The new year brings a new soccer season, and Bruce Arena will kick off his second stint as US Men’s National Team head coach with a January training camp that will provide fans and players with a first indication of how USMNT will approach the task of turning around a World Cup qualifying campaign that has already cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.
Arena has called 32 players to the camp. It is customary - given the fact this get-together happens outside the FIFA-approved windows for international soccer - for USMNT January training groups to mostly comprise players from (out of season at this time of year and happy to help the national team’s cause) MLS teams. Arena has bypassed any potential difficulty getting players released for the camp by only calling those attached to MLS clubs.
Here are the 32 vying for time in the two friendlies (against Serbia on January 29 and against Jamaica on February 3) that will close out this first USMNT gathering of 2017:
Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders), Bill Hamid (DC United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached), Steve Birnbaum (DC United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Greg Garza (Atlanta United), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Taylor Kemp (DC United), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders), Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (Unattached - assumed to be joining LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (RBNY), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Kekuta Manneh (Vancouver Whitecaps), Dax McCarty (RBNY), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
You see them: three New York Red Bulls got the call from Bruce Arena. As expected, Captain Dax and Super Sacha Kljestan are in the squad. The surprise is the invite for Ironman Luis Robles. It is a well-deserved honor for all three to be summoned to the camp.
Bruce Arena is, of course, as knowledgeable about MLS as anyone alive. He’s worked in or around the league since its inception, and has been head coach and general manager of LA Galaxy since 2008.
Sacha Kljestan’s prolific assist-making in 2016 gave him a chance to re-establish himself in the USMNT set-up. He seized that chance in September with highlight-reel contributions to the team’s victories over St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. His place in this camp was assured: Arena has already spoken highly of RBNY’s playmaker-in-chief.
Dax McCarty’s virtues on the field are a little more low-key, but he has been a high-level performer in MLS for most of his career and among the best d-mids in the league since his move to RBNY in 2011. He has also been mostly ignored since 2011. Jurgen Klinsmann took a look at McCarty in 2014, and seemed to take a hard pass on the Red Bulls’ midfield dynamo. Dax didn’t get to play a minute for USMNT under Klinsmann, and didn’t even see another training camp after 2014 - despite, arguably, getting steadily better over the past couple of seasons (captaincy seems to agree with McCarty’s combative on-field attitude). Arena has wiped the slate clean and Dax will get another chance to state his case.
Luis Robles is the benchmark for consistency in MLS: the league’s Ironman. He has played every regular season game for RBNY since his debut in September 2012. He has backstopped the team to two Supporters’ Shields. He has been named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year (in 2015). He is a model pro for his club. Klinsmann called Robles to last year’s January camp, and Arena clearly shares the opinion that the RBNY ‘keeper has something to offer the national team set-up.
All three of these men were among the best in MLS in 2016. All three were instrumental in turning RBNY out of a horrible start to the season and into the top team in the Eastern Conference (until the playoffs, unfortunately).
It’s always a happy time when your national team calls you in. The dream of playing for your country is what drives a lot of players to pursue a pro career. Kljestan, McCarty, and Robles are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning - and perhaps the knowledge that they don’t have too many more seasons ahead of them will provide a little extra motivation in camp. Arena needs to turn USMNT around quickly, and from RBNY he has selected three players who ought to bring the necessary high standards and sense of urgency to training.
Of course, for Bruce Arena this is simply his first chance to evaluate the MLS-based portion of his player pool. The games that need to be won will come later in the year. This camp is about identifying some of the players he will task with winning those games. And we will have our first sense of who he thinks those players might be after this camp is over.