Five U.S. players to watch under Bruce Arena include Kljestan, Garza, Agudelo
"Opportunity" is usually the byword at the annual January camp for the U.S. men's national team, and the current edition is no different. It's not often that a player gets to spend the better part of a month under the watchful eye of the national team head coach. If a move is going to be made up the depth chart, January is the perfect time.
But this incarnation has a little bit more bounce to it than those in recent years because a new manager, Bruce Arena, is in charge. In fact, you have to go back to 2007 to find the last time that the camp doubled as the first get-together under a new head coach.
On that occasion, Bob Bradley was just a month removed from being named the interim manager after, ironically enough, Arena's dismissal a few months earlier. That explains why midfielder Sacha Kljestan, in an interview with ESPN FC's Doug McIntyre, spoke of a "freshness" in the U.S. camp. Even Arena himself, who in the past has been circumspect in his assessment of players, has been handing out praise to players in copious amounts.
The end of camp is in sight. Friendlies against Serbia (Sunday in San Diego) and Jamaica (Friday in Chattanooga, Tennessee) have prompted Arena to trim his 28-man roster to 23, which will provide a gauge of which players have made the most of their opportunities.
With that in mind, here are some players to keep an eye on, especially with a critical pair of March World Cup qualifiers looming on the horizon.
1. Sacha Kljestan, MF
Word on the street is that Arena is leaning toward deploying his side in some variation of a 4-3-3. Given the surplus of midfielders, that makes sense, and Kljestan stands to benefit the most. He has occupied (and excelled in) an attacking role for the New York Red Bulls since returning to MLS just prior to the 2015 season, and his return to the national team gives him a bit more familiarity with some of his U.S. teammates. With Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley likely occupying midfield positions behind him, Kljestan has a chance to make the attacking midfield position his own.
He'll have competition, of course. Benny Feilhaber has been recalled after years in the international wilderness, while Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Lletget could see time in the middle as well. But Kljestan's combination of experience and attacking prowess would appear to give him the inside track.
2. Sebastian Lletget, MF
Lletget has been widely praised for his camp performance. Kljestan is among those who have been impressed with the play of the LA Galaxy midfielder. Lletget's vision and passing have long made him an ideal candidate to get some looks with the national team, while his ability to play wide and in the middle provides the kind of versatility that managers crave.
It also doesn't hurt that Lletget has spent the last two seasons playing under Arena with the Galaxy, so the U.S. manager has as good a feel as any for what Lletget can provide. He may not start, but he does seem certain to get some minutes over the next two games.
3. Greg Garza, DF
Prior to camp, Arena stated in no uncertain terms that he wants to bolster the ranks of his outside backs. He brought in Graham Zusi to get a look at right-back, while DaMarcus Beasley was recalled as well.
Longtime snub Jorge Villafaña was also a late addition to the camp, but it's worth noting that Garza turned in some decent performances early in this cycle, showing good positional sense before hip injuries halted his progress. Now it looks as though Garza, an Atlanta United defender, will get a chance to reignite his international career.
4. Chad Marshall, DF
Walker Zimmerman has drawn considerable praise from Arena, but Marshall has been getting plenty of reps with the starting group and looks to be a more likely candidate to be involved in March given his greater level of experience.
Marshall is making his return to the national team after being out of the mix for over six years, but he was stellar during Seattle's run to last year's MLS Cup, and his abilities to play out of the back and threaten on set pieces remain a strength. With just three center-backs on the roster (Steve Birnbaum and Zimmerman are the others), Marshall figures to log heavy minutes over the next two games.
5. Juan Agudelo, FW
For all the talk about 4-3-3, the U.S. just hasn't been able to quit the 4-4-2 no matter how hard it has tried. For that reason, the immensely talented but inconsistent Agudelo remains an intriguing option.
The New England forward enjoyed an impressive last two months of the 2016 regular season, scoring four goals while playing a variety of attacking roles. And the word out of camp is that Agudelo has tended to partner with Jozy Altidore in those moments when the U.S. has played with two forwards.
Agudelo has had his share of false starts in his career, but the next two games will give him a chance to build on the momentum generated toward the end of last season.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.