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A pedestrian start to Bruce Arena's second stint in charge of the USMNT

Tuesday 31st January 2017
Somewhere amidst Sunday's sporting cornucopia, which included Manchester United's 4-0 FA Cup fourth round victory over Wigan, the NHL's second go-round with its four-division three-on-three All Star mini-tournament, the NFL Pro Bowl, and WWE's Royal Rumble, the United States Men's National Team played to a nil-nil draw against Serbia in the international friendly marking Bruce Arena's return as manager .
Having inherited a side which lost both its opening matches in CONCACAF's final six-nation World Cup qualifying round, aka the Hexagon, there was pressure from all sides. Those who still support ousted boss Jürgen Klinsmann, thinking Arena an outdated stop gap in the same category as Sam Allardyce being chosen for the Three Lions job, were looking for the ex-LA Galaxy boss to fall flat on his face. Those who stand behind Arena, believing you can't win five MLS Cups without staying somewhat relevant, were hoping he'd prove the doubters wrong. Neither side came away vindicated.

Given MLS clubs only opened pre-season training camps for the 2017 season last week, players attending Arena's three-week camp before the match were nowhere close to match fitness. All but one were domestic-based players, the exception being forward Jorge Villafaña who only joined up with the rest from his Mexican club, Santos Laguna, a few days before the match. With most European leagues back in full session after their winter breaks, no overseas Americans were selected. The same held true for Serbia, who featured younger players from their own domestic competition. The Americans could be broken down into two further groups: Klinsmann regulars and rejects.

To sum up, Arena's squad was an out-of-form, unfamiliar mix, trying to impress a new boss against an unknown opponent whose own quality was suspect. Not the best situation. On the other hand, the match took place in San Diego, so the weather was perfect.

Regardless the less-than-ideal circumstances, there were clues, if not answers, to pressing questions. Among those was whether Klinsmann was right or wrong to disregard players such as Benny Feilhaber and Dax McCarty? Would Michael Bradley flourish in a more deep-lying role? Who might best stand in for suspended dynamo Jermaine Jones in the next qualifier against Honduras? Do the US have creative options in the central midfield?

While a scoreless draw doesn't offer great hope for the latter, NY Red Bull's Sacha Kljestan is a possibility when in form and not distracted by his wife's impending labor. His departure from camp before the second friendly against Jamaica on Friday likely means Feilhaber will have a chance to prove he's developed the maturity and commitment to match his technical ability. Those were rumored to be issues which led to his exile from Klinsmann's plans.

His place as one of two holding mids locked down, Jones is also leaving to hook up with his new club and Arena's old, the Galaxy. His likely partner in LA, Sebastian Lletget, is well-known to Arena. Whether he starts against the Reggae Boyz in a chance to cement his place against Honduras, or Arena gives McCarty a run-out remains to be seen. The latter was the captain and midfield engine behind Kljestan at Red Bull arena until his stunning trade to Chicago Fire in the offseason. He deserves an opportunity. It would be cruel for him to lose out to perceived favoritism with a second consecutive USMNT boss.
For his part, Bradley will be available Friday. He looked much better camping in front of the center-halves, even dropping between them to collect the ball then initiate the transition to attack. Another player in a new role, though, is Sporting KC right side midfielder Graham Zusi. He debuted at right back where his crossing accuracy may mirror a similar convert, Manchester United's Antonio Valencia. Whether Zusi can hold up defensively against players like Eden Hazard or Cristiano Ronaldo when the World Cup rolls around is another question.

And no, it isn't presumptuous to assume the US will qualify. Unlike its near-namesake in mixed martial arts, the Hexagon is not a fiercely competitive environment. Despite losing their opening to matches with abysmal performances against Mexico and Costa Rica, there are three berths directly into the tournament and another via an inter-confederation playoff. At their worst, the US are easily third best in CONCACAF. Given the chance, Klinsmann could have almost certainly rallied his side through. USSF boss Sunil Gulati was probably more concerned with whether he could do more when the team arrived in Russia. Thus, Arena has been given the opportunity to remake the team now.

Any scoreline against Jamaica should not be considered cause for hope or despair, as roles and tactics are not yet set in stone. Arena will learn what he can from these two matches, embark on a European tour to introduce himself to Christian Pulisic and other Americans abroad, such as DeAndre Yedlin, Tim Ream, John Brooks, Julian Green, Fabian Johnson, and Bobby Wood. While he will not have to concern himself with goalkeeper Brad Guzan's limited playing time at Middlesbrough, as new MLS franchise Atlanta United have made him their number one, the junket will likely see Arena attending several Bundesliga matches, given Klinsmann's inroads with players of German-American parentage. The new boss will want to dispel any doubts regarding the group's value to the USMNT program in light of goalkeeper Tim Howard's unfortunate remarks and the new US President's attitude towards immigration and globalization. Howard later clarified his statement to not divide the dressing room on nationalist lines, though not before Jermaine Jones challenged his opinion, creating a perceived rift in the squad.

While tactics, selection, and performance are all issues, restoring unity may be Arena's biggest challenge.
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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