As expected, Red Bulls midfield superstars Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty were invited to Bruce Arena's January camp, and it was a pleasant surprise to find out that Iron Man Luis Robles is getting another shot as well.
Bruce Arena should give all of the players a fair shake as he tries to assemble his roster for the games against Panama and Honduras in Hex Matches in March.
As that relates to the Red Bulls vying for spots on the team for those matches, there are a few things we know and a whole lot we don't know.
We know that Arena uses a 4-4-2 primarily, and that leads to the working hypothesis that a full-strength squad will probably see Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore working together up front - leaving four spots in midfield open. One of those midfield spots is currently owned by Christian Pulisic and by all appearances will be his sole property for the next 10-15 years at least, leaving three spots open. Two of RBNY's January campers - Sacha and Dax - will be in competition for midfield roles within Arena's March squads.
And Luis Robles will have another opportunity to work his way into USMNT's plans for the year ahead.
We haven't seen USMNT play one game under Arena yet, so here is a very early edition of the guessing game RBNY fans will be playing throughout the year. There are Red Bulls on the head coach's radar, but what chance do they really have of contributing to the USA's bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup (or win the 2017 Gold Cup)?
One thing Bruce Arena has made abundantly clear is that he wants to find a legit No. 10 who can distribute the ball to the team's finishers like Pulisic, Wood, and Altidore. Sacha Kljestan was unquestionably the best American to play that role in MLS this past year, while Benny Feilhaber has been that man for Sporting KC (with a much less impressive cast of teammates than Kljestan).
As of writing, Kljestan and Feilhaber should be considered the two favorites for the No. 10 role with just about everyone else either fighting from behind or competing for the 2nd winger spot opposite Pulisic, or the remaining central/defensive midfield spots. While Kljestan should be up to the challenge, Feilhaber has beaten him out for the role before and is still spry enough to do it again.
However, there is something to be said for chemistry, and Kljestan's years of working alongside Michael Bradley in dozens of shared appearances should give him a substantial edge over Feilhaber in the race for the starting job. Sacha also showed something dangerously close to chemistry in his early appearances alongside Pulisic.
Dax McCarty has the misfortune of playing much the same position as Michael Bradley - the man who might as well have invented soccer in America for all of the deification his very-average production gets. The most realistic role he might get when the team heads to San Jose in late March would be as Bradley's backup at defensive midfield - just like the old times under Papa Bob.
While it may be truly cathartic for RBNY fans, it's hard to envision Dax waltzing into camp, ripping off Bradley's captain's armband and taking his job while standing over his weeping body with a US Flag and a bald eagle hanging off Dax's shoulders. But enough about my fanfiction series.
Arena can easily use Dax as a plug-and-play defensive midfield starter when Bradley isn't available or as a sub when a lead needs protecting. Their styles of play are similar enough that the team shouldn't be adversely affected by switching between the two.
But with the schemes McCarty usually plays in, it is hard to envision there being a starting XI where Dax and Bradley play side-by-side. As good as Bradley and Dax are individually, their skill-sets might not provide for a squad that usually needs as much firepower as possible - something that neither really has in abundance.
So long as Michael Bradley wears the armband for Bruce Arena, the best we can hope for is that Dax earns a supporting role, maybe rising to the level of first-called when Bradley is unavailable.
As for goalkeeper, Robles has been one of MLS's best since 2012, but the iron grip held by longtime starters Tim Howard and Brad Guzan has kept just about every other American goalkeeper from getting a look.
But as of writing Tim Howard is injured and there is no one who really knows for sure when he'll be back in the starting lineup - or even if. As a result, Brad Guzan will likely be named the starting No. 1 as soon as Atlanta United manage to scrape him off Victor Valdes's boot, which leaves at least one, possibly two spots for Robles to compete for.
Unfortunately, Robles is not only competing against the established veterans, but with Father Time himself. He is 32, and Arena has several younger options to consider. MLSers Bill Hamid and David Bingham are in their prime; the highly-touted Ethan Horvath and Will Yarbrough are competing at much higher leagues of soccer and earning their first caps. I strongly believe that only injuries or putrid play from some of the above players can propel Robles into the top-three at his position, let alone a game-day 18.
All of that said, if Robles showcases something entirely different from the underwhelming performance he put on against Iceland last year, there is always a chance that he could vault right to the top of the list. We should expect Arena to give Robles a fair shot, but he will have to really impress to beat out the established veterans or the younger talents.
Assuming Kljestan can beat out Feilhaber and any other challengers in January camp, he should not only be a Hex squad regular for Arena, but a starter as well.
As for McCarty and Robles, the prospects seem challenging and bleak respectively. McCarty has to compete against USMNT darling Michael Bradley just to get minutes. Robles has the unenviable task of fighting through established veterans, Father Time, and a competitive field. If McCarty shows Bruce the same thing he showed the rest of the MLS over the last two years - and in 2015 specifically - he should find himself with plenty of opportunities throughout 2017. Robles though, has a much higher ladder to climb for a roster spot.
Good luck boys, hopefully you won't need it!