Featured, January 2017, USMNT

Home-Grown: Arena 2.0 Begins With Domestic Players Getting Chance

Jurgen Klinsmann’s departure helps see Kansas City star Benny Feilhaber return to the USMNT.

Neil W. Blackmon

Bruce Arena’s second stint as US Men’s National Team manager will officially open with a difficult friendly against Serbia in San Diego on January 29, 2017. It began for preparation purposes yesterday afternoon, when Arena named 32 players to his first camp (back) in charge. Players will report to the National Training Center in Carson, California on January 10th. The entirety of the roster for the camp comes from Major League Soccer, 32 players spread across fifteen clubs. The group includes nine World Cup veterans and eight MLS All-Star selections.

Following the Serbia match, the US will conclude the camp by traveling to Tennessee, where it will play CONCACAF rival Jamaica on astroturf at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga. Because the fixtures fall outside a FIFA-recognized international window, Jamaica, who were extremely successful against the United States in the Jurgen Klinsmann era despite failing to qualify for the final round Hex, should bring a regional roster of their own.

Bruce Arena is not treating this camp like the experimental sessions of so many Januarys past. His comments to US Soccer yesterday were instructive.

“With games at the end of the month and the World Cup Qualifiers in March, this is going to be a critical time for us,” Arena said. “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.”

Below is the US roster, with quick analysis on the team after the break.

GOALKEEPERS (5): David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders FC), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)

DEFENDERS (10): DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached),Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Taylor Kemp (D.C. United), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders FC), Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

MIDFIELDERS (12): 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 FC), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)

FORWARDS (5): Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

Matt Hedges (24) during a match against Vancouver FC at Toyota Stadium.Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis

A handful of items stand out. 

First, with Klinsmann fired, Matt Hedges has returned from the wilderness.

No word yet on whether he’s grown a lengthy beard or been tempted three times by Satan. 

While there are several players back from confirmed (Benny Feilhaber, Darlington Nagbe) or suspected (Dax McCarty, Chad Marshall, Chris Pontius) Klinsmann exile, Hedges is easily the most interesting. Hedges, the reigning MLS defender of the year, was integral to Dallas’s run to a double last year and has long been a player American fans and writers alike felt was treated oddly by Jurgen Klinsmann. His only appearance under the German-American came in a 20 minute cameo against Panama two years ago. 

Hedges may or may not be an international caliber CB. But the thinking here is that his understanding of space, his talent in the air and his ability to defend through strong positioning are all tools he can utilize to succeed on the international level.

Further, there’s little debate that a defender in the type of club form Hedges has been in can add needed depth to the CB position. Geoff Cameron has missed time with Stoke City throughout the autumn and winter with a lingering knee injury, and his status for the crucial March qualifiers is far from certain. Meanwhile, John Brooks is using the Bundesliga winter break to heal himself, having been held out of Hertha Berlin’s final match before the Christmas rest. Matt Besler had ankle surgery last month. In short, the US are searching for answers along the backline and the reigning MLS defender of the year seems an obvious solution. 

CONCACAF qualification is a grind even when a side isn’t sitting on 0 points and a negative five goal differential through two games. Why not add a player brimming with confidence that has had an extended and consistent run of quality?

DaMarcus Beasley brings leadership and experience- but also shows that the fullback spot is wide open.

Second, more defense.

The inclusion of DaMarcus Beasley, still without a club, and the decision to evaluate Graham Zusi at fullback, suggest Bruce Arena is searching for defensive answers beyond the center of the defense. Zusi has featured primarily as a winger for the US Men’s National Team and Sporting Kansas City, but did play for Peter Vermes’s club as a right back a bit last year, and was good enough when doing so to earn a place on the US Men’s National Team. 

Looks at players like Zusi at right back make sense when you bled six goals in your first two World Cup qualifiers, and Arena made little secret he was searching for defensive answers in the question and answer session. 

“Defensively, we can play a lot better than we have shown,” Arena said. The need to play better is why he’ll look at a player like Zusi in defense. Zusi has long been praised for a steady work rate and defensive quality, both in his willingness to track back and his positional defense. Arena praised his versatility yesterday.

“Graham’s a very talented player,” Arena said. He’s demonstrated versatility with Sporting Kansas City and we know he can play at the right back position. We have a talented group in the midfield and think that Graham can still help our team as a right back. We’re going to give it a shot in January.”

Also earning a shot at fullback will be standout Philadelphia Union Keegan Rosenberry, Seattle defender and longtime US vet, Brad Evans, recent Atlanta United signing Greg Garza, DC United’s Taylor Kemp and DaMarcus Beasley, who of course adds leadership and has the trust of any reasonable coach involved in the US Soccer Federation. That deep in his thirties Beasley is still considered one of the best US options at the position might traditionally be reason for pause, but at a domestic-only camp, probably a bit of a hot take.

Arena also noted that while the US have utilized Fabian Johnson as a left back over the past several years, and that continues to be an option, the left back competition is wide open and Beasley is still in Arena’s plans.

“I think that’s a real competitive position, and a position we need some answers for. That’s why we’ve invited DaMarcus Beasley, Taylor Kemp and Greg Garza.”

Also notably absent from the fullback conversation? Kellyn Acosta, the talismanic FC Dallas midfielder Jurgen Klinsmann had continually deployed at fullback. The US roster isn’t long on box to box midfielders that can run all day and deliver an incisive ball from the scrum or in space. Acosta offers that skillset, for the most part, and it is clear from these selections Bruce Arena will play him in position, where as a MLS manager in the same conference he has firsthand observations regarding Acosta’s skillset and influence. 

Third, the US midfield competition is a live wire. 

Remember this Bruce Arena statement in late November:

“We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field who can deliver the right ball at the right time,” Arena told reporters in November. “Who that is remains to be seen. There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that who we’ll look at in camp in January, and that to me is an area we’ve got to identify.

Arena meant it.

The inclusion of both Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan, a player that Bruce Arena desperately wanted as LA Galaxy manager, safely suggest Bruce Arena believes the Americans have playmaking answers centrally, even if neither player- particularly, Kljestan- is a classic number ten. Darlington Nagbe is back in the team as well after an acrimonious breakup with Klinsmann and the US staff  late last year, but the thinking here is that he’ll play wide, with an extended look given to Kljestan or Feilhaber centrally. 

Michael Bradley is in the camp and there was nothing in Bruce Arena’s comments yesterday to suggest the Toronto captain will be losing his place. Jermaine Jones is here too, and Arena emphasized Jones’s importance to the media in November, which it seems unlikely he would not have done if he didn’t intend to give Jones a meaningful opportunity to remain a core component of the US team moving forward. But what’s evident is that Arena will open things up in the center of the park, and search for the best combination to help the US improve what of late has been dire chance creation. 

It also appears that the American manager is going to give extended thought to who is best suited at the six. Michael Bradley has proven suitable for that role at the club level in Italy and internationally. But if Arena opts to deploy Bradley higher, he’ll have options, including the aforementioned Kellyn Acosta and New York Red Bulls star Dax McCarty, a player many fans clamored for late in the Klinsmann era as the Americans struggled mightily to find a link between the backline and the midfield. 

For all of Klinsmann’s tinkering and pragmatism, the central pairing of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, as well as some sort of wing option of Clint Dempsey, Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya (also in this camp) and Graham Zusi meant the US complexion in the midfield changed very little throughout Klinsmann’s tenure, regardless of formation.

That stability appears to be primed for a shakeup in Arena’s first camp back in charge.

Finally, five goalkeepers? Yes, five goalkeepers.

It is really four, because MLS Cup hero Stefan Frei– and you’re damn right we’re embedding that save again– still isn’t eligible to represent the US, but because he is in the process of becoming eligible, can participate in camp training. 

 

The other four: Bingham, Hamid, Rimando and Luis Robles, are all in the camp to emphasize the openness of the American goalkeeping competition.

Certainly Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t shy away from bringing in different goalkeepers. But he continued to rely on the aging Tim Howard and the sometimes-out-of-favor with club Brad Guzan in critical matches, willfully refusing to integrate a newer, younger keeper into the team in any meaningful capacity. Some will argue this is because none of the other options had usurped Howard or Guzan in skill or done anything in particular to signal they were ready for the “moment.” 

There’s merit to that, but it is also difficult to make your mark when you aren’t given significant opportunity, and while Tim Howard and Brad Guzan may have enough left in the tank to capably represent the US on the road to Russia, the reality is the American goalkeeping position is in crisis after that, and the quicker a manager begins probing for long-term answers, the better. 

Both David Bingham and Bill Hamid, in particular, are under 30, and while Hamid’s performances in DC United get much of the media love, Bingham has been steady and at times spectacular for San Jose for a couple of seasons, which makes it odd that so many have suggested he isn’t a long-term solution for the Americans. At 27, he’s still a toddler in goalkeeping age- and he possesses the quality great keepers must possess: consistency. Full credit to Bruce Arena for providing him the chance to prove he’s best. 

The comments, as ever, are yours.

Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon