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Bruce Arena Versus The World

Monday 20th March 2017
Bruce Arena looks even less like Michael Cera than Gareth Southgate. Like the England manager, however, Arena finds himself up against it in his second stint as United States Men's National Team boss. After the USMNT dropped its first two matches in CONCACAF's final World Cup qualifying stage, under Jürgen Klinsmann, the American has been brought in to defeat the five evil Hexes and advance the United States to the 2018 tournament in Russia.
Given the resources at his command, it's not the most difficult task. The US have eight matches to make up ground. Finishing fourth will mean a two-legged tie with the AFC's winner between the two third-placed nations in Asia's final World Cup qualifying round. Finishing third or better will punch a direct ticket to Russia. Arena's squad must recover three points for the former, four for the latter. All the same, it won't be easy. It is burdened by a negative-six goal difference to every team occupying a qualifying place, except Costa Rica. Its 4-0 defeat in San Jose means the US are eleven goals in the red to the Ticos.

Worse, the Americans are a team in transition. Landon Donovan is retired. Clint Dempsey's ability is in doubt after losing half a season to a heart ailment last autumn. Kyle Beckerman is getting up there, too, at thirty-four. Center half Omar Gonzalez was marginalized by Klinsmann after moving to Liga MX. Two other key veterans, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones have been at odds over the goalkeeper's unfortunate remarks regarding commitment levels shown by the squad's naturalized players. Similarly, captain Michael Bradley and defender Geoff Cameron have expressed opposing views regarding Donald Trump's attempted immigration bans, although they have not yet made their political differences personal. New Jersey-born Christian Pulisic continues to impress at Borussia Dortmund, as does forward Bobby Wood to a lesser degree with relegation threatened Hamburg, but few other young players have locked down starting roles elsewhere in the squad. The team's style, identity, and confidence are all in question.
Which is where Arena comes in. He must forge a new identity for the Americans. Having spent the past eight seasons at LA Galaxy's helm, the Brooklynite boasts the requisite experience. He has distilled youth with experience, homegrown players with imports, and obscenely paid talent with a lunch bucket supporting cast to produce three MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields in that span. Arena is more familiar and supportive with regards to Major League Soccer than his predecessor, more amiable and engaging towards his players.

Whereas Southgate can't always choose in-form players because Premier League managers tend to rate foreign talent over English, Arena's dilemma is choosing between MLS stars and those playing in more competitive leagues. Rare is a player like Pulisic, making himself ever more integral to a Champions League side. Instead, there are dubious choices like goalkeeper Brad Guzan, relegated to second choice at Boro with Victor Valdes now in town. Arena must ask himself whether John Brooks' competition in the Bundesliga makes him better equipped for international duty than Gonzalez's at Pachuca? Can Jozy Altidore form a similar partnership with Wood as the one he enjoys in Toronto with Sebastian Giovinco, a much different player? Can Sebastian Lletget or Dax McCarty assume Beckerman's role as midfield support for Jones and Bradley? Who can step in for the injured Deandre Yedlin, Eric Lichaj (pr. lee•high), and suspended Timothy Chandler at right back? Fabian Johnson was the likely answer until he suffered a muscle injury on Thursday in action for Borussia Mõnchengladblach. Sporting KC's Graham Zusi, more typically a midfielder, has been summoned as Johnson's replacement. Is Geoff Cameron, with one match recovered from injury under his belt at Stoke, ready to play in the back four when he typically features as a holding midfielder for Mark Hughes' Potters? Finally, can thirty-four year-old left back DaMarcus Beasley deal with Anderlecht's Andy Nahar in the Hondura match, or will Jorge Villafaña, struggling to get minutes for Santos Laguna be trusted with the challenge?

In addition to selection headaches, Arena must cope with public opinion regarding his relevance. Many Americans see him as a throwback to the mid-noughties. Others consider his lack of international club experience a detriment. Bob Bradley may have failed miserably at Swansea, but, to their minds, he at least had the courage to go out into the world and attempt to change its perception regarding American coaches. They also wonder whether Arena possesses the tactical nous to compete on the global stage, despite having shown the management skills to fit very disparate pieces into a cohesive dynasty in Los Angeles.
Klinsmann was sacked in November. A listless, goalless draw against Serbia and a stilted 1-0 victory over Jamaica as January turned into February are the only matches Arena has overseen in the interim. He held an extended training camp prior to those matches. No Euro-based players were present for it or the two friendlies, however, given their club obligations. Only Villafaña was present from Liga-MX affiliated Americans. MLS' summer calendar presents an additional challenge for Arena to compare players, choose his best XI, and restore unity within the side. Half his players are unavailable or on holiday for one part of the year, the rest for the other.

The coming week will bring the first meaningful matches during Arena's return. With several players injured, his MLS players still a month away from mid-season form, and his number one 'keeper, Guzan, not available as he attends to his expectant wife, the squad will hardly be a finished product. Still, it will reveal what progress, if any, the new boss has made, and how far he still must go.

USMNT squad for March qualifiers:

GK--Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)

D-- DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Tim Ream (Fulham), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC)

MF--Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timber), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones & Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union)

F--Bobby Wood (Hamburg SV), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris & Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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