Thanks to a pointless start to the Hexagonal, there is next to no room for error from the US men's national team in World Cup qualifying. That is why Bruce Arena's January camp roster is linear and logical and utterly expected almost across the board.


Were this the start of a new qualifying cycle, I'd argue that we could all be disappointed not to see a few reaches on younger players. But this is not the start of a new cycle; rather, it's two months before a pair of games that could well determine whether the US even make it to Russia 2018. The goal can't be to reinvent the wheel or polish a diamond in the rough, but to A) re-instill some confidence in the core group of players, and B) find a few guys on the fringes of the roster who can force their way into said core.



And I'm going to make this clear: I think Arena sees the core of the team as a Michael Bradley/Sacha Kljestan combination in central midfield. Those two guys have complementary skillsets, and have known each other for 15 years, and have played together dozens of times in the past, and looked good doing so the last time they were able to step on the field as a unit. Guys like Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, Wil Trapp, Alejandro Bedoya and even Jermaine Jones will have to force their way into that pairing, or play so well that Arena turns away from his preferred 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.


I can't rule that out entirely, by the way. By bringing in true wingers Chris Pontius and Kekuta Manneh (!!!), as well as forwards-who-moonlight-as-wingers in Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes and Juan Agudelo, Arena's given himself options. What the roster lacks in outside-the-box thinking it more than makes up for with a double helping of common sense (which I think is an unadulturated good thing).


Even the one obvious experiment -- Graham Zusi at right back -- isn't much of one. Zusi's played the spot off and on for SKC over the last couple of years, and his defensive instincts and work rate have always been good. It's similar to the move DaMarcus Beasley made five years ago, and yes, DaMarcus Beasley's international retirement is decidedly un-permanent. I wrote back in November that I wanted to see him in the camp, and I'm happy that he's there.


Having guys who know how to win in CONCACAF around is a good thing if you're a believer in institutional memory. I'm not necessarily advocating for them to start, but everybody on the roster has a role.


Two notes before I give you three things I'm excited about on this roster: Matt Besler was omitted as he recovers from offseason ankle surgery, and Lee Nguyen was the only other "obvious" name I didn't see. I like Nguyen, and as a creator I have him up in the same stratosphere as Kljestan and Feilhaber. He is, however, a much less effective defensive player, to the point that I'd be uncomfortable seeing him in central midfield in a 4-4-2.


I'm sure that worked against him as Arena drew up the roster.


Now onto those three things:




3. More combination play & creativity in central midfield

Arena has stressed this from his first press conference, and this roster seems to indicate that he means it. When Bradley and Jones play together it's a case of two guys who generally want to hit the same long diagonals from the same spots, and often got in each others' way. They certainly have never figured out how to make each other better despite their obvious talent.


Kljestan and Feilhaber both want to combine when they play in central midfield, and both are better at hitting the last pass than the other options while not taking much off the table in terms of defense or field coverage. This team, for example...


...would have a natural shape on both sides of the ball, the ability to possess through the middle, a number of guys who can threaten any backline with their speed, and guys with the vision to find them.


I also can't stress enough how important Darlington Nagbe as a pinched in right midfield can (and hopefully will) be in possession, and how that will affect both the quality and volume of shots the US create and concede. The best example would be the World Cup qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago back in October of 2015, in which the Soca Warriors battered the US for the first 70 minutes, outshooting us 13-6. Nagbe came on and the US switched to a narrower 4-4-2, and outshot T&T by 4-1 while maintaining close to 75% possession for the rest of the night. Bedoya can and has done the same thing for the US at times.


Having players who fit specific roles and make the whole team better... God it'll be nice to see that.


2. Manneh & Agudelo

Manneh was playing at something close to a Best XI clip before his midseason injury with the 'Caps, and I'd like to see that brought to the US. His ability to be goal-dangerous from the wing is unmatched in the US pool -- once he officially gets into the pool. Both he and Stefan Frei are in the process of completing their eligibility requirements and are in this camp only to train, not to play.


Still, just the fact that he's there tells me I like where Arena's head is at.


As for Agudelo, his production and generation of 90-minute danger for the season's last 2.5 months speaks for itself -- the only center forward in MLS who was better was Jozy Altidore. Agudelo's taken the scenic route to this point in his career, and has by all accounts grown up both on and off the field.


To put a fine point on it: I think Manneh has the chance to make the US much more dangerous on the counter, while Agudelo has a chance to make us much more dangerous when in possession. Options are good even if we don't get to see all of them in the next 180 minutes.


1. Two Rookies

I downplayed Arena's creativity here, but one of the constant criticisms of Bruce during his second USMNT cycle was his hesitance to work MLS rookies into the fold. Jurgen Klinsmann, to his credit, already did the heavy lifting with Morris, and Morris will be joined by right back Keegan Rosenberry.


More than anything I think this shows that Arena's more confident in MLS than he used to be (and since he's Bruce Arena, I take that opinion pretty seriously). But I also think it shows that he'll be willing to take a chance on whoever happens to be next in line if said fellow walks into the league and tears it up in 2017.


We'll cross that bridge if and when we get to it, of course. In the meantime I'm going to allow myself to be excited about January camp and hopeful about the qualifiers to follow.