CARSON, Calif. – New and old faces alike shone brightly in the Southern California sunshine on Wednesday morning, as the US national team worked through their first practice of head coach Bruce Arena's second stint in charge.
Familiarity and freshness mingled in equal parts on one of StubHub Center's synthetic-turf training fields, fitting for the first day under a boss with eight years of experience in the job from 1998 to 2006 who's wasted no time in calling back several USMNT outcasts like Benny Feilhaber and Darlington Nagbe.
Just as training began, the sun broke through the masses of rainclouds that sat atop the Los Angeles region for the past few days. All parties seemed ready to turn the page to a new year and a different era.
“It's a new chapter, for sure. It's a new chapter for a lot of people,” said goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Arena's familiar acerbic wit was on display as he spoke to reporters after the spirited workout, which ran a shade under 90 minutes and was the first of two field sessions for the USMNT on Wednesday.
“It was a good effort, good concentration,” he said of the morning's exertions, which included 28 players with Brad Evans, Jozy Altidore and Dax McCarty cleared to report late due to previous commitments. “I told them before training, 'I don't think anyone's winning a starting position in today's training session.' But as far as I'm concerned, I have an open mind about how we're going to look at this group and the other players that are in our pool as well.”
Notably, members of the media were cleared to watch Wednesday morning's session in its entirety, a gesture expected to extend to most of this month's practices and a departure from the guarded approach of Jurgen Klinsmann's last few years in charge.
“We figured that it's the right thing to do,” said Arena, who quickly downplayed the significance of the adjusted access policy with another wisecrack. “You're welcome to be here. We're probably going to get you guys beer and hot dogs at some point as well, which I know is always a way to win over sportswriters.”
Arena reportedly expressed a desire to be open and inclusive with media and fans right from the start of his second stint in charge, and on Wednesday the former LA Galaxy coach did not hide his own enthusiasm at getting a second bite of the USMNT apple.
“I'm having the time of my life,” he said with a smile. “I haven't had to move. The [team] hotel is about a five-minute drive from my house. I've been coming here [to StubHub Center] for the last eight years; I had to move about 30 yards from my past office. So life could be worse.”
The lighthearted opening to camp is unlikely to distract core members of the program from the very real concerns hanging overhead. With the US in an 0-2 hole in CONCACAF's Hexagonal round of World Cup qualification after humbling losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in November, the critical March qualifiers vs. Honduras and Panama are never far from mind.
“It's a great opportunity for me personally, but it's also an important time for this team. Our goal is pretty clear: We need to qualify for Russia 2018,” said Arena, whose team will conclude this camp with friendlies vs. Serbia and Jamaica.
“All January camps have games attached to them at some point. However I think this time around, with the urgency we have in March, as we get closer to the end of the month we're going to be really pushing the group pretty hard and trying to make the right kind of evaluations necessary in order to get a good look at all our players and try to evaluate who can help us in March. So this is important.”
And no matter who's in charge, Rimando said, the goals for the national team remain the same – even if the approaches are markedly different.
"Jurgen, I think brought a lot to this team, and opened up a lot of minds and eyes to soccer and what it needs to be in this kind of European aspect of soccer," Rimando said. "I think Bruce just has a different way of knowing and being involved in US Soccer for a while, and knowing the players in the States. He's been around qualifications for a while, he's been to a couple World Cups.
"At the end of the day, I think they're the same – they want to win. Every coach wants to win, every coach wants to qualify, every coach wants the best out of their players."