By Ridge Mahoney
When he names his roster Wednesday (on FS1's UEFA Champions League pre-game show at about 3:10
p.m. ET) for the Hexagonal matches against Honduras and Panama, U.S. head coach Bruce Arena will not be assessing the state of the national team.
His job is to get at least four
points and preferably six in the games this month in San Jose and Panama City. Period. Such issues such as foreign-based players compared to those in MLS can’t be addressed, reasonably, for at
least a few more months. Yet with a few of those players, such as Geoff Cameron, just coming back from injury or not playing regularly – Brad Guzan, Jorge Villafana –
Arena may choose a few more MLS players out of necessity.
Villafana, whose debut at left back against Jamaica in early February was a good one, hasn’t played a minute in any of
Santos’ nine league matches. Greg Garza has started both games for Atlanta United, which he joined on loan from Tijuana to get regular playing time. Neither seems fit or sharp enough to
take on a dangerous Concacaf foe yet if Arena wants to rely on a veteran of his first national-team stint, it could be risky to roll out DaMarcus Beasley, who played the full 90 minutes of
Houston’s defeat of Seattle on the first weekend of MLS play but sat out a 3-1 defeat of Columbus on Saturday.
Multiply the left-back slot with a few more positions each with
several candidates and you'll have a matrix of myriad combinations and possibilities. Throw in a weekend of league games that could drastically alter the depth charts by Monday and the start of
training. This is USA Survivor 2017. If the fall-back choice of Fabian Johnson turns out to be the best one, the process won't much matter.
The overseas players are
deep into their seasons and that includes those in Mexico, who have in fact been training and playing since last June though the season is split into two halves. Teams that didn’t make the
Torneo Apertura playoffs or were eliminated early began training before Christmas for the current Torneo Clausura, which is already at the halfway stage.
One of Arena’s former
Galaxy players, Omar Gonzalez, has been a smashing success since making the move to Mexico in December 2015, and he’s just one of several centerbacks in contention for two very important
games. Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United) and Matt Hedges (FC Dallas) have played just two league matches, and Hedges had to miss the January camp because of an injury.
rather light contingent of MLS players – should Arena take that route -- for the March games doesn’t necessarily conflict with his statements that predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann may
have devalued at least some of those toiling domestically. As the MLS season unfolds, there will be more evidence to judge a player like Alejandro Bedoya, a consistent starter for Klinsmann
while playing for Nantes and now in MLS with Philadelphia. A cautionary tale is that of Mix Diskerud, whose move from Europe to New York City FC went so badly the team reached an agreement to
buy terminate his contract and loaned him to Swedish club IFK Gothenberg.
Clint Dempsey may not be 100 percent but he's still Clint Dempsey. Can you really afford not to
take him for a must-win home game? What about Tim Howard?
The bottom line for Arena -- and why he’s back in charge -- has always been about finding ways and picking
players and implementing strategies to win. He always leaves open the possibility of doing something other than what he said he might do, and while this trait sometimes perplexes fans and
infuriates media members -- and occasionally his employers -- it is rooted in a confidence so deep it can seem to be arrogance or smugness. He knows he’ll make the right decisions, eventually.
Self-belief to the extreme.
It’s not quite the same approach as taken by former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who once explained apparently contradictory actions and
quotes by saying, “What do I care about my chitchat from yesterday?” And Arena truly does not worry about what he says publicly, since all that matters is what he says to his players and
his coaches, and certain U.S. Soccer officials and staff members.
His clarity of ideas and directness of delivery has refreshed and revived the spirits of numerous players, along with
those of many staff members weary of Klinsmann’s penchant for sending them into scramble mode at the last minute. Fewer meetings and more free time is a players’ dream, of course, and they
also appreciate training times that don’t change from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. less than a day in advance.
So anyone primed for sweeping swaths of symbolism packaged with the roster
announcement will be disappointed. Many others will weigh in from their perspectives about why this player has been named and that one hasn’t. So it goes.
The Arena approach is
simplicity itself:pick the players best equipped to win, and put them in positions and give them resources to do so. If he senses any fragility or uncertainty or incompetence, he’ll find
somebody else. What he has preached since his return is singleness of purpose. Failure is not an option, and every player named will feel the same urgency and responsibility shouldered by Arena when
he agreed to a second stint at the helm.