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United States

After turmoil, Arena and the U.S. must revive World Cup qualifying campaign

The United States men's national team resumes World Cup qualifying this week with a home fixture vs. Honduras. Four days later, it visits Panama. From both games, points are desperately needed.

Since November, when the U.S. dropped its first two games in the final "Hexagonal" round of qualifying, it has had no choice but to look at the standings and accept the reality of the situation, which is that it currently languishes in last place and has a group-worst goal difference of minus-5.

But there has been more to the Americans' plight than just wins and losses: The past four months have also seen plenty of off-field turmoil. Here's a quick rundown of what has transpired.

Nov. 11: U.S. loses 2-1 vs. Mexico

Crew Stadium had historically been a fortress against El Tri -- the home side had recorded four straight 2-0 wins there -- but that streak, among others, ended on a chilly night. After Jurgen Klinsmann opted to play a three-man back line, the U.S. made a rough start and fell behind to a Miguel Layun goal. Bobby Wood equalized early in the second half, but Rafa Marquez's late tally gave the visitors a first away win over the U.S in World Cup qualifying since 1972.

Not for the first time, Klinsmann blamed his players for the defeat. He identified Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones as the reasons why the formation didn't work and singled out John Brooks as the player who should have been marking Marquez. The fallout saw a mentally-wounded team head to Costa Rica.

Nov. 15: U.S. loses 4-0 in Costa Rica

There have been some brutal results in Costa Rica over the years, but this was the worst. A toothless, uninspired team fell 4-0 and generated just one shot on target. Johan Venegas' opening goal, just before halftime, was a psychological blow from which Klinsmann's side never recovered; second-half tallies from Cristian Bolanos and a Joel Campbell double made a bad night progressively worse.

What was arguably more damning, though, was an apparent lack of the commitment level that had long been the team's hallmark. Not even the normally upbeat Klinsmann could find any positives. The only question was whether it would be enough to cost him his job. As it turned out, we only had to wait six days to find out.

Nov. 21: Klinsmann is fired

Sunil Gulati cut loose the man he spent the better part of five years chasing before finally hiring Klinsmann in 2011. The U.S. Soccer Federation president had stated before the Mexico match that he fully expected the German to be in charge through 2018, but those two defeats, which followed other missteps like losing to Jamaica in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals, proved to be Klinsmann's undoing.

"It's never based on a single game," Gulati said. "But you weigh up individual games. In this case, those two games, combined with everything else we had, and we felt that we needed to go in a different direction in order to maximize the chances for success on the field, both in March in qualifying, at the [2017] Gold Cup, and then subsequently at the World Cup itself."

Nov. 22: Arena returns

With Klinsmann out, there was really only one choice to be his replacement. Bruce Arena had coached the U.S. from 1998 to 2006, in which time he oversaw a run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, its best finish in the modern era. His recent spell as manager and GM of the LA Galaxy had brought three MLS Cups in four seasons and provided him with a deep well of knowledge in terms of the domestic player pool.

"What I really know is how to build a team," Arena said upon his hiring. "I understand all the qualities and circumstances that develop into making a team. Again, I'm hopeful those qualities will allow me to get this team moving at full speed when qualifying starts in March."

Jan. 17-18: Howard causes a stir

Ahead of Arena's first training camp, Tim Howard gave an interview to USA Today, in which he appeared to question the commitment levels of dual-national players. The veteran goalkeeper later clarified his remarks to say his comments were directed as much at U.S.-born players as at the overseas contingent, but he did state that there was an "issue" with the team's level of passion.

All of this was characterized as "dangerous stuff" by Howard's U.S. teammate Jermaine Jones. For his part, Arena has stated that he expects that there won't be any conflicts this week, and that the players will be completely focused on the getting three points against Honduras.

Bruce Arena inherits a team that is winless in two games in the final round of World Cup qualifying.

Jan. 29- Feb. 3: Two tepid friendlies

The U.S., fielding an entirely MLS-based squad, played a pair of games to conclude the annual January camp and while the proceedings have to be put in context, the results were certainly modest. The Americans tied Serbia 0-0 in San Diego, following up with a 1-0 victory vs. Jamaica in Nashville.

Given the time of year and with the players starting what amounted to preseason, the lack of sharpness in the attacking third wasn't surprising. The likes of Dax McCarty and Sebastian Lletget did plenty to boost their own stock but overall, the matches did little to increase optimism.

March 4: USSF announces anthem policy

In the wake of Megan Rapinoe's decision to kneel for the national anthem during a pair of women's national team games last year, the USSF instituted a policy requiring players at all levels to stand while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. The move was criticized in places but was met with near unanimity in men's national team circles.

Arena said he was "all for" the policy, although he added he could see the other side of it. Jones took a similar stance: "You know, for me it's clear. I think if you represent your country, you have to stand. So if you have the blessing that you can wear that jersey, I don't think it's nice for you to kneel down and that's my [view] to that. But I think everyone can make his own choice as to what he wants. But I think if the national team says that, they're right."

March: Dempsey, Howard, Cameron return

As well as bringing back-to-back defeats, the November qualifiers were notable for the fact that that the U.S. was far from full strength. Clint Dempsey sat out the latter part of the year with an irregular heartbeat, and Geoff Cameron missed both matches due to a knee injury, while Howard injured his groin against Mexico and underwent surgery as a result.

All three players have returned to action. Dempsey has started all three matches in the new MLS season for Seattle -- scoring two goals -- while Cameron has played 90 minutes in each of Stoke's past three Premier League games. Howard, meanwhile, has played the past two matches for Colorado. The trio are set to play critical roles vs. Honduras and Panama.

March 15: Arena names World Cup qualifying roster

As encouraging as the returns of the aforementioned players are, injuries have still taken a toll, with Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood all ruled out through injury and making for less than ideal preparation.

One of Dempsey or Jordan Morris will replace Wood, while Cameron looks set to start at right-back in place of Yedlin, meaning Omar Gonzalez will play at center-back. As for Johnson, his spot in midfield will likely be filled in by Lletget, Alejandro Bedoya or Darlington Nagbe. The depth of the U.S. player pool has long been touted. Now it's time for it to deliver on the field.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.


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