While supporters of the U.S. Men’s National Team will be quick to turn the calendar on 2016, the new chapter that begins with Bruce Arena and the hex cycle is as exciting as ever. With the January camp roster officially announced we can focus on the names that will help this team in the important March qualifiers.
On Thursday afternoon, head coach Arena spent some time answering questions live on Facebook, and his clarity and understanding of personnel came as a calming relief for some doubters. Let’s break down some of his choices.
Right off the bat, it’s interesting that Graham Zusi is listed as a defender and Arena has a clear plan to try out the 2014 World Cup vet as a right back. Arena said, "We know that he can play in 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.” This move specifically brings back memories of Jurgen Klinsmann’s constant tinkering with players out of position. Something that perhaps gives us good reason to be skeptical.
The likely top two choices for right back remain DeAndre Yedlin and Timmy Chandler. As the USMNT continue to be haunted with problems at fullback, it is unclear who is next. It will be interesting to watch what happens with not only Zusi, but also Keegan Rosenberry, who finished second in MLS Rookie of the Year and looks to be a likely future prospect.
At left back, some may be surprised to see that DaMarcus Beasley is back in the mix. Prior to the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann asked Beasley to do the job, and although it wasn’t ideal, Beasley performed very well in Brazil. Fast forward to the hex round of qualifying for the next World Cup and the left back situation has yet to be figured out. This position continues to be a mixed bag as this camp looks to be between Beasley, Brad Evans, Greg Garza, and Taylor Kemp (a local product from Highlands Ranch who has grown up playing the position).
A familiar face and a name that is sure to stir up all sorts of feelings for Colorado Rapids’ supporters is Jermaine Jones. He will be joined in the midfield by his usual partner, Michael Bradley. Players such as Sacha Kljestan, Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe, Benny Feilhaber, and Dax McCarty will all get almost a month of camp to prove they belong with the duo. Acosta played left back under Klinsmann but Arena has his own thoughts: “In my opinion, defensive midfielder. That’s where he plays with FC Dallas, so we plan on looking at him in that position.”
Clint Dempsey continues to make progress after being sidelined indefinitely with an irregular heartbeat and the hope is that he is playing for Seattle in March and will be a possibility for the qualifying matches. His veteran leadership and experience is much needed during the hex cycle and his knack for goal has been sorely missed.
It’s an understatement to say that Benny and Jurgen never got along. Although many believe Feilhaber (at 31 years old) has skills that can benefit the squad, he fell off the map for his country despite being on the roster at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Klinsmann’s departure is set to benefit Feilhaber, and with his impressive run at Sporting Kansas City, we could very easily see him a part of the midfield during the hex campaign. While Kljestan has also recently reappeared, the squad needs more depth in the center and the Bradley/Jones combo is just not in top form as a duo. Arena knows Feilhaber and given his experience and skill set, I believe he is the one player in the entire pool who has the most to gain under the new coach.
While he continues to finalize his U.S. citizenship, the Vancouver Whitecaps winger is eligible to play for the USMNT. Manneh, 22, is a talented young player who can play anywhere across the front line. Born in Gambia, he is a player that Klinsmann also had on his radar and kept in touch with. Arena is bringing him into his first camp and my guess is he won’t miss another one for quite some time. If this quick, agile winger can mature then we could see a lethal winger duo for years to come with him and Christian Pulisic, 18.
One thing you can never have too much of is depth at defense. One thing the USMNT has struggled mightily to secure are right and left backs. Rosenberry is coming off a phenomenal rookie campaign where he played every minute of the season at right back for the Philadelphia Union. Finishing just behind Jordan Morris for MLS Rookie of the Year, this kid looks to be the real deal. With players such as Yedlin and Chandler having played the position recently, it is yet to be seen what type of system Arena will play. Rosenberry is certainly talented enough to get a serious look.
End of Camp Friendlies
In order to get a look at real gameplay, the team will play two matches at the end of camp. In years past, the matches have been hosted at the same place the camp is held—the StubHub Center in Carson, CA. This year, the first match will be at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, CA, on January 29 (vs. Serbia) and the second will be at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, TN, on February 3 (vs. Jamaica).
The second match is particularly interesting as this will be the men’s first match ever played at Finley Stadium, which has an artificial turf, something the men’s team was steadfastly against with Klinsmann at the helm. But the local community, with impressive crowds for their fourth-division FC Chattanooga, has emerged as an amateur soccer hotbed and will want to prove they belong. Of the thriving soccer market, Arena said, “From what we have seen, everything that’s happened in Chattanooga is remarkable.”
Given the low attendance numbers at recent USMNT friendlies, this seems like a creative idea from the crew at U.S. Soccer to mix it up and reward a community that will likely fill the stands. For the good part of at least a decade now, the federation has tried to embrace the entire country by expanding their footprint to play matches across the nation.
"It's important that fans across the country have an opportunity to see the national team, and we are always looking for places that have shown great support for the sport," said Arena.
What do you think of the roster and the outlook for the team in 2017 under Bruce Arena?