MLS players shunned by Klinsmann are set to get new chances under Arena
New United States men's national team coach Bruce Arena has three months to prepare his team for the most important game of the 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle. On March 24 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California, the Americans take on Honduras in a must-win match.
Arena has a strong group from which to choose, a mix of holdovers from the 2014 World Cup squad, players who have been introduced during the two years since Brazil, and a few new faces.
While there's enough to reach Russia, Arena's most pressing task is to mold the mass into a cohesive unit. That teamwork was the key ingredient, which was too often missing during the Jurgen Klinsmann era and its absence led to his firing.
Arena has little time to rebuild that trust and understanding. There's the January camp, a brief session in February and a couple of trainings in the lead up to the March matches (four days after Honduras is a trip to Panama).
Given the time constraints, it's likely that players in Major League Soccer will benefit in a major way from Arena's hire.
Building the best team isn't the same thing as picking the best 11 players and putting them in the starting lineup. Instead, it involves being able to figure out how a group of guys fit together, where the weaknesses are and how to address them. It's about augmenting and strengthening the core, one of Arena's best qualities.
"Take Eddie Lewis," said Eric Wynalda, who played for Arena during his first tenure as U.S. head coach. "So many people were extremely critical of his inclusion as a player [in the 2002 World Cup] and then all of a sudden he's the one crossing the ball to Landon [Donovan] and we beat Mexico.
"Bruce is one of those guys who sees things for face value," Wynalda continued. "He doesn't have reservations about bringing a guy in who isn't proven. If he likes what he sees, and he likes the form that the player is in, regardless of the background story, he doesn't care. Bruce will just say: 'Look, is there someone better? I don't think so. That's why he's playing.'"
To know a player's strengths and weaknesses, a coach needs to understand that player and the skill set he brings. Arena has spent the past decade coaching in MLS and knows the ins and outs of the league better than most. Along with his staff of Dave Sarachan, Matt Reis, Pat Noonan and Kenny Arena, all of whom came with him from the LA Galaxy, Arena coached or coached against all of the MLSers who can play for the national team.
That's not to say that Arena will ignore the U.S.' European contingent -- he recently took a scouting trip to Germany -- but he'll look to the domestic league more than his coaching predecessor, both out of familiarity and a timeline that places an outsized importance on the January camp, which will be dominated by players from MLS. And Arena isn't shying away from talking up this reality.
"Probably two-thirds of the pool is comprised of players from Major League Soccer," he said in a recent Facebook chat. "So this [January] camp's going to be very important. U.S. Soccer has anywhere [from], by anyone's count, 10 to 20 players that are outside the U.S., and by that I refer to players in England, Germany, Scotland and Mexico. Therefore, we are going to depend on a lot of players from Major League Soccer. The January camp is... going to answer some question marks we have."
That's good news for MLS players, who didn't get a fair shake under Klinsmann, a coach who preferred to pick players on teams in Europe. Benny Feilhaber, Juan Agudelo, Darlington Nagbe, Dax McCarty, Keegan Rosenberry, Chris Pontius, Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman will all be in the January camp, for example.
Other possibilities include Justin Morrow, Robbie Rogers, and Kekuta Manneh, a Gambian-born forward who is a U.S. citizen but needs approval from FIFA to play for the Americans.
Meanwhile, European-based stars like Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and Bobby Wood aren't going anywhere in Arena's national team, but there's more room at the fringes now.
"If he likes you and he thinks that you're doing well and he thinks you can help the team, you're going to play," Wynalda said. "If you're not playing well, regardless of your history with the national team, you're not going to play."
Translation: At least a couple of the January camp players will likely make an impact on the national team proceedings in the spring and beyond. A new group is getting a chance and some of them will turn that shot into playing time.
Of course, these opportunities could backfire for MLS. It won't look good for the league as a whole if Arena picks its players, only to watch as they struggle to adjust to the speed of the international game. Sometimes the step up is too large. Still, there's no way to know for sure until a player hits the field.
Arena will do his best to get it right, with one goal in mind: 2018 World Cup qualification. "His job is to assess the players, select the team, play the game and win," Wynalda said.
Fans won't know if he'll succeed until March and after but, with his hire, MLS has already won.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.