Arena selects MLS-only roster as domestic players get their U.S. chance
MLS players were always going to get more looks under Bruce Arena, but the new U.S. national team coach's first roster proves he will scour the domestic league in his quest to improve the American side.
Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann in November, picked no fewer than 32 players -- all of them MLS-based -- for the squad that will gather in Carson, California, next week ahead of home friendlies against Serbia on Jan. 29 (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and Feb. 3 vs. Jamaica.
In short, it's large. The previous five January camps under Klinsmann averaged just 24 invites, and the past two years featured a split of senior team regulars and under-23 players preparing to qualify, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for the 2016 Olympics.
That meant fewer opportunities for MLS standouts to prove themselves at the highest level. Many will get the chance under Arena, led by stalwarts such as Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Nick Rimando and, yes, Chris Wondolowski.
"I thought there were a number of players that needed to be rewarded for the seasons they had and that's why we've invited this large number into camp," said Arena.
Just as he said he would last month, Arena recalled Juan Agudelo, Benny Feilhaber and Darlington Nagbe, who had fallen out of favor with Klinsmann, as well as four-time World Cup vet DaMarcus Beasley and the uncapped Chris Pontius, Taylor Kemp, Keegan Rosenberry and Walker Zimmerman.
Arena also summoned Sebastian Lletget and Gyasi Zardes, who played for him with the LA Galaxy, and a pair of guys who aren't yet allowed to suit up for the camp-ending games but might help later in World Cup qualifying: Stefan Frei and Kekuta Manneh. Both foreign-born players are "completing their eligibility requirements," according to U.S. Soccer.
Switzerland native Frei, whose otherworldly save on Altidore in last month's MLS Cup helped him win match MVP honors and the trophy for the Seattle Sounders, is one of five goalkeepers included on the camp roster.
Another backstop, Ethan Horvath, who moved from Norwegian side Molde to Belgium's Club Brugge earlier this week, also might have been included but is now unavailable, along with the rest of the national team's in-season European- and Mexican-based corps.
"I believe our team, when you look at the entire pool, not only in Major League Soccer but abroad as well, we have enough talent to win games," said Arena. "We can score goals. Defensively, we can be strong. Our goalkeeping is solid. Our back line can play a lot better than they have."
The 10 defenders on the list include Graham Zusi, who has played mostly as a winger for the U.S. and Sporting Kansas City, but not his teammate Matt Besler, who underwent ankle surgery last month.
Central defense has to be an area of significant concern for Arena ahead of two pivotal March World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama. Stoke City's Geoff Cameron has missed 11 straight Premier League games with a knee ailment, and injury kept John Brooks out of Hertha Berlin's lineup before the Bundesliga's winter break.
That could open the door for FC Dallas captain Matt Hedges, the reigning MLS defender of the year, and Chad Marshall, who was a brick wall for Seattle during its title run. Hedges' lone cap came two years ago, when he played the final 19 minutes of a friendly against Panama.
Marshall didn't play once under Klinsmann, with the last of his 11 international appearances coming under Bob Bradley in 2010. The 32-year-old is one of four players capped by Arena during the New Yorker's first stint in charge of the national team, from 1998 to 2006.
Altidore, whose next game will be his 100th for the U.S., played one season for Arena as a New York Red Bulls rookie in 2007. At 27, the striker would become the second-youngest player, behind Landon Donovan, to reach the century mark if he steps onto the field in either upcoming exhibition.
One notable omission from this squad is Sounders star Clint Dempsey, whom Arena originally hoped to bring in for at least some training. Dempsey has not played for Seattle since August, when he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.
"Clint continues to progress, but everyone wants to take a measured approached," a U.S. spokesman told ESPN FC, while adding that it was never expected that Dempsey would play in the camp-ending matches.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.