern California that kicks off Jan. 10 at StubHub Center and includes friendlies against Serbia on on Jan. 29 in San Diego and Jamaica on Feb. 3 in Chattanooga, Tennessee

His 32-man roster is somewhat typical for a January camp. It’s MLS-heavy (actually this time, it’s all MLS) because players based in Europe are in the middle of their seasons and because the 2017 Liga MX campaign kicks off Friday, less than two weeks after Tigres UANL won the 2016 Apertura championship. The squad comprises uncapped players searching for a senior international debut, established cogs who will get a head start on the 2017 season and veterans hoping to prove they’re still national team worthy. That’s par for the course.

But this roster also provides a few clues about Arena’s plans and approach for 2017, a year whose importance has been magnified by the recent qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Here’s a look at the team, plus three thoughts on the upcoming camp and Arena’s effort to get the U.S. to Russia next year.

This January camp matters

It’s been derisively labeled “Camp Cupcake” and typically ends with friendlies against foreign B-teams that barely register. January camp is just about the least prestigious thing U.S. Soccer does and it’s often easy to overlook. But facts are facts—a handful of key contributors owe their U.S. careers to good January camp showings. The 2014 World Cup team benefited greatly from Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi and DeAndre Yedlin. The national team has been stagnant and there’s almost no margin for error heading into the March qualifiers. So Arena could do with one or two similar emergences this month.

There are seven uncapped players on the roster—that’s a healthy 21%—including two, Seattle MLS Cup hero Stefan Frei and Vancouver Whitecaps speedster Kekuta Manneh, who still aren’t eligible to represent the U.S. Philadelphia Union right back Keegan Rosenberry seems ready for a look after a fantastic rookie season, and LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget is familiar with Arena and offers an intriguing combination of technique and grit. The openings are there.

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More importantly, this camp represents long-awaited second chances for players who were dismissed or overlooked during Klinsmann’s five-year reign. Had Klinsmann served out the remainder of his contract, we likely never would have seen Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius or Chad Marshall wear a U.S. shirt again, although all four have excelled for their clubs. McCarty and Marshall have been capped but never played for Klinsmann. Coaches have their opinions. Thanks to the regime change, those players will have another chance. But considering their ages, they may get only one. They’ll have three weeks to demonstrate they can return to international play and make a difference.

There are core players, of course, and those in Europe who will be counted on. But the face and makeup of the U.S. could change at a few key spots depending on what happens over the next month.

All coaches experiment

They all tinker. Klinsmann did it more than most, and it proved to be a significant part of his undoing. He couldn’t establish consistency or chemistry and it showed as the U.S. fell to Mexico and Costa Rica. But Arena also has been known to try things—his 3-5-2 at the 2002 World Cup a notable example—and there are a few eye-openers on Thursday’s list that suggest he’s going to continue that coaching tradition. Arena isn’t Klinsmann, but he’s also not going to be bound by public opinion.

DaMarcus Beasley is back for the first time since October 2015. He’s 34 and out of contract. Perhaps Arena has brought in the veteran to keep him sharp while he waits to sign, but it also signals that the competition at outside back is wide open. The presence of Rosenberry and Taylor Kemp, Greg Garza’s return and Arena’s comments Thursday regarding his interest in deploying Zusi at right back confirm it. Yedlin and Fabian Johnson, who remain with their clubs in Europe, were the incumbents under Klinsmann.

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Feilhaber’s introduction suggests that Arena is willing to look at a wholesale shakeup in midfield—the Sporting Kansas City playmaker’s presence would impact Michael Bradley’s role, Jermaine Jones’ and/or Sacha Kljestan’s inclusion and perhaps the responsibilities that fall to Christian Pulisic. Manneh also adds a different element, and Arena said he also wanted to see Kellyn Acosta play in his natural defensive midfield position, rather than in back where Klinsmann preferred.

This is what January camp is for, in part, so none of it comes as a surprise. It is intriguing, however, to get some insight into how Arena’s tinkering will differ from Klinsmann’s.

In the end, all eyes are on March’s qualifiers

It’s vital to note, however, that the aforementioned represents tinkering and not an overhaul. Even if the thought is one was necessary, there isn’t time. The winless U.S. faces Honduras and Panama at the end of March and securing six points, or at least four, is vital. And apart from the four days ahead of the Honduras qualifier in San Jose, this month will be Arena’s only opportunity to have a chunk of his team together.

“This is going to be a critical time for us," Arena said Thursday. "It's important that we come in and quickly establish an understanding of what we are about and how we go about building our team. As for the players, we are coming into this with an open mind, so it's a huge opportunity for them." 

Nine invitees have been on a World Cup roster and 16 have qualifying experience. Many of those getting a second chance or being looked at in new roles have that pedigree. Arena wants to establish chemistry quickly, and relying on veterans is the best way to do that. The younger players are intriguing and will have their chance, but their success this month isn’t vital.

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MLS Cup finalists Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jordan Morris, Brad Evans will be in California despite long MLS seasons that ended last month. Vacation isn’t a luxury. Veterans who some fans figured would be on their way out like Nick Rimando, Chris Wondolowski and Juan Agudelo, are being given yet another chance. The first two, especially, offer leadership and experience. And although he’s not in camp, Clint Dempsey wasn’t ruled out for March as Arena unveiled his team. An eye will be kept on the veteran finisher, who’s been out since late August, with a heart ailment.

“We’ve been following Clint and communicating with Seattle and Clint’s making great progress. He’s going through his progressions in Seattle, and at this time he’s not fully ready to come into our camp,” Arena said Thursday. “We really believe by March he’ll be ready to play in Seattle and be a possibility for our qualifiers in March.”

The U.S. is famously patient with coaches. A new manager taking over only 18 months out from a World Cup is far from typical. And that means a different sort of January camp, one during which new faces and new tactics will be tested—as usual—while the pressure ramps up among the core for truly critical games right around the corner.

Full U.S. roster:

GOALKEEPERS: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)

DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (unattached), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Greg Garza (Atlanta United), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Taylor Kemp (D.C. United), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders), Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (unattached), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Kekuta Manneh (Vancouver Whitecaps), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)

FORWARDS: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)