One of the toughest jobs on the plate of any coach is synthesizing the older, established players in his or her team with the up-and-comers or late-bloomers or even the flavor-of-the-months. There are delicate personal and interpersonal issues to balance here, and egos to soothe there. Too much youth and you lose institutional knowledge, too much experience and you lose some measure of fearlessness or unpredictability. Complacency can set in on one end of the spectrum, or a team can come unmoored from their own identity at the other.
Bruce Arena knows this. He has fought this battle very well in the past, transitioning from one generation of talent to the next. And he's fought this battle quite poorly one memorable time, too – Germany 2006. He knows what to do and what not to do.
In his now seven months in charge of the USMNT, Arena has thus been uncompromising in shaping the roster to his liking. That's meant losing some regulars of the past five years, increasing the workload and trust-load carried by some of the younger members of the team, and introducing (or re-introducing, in the case of Eric Lichaj and Dax McCarty to name two) a few new faces.
But it doesn't happen all at once. Even in this summer's Gold Cup, Arena is more incrementalist than gambler.
"It’s a good roster with a nice blend of experienced, veteran players and a good group of newcomers as well," Arena said in a press release. "There’s good balance at every position, we can play a number of ways and I think all these players have a desire to play for the US and will be working hard."
I don't doubt there will be a certain amount of Kremlinology applied to the "all these players have a desire to play for the US" part of that snippet, and you're all free to read into it as much or as little as you'd like.
The more interesting part, though, is the first sentence. Arena led with the very fact that this team is a blend, this team is a synthesis. This team, which is an experiment and thus provides Arena with all the pretext he'd need to ship out all the olds and bring in all the news, nonetheless adheres doggedly to the concept of incrementalist generational balance. The new guys are here, yes, but they're going to have to learn best practices from the guys who've been around, and they're going to have to beat those guys out for minutes, and they're going to have to keep doing that for the next 12 months if they want to make the trip to Russia.
So think of the veteran core of this squad as control group. Arena knows what to expect from the veterans, and having them around provides for baseline stability when it comes to assessing the play of any of the new guys in the group. It may make for fewer experiments, but the ones that are conducted will be more valuable.
This roster, in other words, tells us that Arena has learned the harsh lessons of 2006, while giving us an idea of how he'll be constructing the group he takes to next year's World Cup (should the US qualify, which they're pretty heavily favored to do at this point). There will be new players in bigger roles, but don't expect change to happen all at once.
Now, a few thoughts about the roster:
The Control Group
We know, at this stage of their careers, that none is an every-game choice, and none is a game breaker. We know, as does Arena, exactly what they bring, how they handle themselves in pressure situations, how they perform in tournaments, how they blend with each other and how they perform when surrounded by quality teammates.
All are role players, with Bedoya particularly underappreciated (volume up for analysis):
This is the group that provides the baseline Arena will use to help assess the newcomers.
In addition to those guys above, 2017 has introduced two other players who seem like they're ready to be every-game starters: midfielder Kellyn Acosta and left back Jorge Villafaña. Both are on this roster*, and it's a fair bet that both see quite a few minutes.
Figuring out how Acosta and Villafaña hold up as they have more responsibility thrust upon them is a crucial part of this tournament for the US.
We can add Brad Guzan, whose 54 caps make him the second-most experienced player on the roster, to this control group as well.
*(I thought Villafaña might be given the summer off in order to head back to Santos Laguna and lock down his starting job there, and still think that he's a good bet to be one of the six guys who can/will be released and replaced after the group stage. Gonzalez, Joe Corona and Paul Arriola – the other Liga MX-based players – are also fair bets to head out)
The Rising Tide
McCarty has been a regular on the gameday roster under Arena, but because Michael Bradley is both the captain and a freaking workhorse, McCarty doesn't get on the field much for the US.
Well, Bradley's not with this group. McCarty obviously is, and it'll be his job to 1) translate what he does with the Fire to the international level, which he's never really gotten a chance to do, and 2) win the back-up defensive midfield job outright. Here's a snipping of that first bit (volume up for analysis):
Arena putting this amount of work on McCarty's plate in this setting is yet another indication that the coach has learned the lessons of 2006 quite well. The big one from that tournament was "you really, really need a back-up defensive midfielder you trust."
If McCarty performs as he's capable of, that will not be a concern heading into next year.
I feel like all of the above could apply to Lichaj. He's got 21,000 minutes under his belt in England over the past nine years, and the versatility of playing at both left and right back at a high level. He'll be competing with Zusi for minutes here – ultimately for the job of DeAndre Yedlin's back-up – and quite possibly for the next 12 months.
Justin Morrow is in a similar spot at left back. Villafaña is the presumed starter, and DaMarcus Beasley has the "break in case of emergency emeritus" role. Morrow has a chance to supplant Beasley, and his ability to play wingback, fullback and occasionally at center back in a back three makes him an asset for a tournament setting.
Matt Hedges at center back and Juan Agudelo at center forward are the other guys in roughly the same circumstances. The US need a backline organizer behind Geoff Cameron, and that's what Hedges does for FC Dallas. They need a target forward behind Jozy Altidore, and that's what Agudelo does for New England.
How do these guys fit with the control group? The answer to that could well determine how much "hey let's throw this at the wall"-level experimentation Arena has to do over the next year.
Dwyer should compete with Agudelo for that center forward role, while Rowe has a chance to (maybe?) win a job as a jack-of-all-trades midfielder. Roldan, in this camp, seems more like a competitor for McCarty at defensive midfield than he does a box-to-box midfielder, which is his day job with Seattle.
Saief is a wild card. Even Arena's not exactly sure what he's getting from the Israeli-American dual national, who filed a one-time switch and is now permanently cap-tied to the US:
"We were fortunate that Kenny just recently received his clearance from FIFA," Arena said. "He’s a player that we observed with Gent in Belgium. He plays on the left side of midfield, a position where we can use some help, and he’s a good left-footed player from what we’ve seen. It’ll be interesting to see him in camp to see how he fits in with our group."
Gent is a top three team in Belgium, and in the three years Saief's been there they've qualified for both the Champions League and Europa League. That's roughly analogous to the career paths of guys like Sacha Kljestan and Victor Vazquez, which should give us all an idea of Saief's relative quality (though obviously not his position or role).
23-man Gold Cup Roster
|GK||Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)|
|GK||Bill Hamid (D.C. United)|
|GK||Sean Johnson (NYCFC)|
|D||Matt Besler (Sporting KC)|
|D||Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca)|
|D||Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)|
|D||Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest)|
|D||Matt Miazga (Chelsea)|
|D||Justin Morrow (Toronto FC)|
|D||Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna)|
|D||Graham Zusi (Sporting KC)|
|M||Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas)|
|M||Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana)|
|M||Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union)|
|M||Joe Corona (Club Tijuana)|
|M||Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire)|
|M||Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)|
|M||Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)|
|M||Kenny Saief (KAA Gent)|
|M||Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)|
|F||Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution)|
|F||Dom Dwyer (Sporting KC)|
|F||Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)|