Arena adopts a bunker mentality
U.S. coach will prepare roster for World Cup qualifiers without an extended camp
In his new role as U.S. men’s national team coach, Bruce Arena has six weeks to build the squad and formulate strategy for a pair of World Cup qualifiers. But because he will not be able to assemble his players until four days before the first match, Arena and his staff will have to lay the groundwork from a bunker at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
The aim is to ensure that all 25 or so invitees understand their roles and responsibilities when they report to training camp in the Bay Area ahead of the March 24 encounter against Honduras at Avaya Stadium.
The recent winter gathering helped identify MLS candidates (plus one Mexico-based call-up) and forge bonds between Arena and the players. All of the players rejoined their clubs this week, and with no FIFA windows until the March qualifiers, the U.S. staff will have to create a team without the benefit of an extended training camp.
Arena said during a media teleconference Thursday that he will “make sure the players understand what we are trying to do before they even get here.”
To accomplish that, he and his assistants will travel extensively, here and abroad, in the coming weeks to watch club performances and meet with players individually.
Arena already has visited Germanbased players this winter and will head back to Europe soon. He specified Germany, England and Mexico, as well as U.S. and Canadian destinations as the MLS season commences March 3-5.
There has been regular communication via email and phone with almost everyone in the pool of March candidates, Arena said. “That’s a starting point,” he added. “We’re going to be visiting players everywhere over the next three weeks.”
Aside from observing regulars stationed in Europe, such as Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic and John Brooks, Arena said they “are going to look at some players who have been a little bit outside the pool as of late.”
He cited Nottingham Forest outside back Eric Lichaj and Tijuana attacker Paul Arriola as players who will receive strong consideration.
For the most part, though, the majority of the squad for the March matches is set. Arena has said several times that, with no room for error and no time to experiment, he will rely largely on the group that worked under Jurgen Klinsmann for the past year.
Arena said he was happy with the nearly month-long camp that ended Feb. 3 with a 1-0 victory over Jamaica in a friendly in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“I was really pleased with the reaction of the players. It was critically important that we got to know these players a little bit better and understood their qualities a little bit better as we prepare for a roster in March,” he said. “. . . Now the goal is to merge our players abroad with our domestic players and come up with the best roster. We’re working with a pool of approximately 40 players. We need to break it down to around 25.”
Asked whether players abroad who are deep into their club campaigns have an advantage over MLS players who have yet to start their seasons, Arena said: “We’re going to follow every player in Europe, Mexico, the United States and Canada and decide who are the best group of players to get some results. It doesn’t matter where they come from. We have players in Europe who aren’t playing. We have players in Europe playing a lot.”
Before the winter camp, Arena stressed the importance of identifying better passers and attackers who can provide the right ball in the final third. Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber performed well in the playmaking slot during the friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica, respectively. Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Lletget showed promise on the left wing, though Lletget is most comfortable in deep central midfield.
“Those players are all options,” Arena said. “For the most part, they showed enough that we have to give them strong consideration.”
With Kljestan or Feilhaber in attacking central midfield, captain Michael Bradley would fill the primary defensive midfield role. Jermaine Jones is suspended for the Honduras game but will return for the Panama visit March 28, when he could once again partner with Bradley. Pulisic and Johnson are the top candidates for the wide midfield positions — if Arena feels confident enough to use Jorge Villafaña at left back, which would allow Johnson to play in an advanced role. On other subjects, Arena said:
Defender Geoff Cameron, sidelined since October with a knee injury, is “making progress and will be back at full training shortly” with Stoke City. Last week, Arena said he would not consider Cameron for the March matches unless he has played in multiple Premier League matches.
Arena has no problem starting Brad Guzan, even though the veteran goalkeeper has made just five appearances across all competitions this season for Middlesbrough. “Because [goalkeepers] are not getting games on a consistent basis doesn’t mean you can rule them out,” Arena said.
Tim Howard is close to completing his recovery from groin surgery, and should he return to active duty with the Colorado Rapids for the start of the MLS season, he will re-enter the U.S. conversation.
Bruce Arena, above, said he will “make sure the players understand what we are trying to do before they even get here.”