Bruce Arena held his first big, wide-ranging sit-down with the US soccer press corps on Tuesday morning, and touched on all the things you'd expect: His immediate scouting schedule (in Toronto on Wednesday, in Germany on the weekend, presumably back for MLS Cup after that); his immediate vision for what the team needs on the field; and his plans for when he'll fill out his staff, as well as a few other tidbits.
To me, though, these were the most important notes worth jumping on:
First: 50 players is absolutely gigantic for a player pool, and the fact that Arena conceptualizes it as such is a hint that in the long-term he's almost certainly going to welcome back -- for at least a look -- a few veterans who'd been cast adrift by Jurgen Klinsmann. Perhaps that means Benny Feilhaber and Robbie Rogers will get their last chances to impress, or that Dax McCarty and Matt Hedges will get their first real chances. Perhaps it also means that younger players like Wil Trapp or Sebastian Lletget can get a look as early as January.
Second: I agree with Arena the there needs to be a better passer in the more attacking of the central midfield roles. For most of the last five years that's been Jermaine Jones's job, and while Jones has some jaw-droppingly spectacular moments he remains the most difficult player in the pool to gauge because of moments like this:
Jones has a propensity for hero ball, and a disinclination for simple combination play with the midfielders around him. That means any fully functional team with Jones on the field has to be geared entirely toward supporting him and letting his id be the guide for everything. He is constitutionally incapable of playing a supporting role or at a lesser speed.
And hey, for 30 minutes at a time that can be absolutely glorious -- for proof just look at the opening half hour of the Rapids' loss to Seattle this weekend, or minutes 15-through-45 of the US draw vs. Portugal in Brazil three summers ago. As Arena said during today's chat, there potentially is still a role for the 35-year-old.
I just don't think it's as a starter. If he can handle being a 20-minute, game-changing (or game-killing, depending upon the scoreline) sub as a forward destroyer in a 4-2-3-1, Jones can be a weapon.
But the immediate upgrade for this team has to be passing the conch to a central midfielder in that role who can unlock the defense with a touch, but who also isn't opposed to stringing together a series of passes and letting someone else play the final ball.
"Generally in the world today there's not that real No. 10. Some countries have them and some don't," Arena said today. "We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field who can deliver the right ball at the right time. Who that is remains to be seen. There's a couple of domestic players who are very good at that that we'll look at in camp in January, and that to me is the area that we've gotta identify.
"We have to find someone in the center of midfield who can be a little more creative than I've seen."
Arena then went on to pretty thoroughly shoot down the idea of playing Christian Pulisic in that No. 10 role for the time being. "Where [Borussia] Dortmund plays him, he plays pretty well," is how he spoke about the 18-year-old winger. He also said he sees Michael Bradley as a No. 6.
This is all music to my ears.
And now, one caveat before I dive into my roster prediction: January camp almost always comprises only players from MLS and Scandinavian countries that play a March-to-December schedule. So if you’re wondering why Pulisic or Bobby Wood or a dozen others aren’t listed below, there’s your answer.
- GK:Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Ethan Horvath (Molde), David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)
- RB:Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Rogers (LA Galaxy)
- CB:Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Steve Birnbaum (D.C.), Hedges (FC Dallas), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
- LB:Justin Morrow (TFC), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo)
- DM: Bradley (TFC), McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)
- CM:Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Jones (Colorado Rapids), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
- AM:Sacha Kljestan (RBNY), Lletget (LA Galaxy), Benny Feilhaber (SKC), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution)
- WM:Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew SC), Tommy McNamara (NYCFC)
- FW:Jozy Altidore (TFC), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution)
At 30 total players this is a large camp, but just about fits within the parameters of what Arena stated as his goal for the size of the group. And if Nagbe does sign with Celtic, it becomes a 29-player camp just like that.
• I left off a handful of World Cup veterans in Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi, Chris Wondolowski and Nick Rimando. All those players have been fighters for the national team, and all four should be held in esteem by the fans. But given their club form and respective ages, as well as the competition at their positions, it's time to move on.
• On the other side of that coin, Beasley is there. He was really good when healthy this past season, and it's not like there are a ton of other left backs in MLS who can have a claim. If it was earlier in the cycle you could argue for Brandon Vincent, but I don't think he makes sense for this group given how rocky his first year as a pro was.
I'm also not overly concerned about this. Eric Lichaj, Fabian Johnson and Jonathan Bornstein(!!!) have all played left back at a high level for club or country over the last few years. Just because this spot is problematic in January doesn't mean it'll be a gaping hole come March when the games really matter.
• Arena talked about potentially playing a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, rather than the 4-4-2. You may look at the above winger depth and say "that doesn't make any sense!" But please remember that Pulisic and Johnson, Lynden Gooch and now Josh Perez are all wingers in top four leagues. Add in the comfort Morris, Zardes, Bedoya, Lletget and Agudelo all have out wide, and there's actually a pretty robust group for the coach to choose from.
Some of those guys would be more at home as wide midfielders in the 4-4-2 than as true wingers in a front three, and vice versa for the others. This is fine. We want the coach to have options, and now it's Arena's job to figure out which of those options are the best.
• I didn't list Landon Donovan. I wanted to, but I didn't.
• I didn't list Clint Dempsey, either. Arena said he's reached out to Deuce, but they haven't connected yet.
There has been no official update to his condition.
• I differentiated between the midfield roles. The four guys listed at "AM" are the ones -- and I'd throw Rowe in there, too -- who I think can play exactly as or something close to that defense-unlocking No. 10 Arena talked about above.
The big advantage that I think Kljestan and Lletget have over the other guys is their defensive presence. I wouldn't be all that comfortable playing Nguyen or, to a lesser extent, Feilhaber, as No. 10s in a flat 4-4-2 or a 4-1-3-2 for that reason. But they're both certainly worth bringing into the camp and if either/both outplay the competition, then Arena has options at his disposal to adjust the team's formation and tactics.
The center midfielders, meanwhile, are more industrious types in terms of field coverage and defensive responsibilities. If one of these guys plays lights-out in camp, it makes a switch to the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 much likelier.
• Now time for an even more wild guess at what the USMNT starting XI will look like in January's friendlies:
Am I reaching by putting two rookies in Arena's first lineup? Probably, but this is where my head's at right now and no MLS right back made a stronger case than Rosenberry this year despite his late-season struggles, while Morris's inclusion should be undeniable.
Elsewhere, I'm not a huge fan of Zardes as a winger. I hope one of the other potential options beats him out for minutes, and Gyasi ends up being almost exclusively a forward when he wears Red, White & Blue. But it's impossible to ignore just how much time Arena has given him on the wing since 2013.
It's also impossible to ignore the sheer volume of speed almost everywhere in this lineup. I think it's a given that Arena's teams will run.
"We're not gonna look like Barcelona," Arena said.
No, they're not. They're also not going to look like the team that was lethargic and clueless to start the Hexagonal. It's a welcome change, and hopefully some creativity, some goals, some wins and an eighth straight World Cup appearance will come with it.