Bruce Arena Q&A: How does U.S. look as World Cup qualifiers loom?
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The U.S. men's national team will play Jamaica on Friday in its final tuneup before the critical World Cup qualifier against Honduras on March 24. Ahead of the friendly versus Jamaica at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, ESPN FC caught up with U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who led the U.S. at the 2002 and '06 World Cups and was rehired to get the Americans' qualification effort back on track after previous U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann lost the first two qualifiers of the final round in November.
Here's what Arena had to say on a variety of subjects as the matches that count get closer.
Editor's note: This has been edited for length and clarity.
ESPN FC: You're coming to the end of a three-week training camp. What has surprised you?
Bruce Arena: Nothing, really. It's been clear to me that the position of the national team coach and the status of the program has been elevated and that there are more people that care about it and have an opinion about it. The federation, organizationally, is helping us develop a plan to make the program successful. There's been a little bit of work there.
Back when you were hired, you spoke about the off-field work with players being harder in some ways than picking lineups, figuring out the tactics, etc. How has the man-management part gone so far?
It's there. It probably gets a little bit more difficult once the real competition starts, but so far so good. There's always time to spend with the players. I've been able to communicate with all of them.
What makes that part so challenging?
Everyone wants to play. Everyone has an opinion, and that's all accepted and known, but at the end of the day, given all of these things where sometimes people are thinking in all different directions, coming from all different places, we have to quickly bring all of that together and get everyone on the same page. That's the challenging part.
In a club team, you're doing that every day and it's a little bit easier to do. With the national team, obviously that's not the case. At the same time, with the national team you can make changes a lot quicker than you can with a club team. So there are plusses and minuses.
Many of the players who will be in your lineups in March aren't available this month. How much have you been in contact with your Europe- and Mexico-based players?
During this camp, not much. But it will begin again in February. A lot of that was done in December, and in February and March we'll be doing a lot of it.
How frequently will you speak to them, and what sort of things will you talk to them about?
A little bit of everything, depending on the person and the questions they have. I think there will be weekly contacts with them as we get closer to the games.
In your recent interview with Taylor Twellman, you said you didn't know your lineup for March 24.
How would I know that?
Well, assuming all your players are healthy and available, do you have an idea?
No, because not everyone is going to be healthy and available. I don't know how you answer that question. That's, what, seven weeks away? There are some key players that likely will not be available, that you would assume if they were available, they could be in the lineup.
Are you confident that Geoff Cameron is going be available?
No. He hasn't played a game [since October, because of a knee injury].
Stoke City manager Mark Hughes indicated recently that Cameron is close to returning to action. Is that your understanding?
He should be, but I don't know.
Given the defensive struggles during the November games, how much of a concern is it that most of the defenders in contention to start in March haven't been part of this camp?
It's a concern. It's going to be a big challenge in that week of preparation, for both of the games, to get the starting group identified and organized real quick.
The back line was mostly consistent and mostly performed well during last summer's Copa America Centenario. That was a while ago, but will that experience help them get back on the same page quickly?
It will be helpful, but that's an experience from eight months ago. The point is: It's not going to be easy. It won't be easy even if it's the same group that played the last two games. There's some real work to be done there.
The foreign-based players won't report until March 20. Is four days enough time to prepare them?
It has to be enough. There's no choice in the matter. It's not like we can reschedule the game. By the time they show up, they're gonna understand what's going on. However that's done, in the manner it's done, the frequency it's done ... it'll get done.
You've seemed pretty relaxed since you were rehired. When does the honeymoon period end?
The honeymoon ends the second after people don't like the result. That's when it ends.
After Sunday's scoreless tie against Serbia, how important is it to win against Jamaica in terms of confidence?
That one's not important. We'd certainly like to win, but the one on March 24 is the one we have to win.
Jozy Altidore has said repeatedly, including after the Serbia game, that he prefers playing with a strike partner. He was the lone forward in that game; why did you play that way, and will we see two guys up top against Jamaica?
You will see two forwards [Friday] night. The reason we played that way is to see Sacha [Kljestan] play with Jozy and get [Darlington] Nagbe in too, and to see if he can do it. Although the majority of clubs play that way now, it's still a difficult way to play.
Why do you think the one-striker setup is so popular around the world these days?
I think everyone is insistent on having enough players in the midfield to stop the other team or slow them down.
Jermaine Jones is suspended against Honduras; you tried Sebastian Lletget in his spot during the second half Sunday. Even if Lletget plays against Jamaica, he'll have only two games of international experience under his belt. How realistic is it that he'll be an option to start in games as important as the ones in March?
We'll see. There's a little bit of time. [Alejandro] Bedoya can play there as well.
You told Twellman that you plan to bring in 26 players next month. That's maybe a bigger group than usual. Is it because Jones and Timmy Chandler are suspended?
That's part of it. You're allowed to have 23 [on the roster], so it's not that large. We might bring 30 into camp. I don't think that's a large group.
You also said in that interview that you didn't address keeper Tim Howard's comments on some players not being fully committed to the national team because you didn't believe it was an issue. Do you have to address it when the foreign-based players come in?
It's already been addressed.
Was that in December, when you went to Germany to meet with Chandler, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood?
What did you say to them?
I don't recall exactly, but basically we talked about on-field stuff.
But you talked about commitment, too?
We talked about having the right mentality to play for your national team. I brought it up. I wanted to make sure they understood the importance of playing for the national team and having the right approach to it when you come in.
After March, your next set of qualifiers in June includes a trip to the Azteca in Mexico City. There are different approaches to preparing for the altitude there. You can fly in close to the game or try to get accustomed to the altitude over a longer period of time. What's your thinking there? (Note: The U.S. might play a tuneup in Sandy, Utah, and the first June qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago in suburban Denver.)
We're getting close to having a plan, although we don't have it yet. I'm pretty sure I know.
How worried are you that the current political climate in the United States could add to the hostile environments you face in away qualifiers?
I would think that people in the countries we're going to play in realize that our team and our players don't represent values that we don't appreciate or respect.
You didn't have any thoughts on President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration after the Serbia game?
I have plenty of thoughts on it.
You didn't share them then, but Michael Bradley spoke about it before the game and other players did afterward.
I'd simply say that I hope that the message that our administration relayed was not done properly, and that they don't actually believe that. I think that's been the case since, that they've tried to correct what many thought was a policy of banning Muslims from coming to this country. I don't think anyone believes that's the sort of policy we should have. I also don't think that's my role to be commenting on political policies that the president of the United States is trying to implement. If that's the case, this job has gotten a lot bigger than I realize.
Would Robbie Rogers and Dom Dwyer have been called into this camp if they weren't injured?
Robbie Rogers is hurt, so he wasn't in consideration. I think there's going to be more to his story. Dom Dwyer, if he was healthy, I think I would've brought him into camp.
You've been asked about many individual players since taking the job. I want your thoughts on some you haven't discussed. Aron Johannsson?
Following his progress. He hasn't been able to get on the field a whole lot with his club.
Alfredo Morales has been a fairly consistent starter in the Bundesliga for Ingolstadt but didn't get many chances under Jurgen Klinsmann.
We have some coaches here that know him, have talked about him a little bit. I don't know him that well, but the general assessment is that we have good options in his position right now.
Is Justin Morrow someone you might consider down the road?
Possibly. His position is as a hybrid left-back. He's someone we considered for this camp.
I've watched him play for Club America. It's a hard one. He's really not a right-back, or maybe he is. They played a little bit of a different system in the Club World Cup. These are just more names to add to the list. The question is, is it any better than what we already have? And do we have time to keep adding to the list? We're trying to cut it down, not add to it.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.