Bruce Arena not expecting anthem protests at US qualifier in Orlando

Bruce Arena - 2017

SANFORD, Fla. – Friday's pivotal World Cup qualifier vs. Panama at Orlando City Stadium (7:30 pm ET; ESPN2, Univision, UDN) will be the first US national team match since remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump led to a national discussion regarding player protests during the national anthem.

But when The Star-Spangled Banner plays ahead of kickoff at Orlando City SC’s downtown venue, US manager Bruce Arena doesn’t think he’ll see one of the gestures of protest or commemoration that have made headlines at sporting events across the United States in recent weeks.

The USMNT’s veteran boss wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with his players doing so – but he expects a heads-up if they have anything in mind.

“I’m sure they’ll talk to me about it if that’s the case,” Arena told reporters when asked about the anthem protest topic after his team’s Tuesday morning practice at Orlando City’s training session in the northern suburbs. “But we haven’t discussed that.”

As of March 4, any US players who took a knee or made a similar gesture on Friday would be in violation of a US Soccer Federation rule.

US women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe turned heads last year when she kneeled for the anthem before a friendly vs. Thailand, continuing a gesture of support for NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick that she’d begun with her NWSL club team, Seattle Reign FC. Afterwards the federation released a statement noting that “as part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor the flag while the national anthem is played.”

US Soccer subsequently enacted a rule at their 2017 annual general meeting stating that "all persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of the national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented.”

When asked, Arena has appeared uninclined to wade into the heated political elements of the issue, noting both the federation’s policy and the athletes’ right to self-expression.

“I think the demonstrations by the players are appropriate. I can't question that,” Arena said at an event in New York last week. “I don't want to get into a political debate here. The national team's different. You don't have to play in the national team. You can choose not to play.

“What do you think I should do? Right then and there take them off the field, burn a few substitutions?” he added. “What happens if four guys take a knee? What do I do?”

With his program’s World Cup hopes on the line in the week ahead – Friday's match is vital if the US are to clinch one of CONCACAF’s three automatic berths in Russia next summer – Arena struck a curt, businesslike tone on Tuesday.

“Again, I can’t comment on anything I haven’t seen. We haven’t discussed it,” he said. “I think our guys are focused on the game. They have constitutional rights like anyone else. I can’t tell you what would happen if somebody expressed themselves in protest, if that’s what that is. I don’t know the answer to that. But I don’t anticipate that happening.”