Bruce Arena has called in his first set of players as manager of the US national team. 32 MLS players will attend his January training camp (all European and Mexican based players are busy with their clubs) prior to friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica. You can see the official release on the US Soccer website.
Here are some thoughts on the roster, organized by position:
GOALKEEPERS (5): David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders FC), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)
This is a clear deviation from Jurgen Klinsmann’s rosters. These are actually the five best American goalkeepers in MLS.
Bingham and Hamid, both in their 20s, have been called up sporadically before but haven’t received much playing time. The Swiss-born Frei, the 2016 MLS Cup MVP, is the most athletic of the group and is in the process of securing his eligibility. The veteran Rimando had another solid MLS season and Robles continues to excel for the New York Red Bulls, although Klinsmann never saw his talent.
This group brings all kinds of different skillsets, showing the research and due-diligence that Arena did in selecting it. Bingham and Hamid are elite shot-stoppers with loads of potential and the ability to make Tim Howard-like saves. Frei (aside from his clutch gene) has shown an ability to reach every corner of the net, often keeping the Seattle Sounders in games with his long reach and impressive footwork. Robles’s 1v1 technique is the best in MLS. Rimando brings a locker-room leadership only seen elsewhere in Chris Wondolowski, as well as reactions that rival none in the pool.
I applaud Arena for choosing a pool of players all capable (maybe with the exception of the 37-year old Rimando) of taking over long-term for the aging Howard and Brad Guzan.
Snubs: Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Clint Irwin (Toronto FC)
DEFENDERS (10): DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Taylor Kemp (D.C. United), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders FC), Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
This is a group that comes with a couple of surprises and contentious picks. Zusi, who has spent much of his career as an attacker, spent a couple games at right back for Sporting KC during the regular season and was called in as a defender under Arena. Kemp has never played for the senior national team. Evans lost a starting spot with Seattle. Beasley is aging and a case can be made that he is too old to have been invited.
But I have a hard time disagreeing with Arena here. The MLS center back pool is deep, and he does well to cultivate it: Birnbaum will likely start; Marshall clearly was good enough for Seattle in the stretch run; and Defensive Player of the Year Hedges and his FC Dallas teammate Zimmerman finally get their opportunity after spending a long time on Klinsmann’s mystery snub list.
Rosenberry is arguably the best right back in MLS, and it is no wonder that he got an opportunity. Garza, newly signed with Atlanta United, is 25 has been a starter in Mexico for a couple years now. These are good selections.
That brings us back to the more controversial picks, all of which I can defend: Evans is a good veteran presence and is versatile enough to play almost anywhere on the field. Zusi succeeded at right back for Sporting, and at a weaker position, it’s okay to experiment. Kemp has been quietly toiling away with D.C. United, and frankly, it’s about time someone recognized it. Beasley is 34, but at a time like this, you call up your best-performing players, no matter what.
There were few snubs, though.
Snubs: Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Saad Abdul-Salaam (Sporting KC), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC)
MIDFIELDERS (12): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (Unattached/unofficially LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Kekuta Manneh (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)
This is where it really gets interesting.
Arena stacked up in every area of midfield with players Klinsmann almost definitely wouldn’t have picked. Let’s go position-by-position:
- Defensive midfielder: Michael Bradley, Wil Trapp, Dax McCarty: Bradley’s the starter, no question about it. Trapp is a great distributor out of the back and would work well with a number of these players next to him. McCarty dictates the game and runs the most successful pressing system in the US and Canada from deep midfield; he’s another player Klinsmann never recognized. This is effectively the American-based d-mid depth chart.
- Box-to-box midfielder: Kellyn Acosta, Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones, Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe: The fact that Acosta has finally been recognized as a central midfielder after falsely being played at full back under Klinsmann made my day. Jones is a veteran destroyer, Nagbe is a runner, pure and simple, Lletget can pass and move with the best of them, and Bedoya is a versatile workhorse.
- Central creator: Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber: Kljestan would be a perfect fit in a 4-1-3-2 formation, which is arguably the US’s top option right now, thanks to his ability to track back defensively and help cover for Bradley. Feilhaber continues to star in Kansas City, making his inclusion warranted, although he hasn’t been in US colors in a while due to pettiness from Klinsmann.
- Winger: Kekuta Manneh, Chris Pontius: Manneh — who is in the process of gaining citizenship, similar to Frei — would be a track star in another life. He can hit on the counter and he can outpace any full back you throw at him. Pontius, meanwhile, can be creative 1v1 and get into the box to score sneaky goals like nobody else can. Worth noting that Nagbe, Lletget, and Bedoya could play on the wing if needed.
Snubs: Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Kelyn Rowe (Revolution), Cristian Roldan (Sounders), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire)
FORWARDS (5): Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Some may, but I don’t see many real surprises in this group. Agudelo caught fire for the Revs late in 2016, making him a must for Arena. Altidore is a no-brainer. Morris had an incredible rookie season. Wondolowski was still pretty solid for the Earthquakes despite a battle with Father Time. Although I can see the argument that with Klinsmann were still the manager he called Wondo up, we’d be killing him for it. Zardes, thankfully, appears to be considered a center forward by Arena, who often played him on the wing in LA.
And no, Clint Dempsey was not available despite Arena hinting at calling him up. It was reported by SI that Dempsey is still trying to get healthy from his irregular heartbeat.
These are solid, risk-averse picks, even though I, personally, would have selected someone different than Wondolowski. The question, then, becomes the pairing Arena will use. Here are some options:
- Altidore-Zardes: Possibly the two most talented players on this roster, but I have questions on how they would fit together tactically.
- Altidore-Wondo: Now this would be fun. Wondo’s a bit older, but this would be a tactically perfect combination.
- Zardes-Wondo: Similar to the one above.
- Zardes-Morris: Two of the top youngish players in the pool, I would be excited to see this in action.
- Altidore-Agudelo: I think Agudelo would play well off of Altidore, but my concerns lie in his ability to consistently put the ball in the net.
- Altidore-Morris: This — along with Zardes-Morris and Altidore-Wondo — is the likeliest of the group.
The other option, of course, would be to run with a 4-3-3 and start Altidore as a lone center forward. I doubt that happens in the winter friendlies given that the main starters on the wing are in Europe.