With the January camp done and dusted, the US national team is now looking ahead to a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama on March 24 and 28. Aside from the general urgency of needing points after two consecutive defeats to start the final stage of qualifying, there is one particularly nagging question hanging around the team: who will play goalkeeper in those March games?
The USMNT's long-time No. 1 choice, Tim Howard, is currently recovering from surgery after suffering a right adductor injury in the first half of the Yanks' 2-1 Hexagonal-opening loss to Mexico on Nov. 11. On a Thursday conference call, Arena sounded a cautiously optimistic note on the two-time World Cup veteran.
“In the case of Tim Howard, he’s moving along pretty well,” Arena said. “I believe he’s 12 weeks out of surgery and the expectation for him was that his full recovery would be between 12 and 16 weeks, so he’s on schedule to hopefully start the first week of the MLS season.
“Having said that, it could be off a couple weeks and perhaps he won’t be a candidate for March. Right now, he’s still in the picture and that’s a positive as well.”
The veteran 'keeper has been practicing on a limited basis with the team, working on footwork and ball-handling as he manages his recovery. He has been given a 16-week recovery period from the surgery, which would put his return date on March 8, and doctors plan to re-evaluate his status as the deadline nears. Earlier in January he said he “felt stronger” but was still unsure of his status for the Rapids' season opener on March 4 against the New England Revolution (6 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
If Howard can't go against the Central American sides, who will Arena have between the sticks?
Brad Guzan, who will join expansion side Atlanta United this summer when Middlesbrough's season is over, is still in the picture despite playing sparingly for the Premier League club – and getting lit up for four goals by Costa Rica in November as the US fell to 0-2 in Hex play.
“Brad Guzan is a very experienced goalkeeper, and as we saw in the case of Nick Rimando in January camp, that experience means a lot,” said Arena, whose second stint as the US' coach began shortly after that 4-0 thrashing by the Ticos signaled the end of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure. “Because they’re not getting games on a consistent basis doesn’t mean you can rule him out. I think Brad has shown enough that he’s still a strong candidate to be our No. 1 goalkeeper.”
Outside of the goalkeeper Arena also brought up some little-heard names – Nottingham Forest right back Eric Lichaj and Club Tijuana winger Paul Arriola – among many others as possibilities for March.
The 22-year-old Arriola has only three caps for the US, starting last year -- but he has scored twice already, including once in a 4-0 World Cup qualifying win against Trinidad and Tobago last fall. He has also been in strong form to start the 2017 Clausura tournament for Tijuana, scoring two goals in his first four league appearances.
Lichaj, who can also slot in on the left side of defense, has made 11 appearances, most recently as a sub in a pre-Copa Centenario friendly against Puerto Rico last May. Lichaj has started 28 of Forest's 30 games in the 2016-17 English Championship season and chipped in a goal, in addition to his defensive contributions.
“I think in particular, Lichaj and Arriola are players right now we’ve got to strongly consider for the March camp,” Arena said. “We’re going to see those players play in the next couple weeks to help make those decisions.”
Those decisions will no doubt be tough ones for Arena, who said that he and his staff are “working right now with a pool of approximately 40 players,” which will need to be narrowed down to 25 by the time the game vs. Honduras in San Jose, Calif. comes around. In order to help make those choices, the USMNT staff will be logging some serious travel miles in the coming month and a half.
“We’re going to visit them. We remain in contact with all these players,” he said. In fact, after today we’ll probably have had contact with every player in our pool for the March camp and some others as well, so that’s a starting point – e-mails, phone conversations and then in-person visits. I’ve already been in touch with most of these players personally, visiting players in Germany in December and I plan to go back in the next week or two as will other staff members who will be going to Germany, England, and Mexico, as well as following players in the United States.”