Bruce Arena discusses Dempsey's absence, position changes at January camp

Bruce Arena - LA Galaxy - in game vs. Colorado

US national team head coach Bruce Arena addressed a number of topics in a Facebook Live Q&A in the wake of Thursday's roster announcement for the USMNT’s annual January camp, explaining the rationale for excluding Seattle Sounders star Clint Dempsey and clarifying where he’ll play several of the camp’s more versatile players.

Arena said in December that he hoped to call Dempsey, who was forced to end his 2016 season early due to an irregular heartbeat that was diagnosed in August, to the January camp. On Thursday, he said the longtime US international wasn’t “fully ready” to participate in the January camp, but that he’s hopeful Dempsey could be back with the US for their two World Cup qualifiers in March.

“We’ve been following Clint and communicating with the Seattle team and Clint’s making great progress and he’s going through his progressions in Seattle,” Arena said. “At this time he’s not fully ready to come into our camp, but we really believe by March he’ll be ready to play in Seattle and be a possibility for our qualifiers.”

Arena also outlined where he sees versatile players Graham Zusi, Kellyn Acosta and Gyasi Zardes best fitting with the national team.

Zusi will have the biggest change, as the 30-year-old Sporting Kansas City star will line up at right back during the January camp. Usually played as a wide midfielder, Zusi has limited experience as a right back with SKC, but has never played on the backline for the US.

“Graham’s a very talented player. He’s demonstrated versatility with Sporting Kansas City and we know he can play at the right back position,” Arena said. “We have a talented group in the midfield and think that Graham can still help our team as a right back and were going to give it a shot in January. He’s talented and we think he’s a player who can adapt to that position and help our team for sure.”

Acosta will also be moving, but his positional change will be to a far more familiar spot. Arena said he views the youngster, who has played as an outside back with the USMNT, as a defensive midfielder, his position with FC Dallas. Arena also confirmed that Zardes, who was often effective as a forward under Arena with the LA Galaxy, will continue playing on the wing for the US.

Arena, who has repeatedly said that he thinks the US needs more creativity in the midfield, said that the New York Red Bulls’ Sacha Kljestan, Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber and the Portland Timbers’ Darlington Nagbe will all get a chance to play as a No. 10 in January. Arena did mention that Nagbe will primarily play as a wide midfielder, however.

Arena was also asked about a pair of players who didn’t make the cut for January camp. He said New England Revolution midfielder Lee Nguyen “fell a little short” for this camp but will be considered down the road, and added that he imagines Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan will have an opportunity with the USMNT in 2017, perhaps at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Arena said the ultimate goal of the January camp, which features 32 MLS players and zero players currently with in-season European or Mexican clubs, is to see if any players on the outer fringes of the regular roster can break into the main group ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Honduras on March 24 and at Panama on March 28.

“Obviously we want to evaluate these 32 players in camp and try to project ahead to these qualifiers in March and see if any of these players can position themselves to help our team in qualifying in those imp games versus Honduras and Panama,” Arena said. “We think it’s a real important camp. Obviously there’s some new faces that we haven’t seen in a while, and we want to see if any of these players can break in and make our team a little stronger.”