Bruce Arena joked that he is ready for the criticism. He’s ready for the second-guessing, the evaluations that come from all sides. He has some tough decisions to make as January camp edges towards its climax.
Arena is set to trim his roster from 28 to 23 ahead of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s pair of upcoming friendlies, a decision which he expects to draw criticism from one place or another. He’ll need to make several tough choices ahead of the team’s clash with Serbia on Sunday, the first of two friendlies that serve as an introduction to the new-look USMNT.
After a grueling few weeks of training, Arena says each and every player in camp has earned a bit more, even if he is unable to give it to them at this time.
“Obviously when you have a change in coaches, you have different philosophies and the players have to respond to you,” Arena said. “I think over these two weeks we’ve gotten a good reaction out of the players. They’ve worked real hard and they’re making the task of trimming this roster basically impossible.
“I will make five or six decisions today to get our roster down to 23 players and I will tell you guys, you can say that this guy is an idiot on the five or six guys because they all have earned a spot, really. They’ve all done so well, so this is going to be difficult to do.”
The January camp roster has been one that has constantly evolved. Dax McCarty arrived late, just days after his wedding, while Jorge Villafana joined the group on Thursday, marking his first senior camp. Injuries saw Bill Hamid, Kellyn Acosta, Stefan Frei and Matt Hedges depart early, with Arena stating that he feels it is his responsibility to make sure every player in camp is left as healthy as possible for their club team’s season.
Of those that have remained, Arena says he has found himself impressed. Walker Zimmerman shined every day in Arena’s eyes, while Sebastian Lletget has stepped up well to the international level under his former club coach. Steve Birnbaum is a player that has looked like a veteran while Gyasi Zardes was tabbed as a player that will be an “important” part of 2017. Leaders like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones have assumed similar roles under the new leadership, stepping up within the group on a daily basis.
As for some of the younger options, Arena is already thinking ahead past Sunday’s friendly and even the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. For months, the USMNT head coach has said the status quo won’t be radically shifted by March, but he does expect to integrate some new faces in the coming months.
“I think the game will tell a little bit,” Arena said. “We brought in some young guys that I’m more or less looking at for potentially the Gold Cup, and I’d say that would be the case for (Taylor) Kemp and (Keegan) Rosenberry for example, and even Zimmerman. They’re all candidates for the Gold Cup. We want to have the opportunity to see them here and then we’re going to follow them during their MLS seasons before we make those decisions.”
Then there’s the case of players like McCarty and Feilhaber, players who were previously in the national team wilderness before rejoining under the new regime. Arena says they’ve come in with added motivation, but don’t need to go out of their way to prove anything extra. They’ve convinced him that they’re options, but there are plenty of options for Arena to consider.
Arena is looking ahead to the challenge of integrating the European group in with the current crop he has in camp. The ongoing camp has featured many of the USMNT’s top stars, but there are still plenty of pieces to integrate ahead of March. He’ll have those conversations and debates throughout the next several weeks.
But for now, the long-term plans can wait. Arena has thought extensively about World Cup qualifying and even the Gold Cup, but focus now turns to Sunday’s match at Serbia. Like his players, Arena has to make an impression and, if camp is any indication, he’s expecting it to be a good one.
“It’s going to be the first time for this group under new leadership and it’s important that we get off to a good start, that we play well, respond well to the things we’ve been working on in camp,” Arena said. “If we accomplish that and win the game, it’ll be a great day. The criticism I get today for releasing five or six players, maybe you’ll cut me a break on Sunday”