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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup

How will Arena's U.S. team differ from the squad Klinsmann left behind?

The old adage that "if you can't change the players, change the coach" came to mind once again as Bruce Arena's U.S. national team convened Monday in San Jose, California, ahead of Friday's high-stakes World Cup qualifier against Honduras and another in Panama next week.

No fewer than 13 of the names that occupied Arena's original 24-man list were also included on former manager Jurgen Klinsmann's final squad in November, when the Americans dropped their most recent pair of qualifiers for Russia 2018 to Mexico and Costa Rica, costing Klinsmann his job.

Several of those players have departed since then; keeper Brad Guzan was released to be with his wife, who gave birth to the couple's second child on Sunday night, while defender/midfielder Fabian Johnson (hamstring) and forward Bobby Wood (back) withdrew because of injuries.

Among those added to the group in their stead were Matt Besler, Sacha Kljestan and Graham Zusi, three others who were either on the field or the bench for those November defeats.

And when Arena's first lineup becomes public about an hour before Friday's tilt at Avaya Stadium, odds are it will feature more than half of the players who started in the 2-1 loss to El Tri. Had Johnson and Wood been healthy, it would've likely been eight of the 11.

The point is, Arena will for the most part be relying on the same cast of characters. So personnel aside, how will the way his team look differ from Klinsmann's?

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During his month-long January camp -- a group composed almost entirely of out-of-season MLS players with the program's European- and Mexican-based members unavailable--- much of the focus was on defensive shape.

"He's very simple in how he sees the game," young FC Dallas center-back Walker Zimmerman said of Arena's approach a few days before making his U.S. debut in last month's 1-0 friendly win over Jamaica. Zimmerman parlayed his impressive camp into a roster spot, but he's not a realistic candidate to start for the varsity on Friday now that 2014 World Cup veterans John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez are back in the fold.

Indeed, the only January camp participant likely to start on the defensive line is ageless left-back DaMarcus Beasley. The problem is that at best, Arena will only have three training sessions to prepare his preferred back four for Los Catrachos; Brooks missed Monday's session traveling from Germany after picking up a minor knee injury in Hertha Berlin's 4-2 loss to Cologne on Saturday.

That's ... not a lot of time. Arena has tried to mitigate the lack of in-person practice by staying in regular contact with his foreign-based charges over the past six weeks or so, so that will help. It's also highly unlikely he'll veer from a four-man set the way Klinsmann did on similarly short notice before the Mexico game with disastrous results, even if Arena did mention a back three as an option in a Facebook chat last week. This time, the coach will stick to what he and his players know best.

He's also likely to make set plays a significant focus of the few training session he does have. With towering bodies like the 6-foot-4 Brooks, 6-foot-3 Cameron (who is suddenly the frontrunner to play right-back with DeAndre Yedlin hurt and Timmy Chandler suspended) and 6-foot-4 Gonzalez at his disposal, that's smart. Set pieces have been traditional strength of the U.S. -- they were during Arena's first go-round as U.S. coach, from 1998-2006 -- and one Klinsmann didn't value nearly enough during his five-plus years at the helm.

Of course, defending isn't just for defenders. It's the responsibility of the entire team. That's where the work done in January will pay off.

Bruce Arena
With many of the same players that served under Jurgen Klinsmann, how will Bruce Arena (center) differentiate his U.S. team?

The spaces between the back, midfield and forward lines were all over the place in Klinsmann's final match, a 4-0 loss in Costa Rica. The movements of Arena's front six should look much more cohesive after spending weeks working on their ball pressure and at the beginning of the year. Of the 13 midfielders and forwards currently in San Jose, just two -- Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic -- weren't in camp in January.

Offensively, Arena wants his team to play freely and take it to the visitors at every opportunity.

"We're going to play our game and not be too focused on Honduras," he told reporters on Monday.

More than anything, the new coach's biggest influence may be his mere presence. The U.S. looked lost at best and disinterested at worst during the last set of qualifiers. Merely having a new voice has changed the dynamic. Arena's laid-back off-the-field demeanor has allowed the team that had grown accustomed to walking on eggshells under the former regime to become more relaxed. Several described the mood around his first camp as "a breath of fresh air."

The pressure is on now. But if Arena can integrate the newcomers and get his players to fight for their World Cup lives against Honduras, his team won't look anything like the one that struggled so mightily late last year -- even if the names are mostly the same.

"There's been a lot of talk since Costa Rica," keeper Tim Howard said Monday. "Now is when we really earn our money."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.


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