U.S. roster announcement: Bruce Arena's return marked by a singleness of purpose

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.

So a 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.
4 comments about "U.S. roster announcement: Bruce Arena's return marked by a singleness of purpose".
  1. Bob Ashpole, March 15, 2017 at 9:17 a.m.

    While I appreciate the article's reasonableness, I fear reasonableness will soon disappear from the stands after the first whistle of the match.

  2. R2 Dad, March 15, 2017 at 10:31 a.m.

    Klinsmann said guys in MLS were playing at a lower level and slotted fewer of them in the XI. Arena makes warm and fuzzy noises about MLS and gets a hall pass, despite the fact they end up playing the same/similar roster? M'kay.

  3. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, March 15, 2017 at 11:09 a.m.

    Coaches should pick the players they think are best but there's no reason to trash talk MLS. So yes, even if Bruce picks about the same number of MLS players, it matters that he doesn't say negative things about the league or its players.

  4. Bob Ashpole, March 15, 2017 at 11:34 a.m.

    R2 Dad, you are confusing apples with oranges. Where someone is playing is a factor in development. That is a long term concern. It is irrelevant to selecting a team of 23 for a match. That is simply a matter of selecting the best team from the players currently available. It is a short term concern.

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