Bruce Arena prioritizing full-backs, creativity at United States camp
CARSON, Calif. -- As the U.S. national team begins its annual January training camp, manager Bruce Arena says that finding depth at the full-back positions, as well as discerning what creative players can contribute going forward are among his biggest priorities.
The camp marks Arena's first extended period with the team since taking over from predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann late last year. Though it's worth noting that the camp's timing means that no European-based players are among the 31 players called in.
The camp will last for almost the entire month and will conclude with matches against Serbia in San Diego on Jan. 29, as well as Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tenn. on Feb. 3.
But the bigger targets on the horizon are two World Cup qualifiers in late March -- the first on March 24 at home to Honduras, and then a road tilt in Panama. After losing its first two games of the final round hexagonal, the U.S. currently sits in last place.
"We have to win some games, that's the biggest challenge," Arena said via telephone. "Obviously sifting through the pool and making the right decisions and dealing with the timeframe and the availability we have with the players will be challenging. That complicates things as well.
"I'm just looking at players that are all good players, capable players, and seeing how many of those are capable of helping us in 2017. This is a year where anywhere from 18 to 20 games will be played by the national team. We need to look at our full pool of players. Our defensive players will get opportunities, whether it's in March or June or July or what have you. It's important that I have a good sense of these players and how they fit in."
The gathering amounts to a new opportunity for many players that couldn't get a look under Klinsmann, among them Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber, FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges, and New York Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty. Some veterans like Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi will also get looks at a new position -- in his case outside back. That Zusi will get reps at the position speaks to the need at that spot.
"Certainly DeAndre Yedlin has been a good addition over the last couple of years. Fabian Johnson has played on the left side a fair amount of times," said Arena. "But there's been a bit of musical chairs at other times, so I'm trying to build two or three deep in those positions so they're ready to contribute to the program."
The inclusion of Feilhaber, as well as Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, speaks to Arena's search for more technical and creative players. The fact that domestic players tend to get more playing opportunities than their European-based counterparts isn't lost on Arena.
"[Creativity in midfield] is certainly an area that we need help in," said Arena. "They'll demonstrate in January and throughout the year what kind of role they're going to play, all these players. We need to closely look at these attacking players and see how they can contribute.
"Obviously there are players abroad that we've used in the pool, like Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic, but when you really think about it, how many players are abroad that have played active attacking roles for the U.S. team? Not many."
Arena added that he believes that 35-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jones still can contribute to the U.S. effort going forward, despite battling a variety of injuries over the past two years. Last year a knee injury sidelined Jones for the better part of four months.
"Jones can still play for the national team, I don't doubt that," said Arena. "I think the qualifiers at the end of the year may have been a little bit too much for him, too much too soon. He was just getting back with Colorado, and it's tough making that transition where you recover from an injury after being out for a few months, and then getting back to playing with your club team and then having to shift quickly into international.
"I think that was very challenging, but he did show that he's a tremendous competitor and still has the legs to play at this level."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.