U.S. Squad Seems Confident, Upbeat as Arena Era Begins
January 28, 2017
SAN DIEGO—America's Finest City is the perfect place for a honeymoon: The weather is fantastic, the beaches are inviting, the culinary scene is top-notch, and a blissful, laid-back energy permeates the air.
That San Diego vibe found its way into the basement of the likely-to-be-demolished Qualcomm Stadium, where Bruce Arena joked with reporters, conveyed an easy confidence, and seemed to be enjoying the last day of his extended honeymoon as new U.S. men's national team coach.
Since replacing Jurgen Klinsmann in November, Arena has said all of the right things, giving second chances to players who fell out of favor under the previous boss, and led his players through a love-fest of a training camp designed to help build confidence and chemistry.
That all ends tomorrow when the U.S. takes the field against Serbia (4pm ET; ESPN, Univision). Effective immediately, it's time to get back to work. It's time to deliver results.
"We’re looking forward to the match," Arena said. "The players have responded well. We started with about 31 players and have our team down to 23 for these upcoming games. The game tomorrow should be a good test for us."
Arena heaped praise on his squad—perhaps not a bad strategy given his predecessor's penchant for throwing players under the bus.
"I’m very impressed with the players," he said. "They’re all good players. If they’re organized correctly, and pointed in the right direction, they can be successful. It’s not going to be easy but we have a good pool of players in Major League Soccer. There’s no reason to believe that, combining them with our other players abroad, we can’t piece together a good team and qualify for the next World Cup."
"It’s really been a very positive camp," he added. "The players have responded very well. It made the roster cut-downs very difficult for us over the last few weeks."
Arena volunteered names, perhaps tipping his hand regarding some of the players who will earn starts against Serbia.
"Our veteran experience has shown over the three weeks," he said. "As expected, our team’s been led on a daily basis, with great energy and leadership out of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Jozy Altidore, Sacha Kljestan, Nick Rimando—the veteran players have done a great job.
"Some of our less-experienced players have responded well," he continued, "such as Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Darlington Nagbe. When healthy, Gyasi Zardes has done very well. Jordan Morris is having a good preseason as well. And Sebastian Lleget as well."
While the superlatives were plentiful, Arena also pointed out that the team does have a few weak spots. Sunday's game is all about addressing these areas before two crucial World Cup qualifers in March.
"The biggest question as we move forward is our thinness at the outside back positions," Arena said. "We know DeAndre Yedlin has played right back, as well as Timmy Chandler. Timmy Chandler is suspended for the [March 24 qualifier] against Honduras, so what do we do if DeAndre Yedlin is hurt? We have to answer those questions."
Graham Zusi, a winger for Sporting Kansas City, is likely to get the nod at right back on Sunday. ("When Bruce came to me with the idea, I was onboard," Zusi said.)
And left back?
"In the last game, if I’m not mistaken, Matt Besler played there," Arena said. "Fabian Johnson has played there and has been injured with his club team. If he’s not available, who could step up? That’s part of the reason we have three left backs remaining in this camp."
Part of the reason there are nine midfielders left in camp is because Arena is determined to improve the team's passing and possession in the final third. To that end, the former Los Angeles Galaxy coach called on Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber, a technically gifted player who never clicked with Klinsmann and eventually feuded with the German.
"It’s been very exciting to get back with the national team," Feilhaber said. "It’s been a good camp. Bruce has been very open with all the players, letting them know where they stand and what he expects from them."
Feilhaber, 32, plays an attacking central midfield role with his MLS side and has been training in the same spot with the national team.
"The position he sees me in in the national team is the same one that I play with Sporting," Feilhaber said, "so it’s been an easy transition for me.
Things promise to get a bit harder when the opening whistle blows tomorrow at 1:28pm.
"First and foremost, I think the two games will be extremely important—not only for myself for a lot of the players who haven’t been with the national team for a long amount of time," Feilhaber said. "I’ve done well in camp but I’m really looking forward to the games, obviously, because there’s a big difference between playing a scrimmage in training and playing out here in friendlies against Serbia’s national team and Jamaica’s national team."
Indeed, everybody seems eager to get down to business, in part to show the new boss what they can do but also, perhaps, to see how the 4-3-3 formation works under game conditions.
"It’s a great formation when it works well," Jozy Altidore said. "Hopefully we can make it work well. We have a lot of experienced guys, a lot of guys who’ve played in a lot of places, and the idea is that we use these games as good exercises to hopefully perfect the formation the coach wants to play in."
Altidore, 27, is expected to start at forward Sunday, and if he does it will mark his 100th appearance for the U.S. senior team.
"It’s exciting," he acknowledged. "This was my dream, as a kid, to represent the United States and to play on the biggest stages against some of the best players in the world. To have done that over a span, and to have it culminate in a game like this, it’s exciting."
Tomorrow's game marks a reunion of sorts for Arena and Altidore, as the former coached the latter when Altidore was a 16-year-old rookie with the New York Red Bulls.
"He’s still the same guy," Altidore said. "Lighthearted, great personality, and a good soccer mind. I haven’t noticed anything different about him.
"We all look forward to having him back. He’s a guy who needs no introduction in U.S. Soccer and we hope he can turn things around for us."