Arena's next challenge: Integrating abroad-based U.S. players with little prep time

Bruce Arena got to spend three and a half weeks with more than 30 U.S. national team veterans and contenders right on his Southern California doorstep. Arena has lived in the L.A. area since becoming coach of the Galaxy back in 2008, and when he left the MLS club to take over the U.S. in November, he had to move his office just a few feet down the StubHub Center hall.

The commute and surroundings were familiar, and Arena and his staff (comprised of his former Galaxy colleagues) were able to use weeks of practice and then friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica to make a thorough evaluation of their players’ progress and potential.

Now comes the hard part.

In about five weeks, Arena will have to select the players he intends to call in for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Honduras (March 24) and Panama (March 28). The Americans’ 0-2-0 record, which leaves them last in the six-team Hexagonal, was the catalyst for Jurgen Klinsmann’s dismissal. The climb out of the CONCACAF cellar must begin next month, meaning the new (and former) manager has to get this roster right. And although he now has a pretty firm grasp on the domestic player pool, Arena won’t have been able to spend any time working with the men based abroad, nor will have had the opportunity to see how they mesh with their MLS counterparts under match conditions.

It’s going to take a few very productive days of practice next month, and a lot of homework between now and then, to figure it all out.

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“The goal now is to merge our players abroad with our domestic players and come up with the best roster for those games against Honduras and Panama,” Arena said Thursday during a media conference call. “We’re working right now with a pool of approximately 40 players, give or take a few numbers, and we need to break it down to somewhere near 25 players to call in for March when we report to San Jose [California, the site of the Honduras match].”

So Arena and his staff are going to hit the road. He went abroad in early December, shortly after taking the job, and saw and/or met with Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic, Timmy Chandler, Bobby Wood and John Brooks during a few busy days in Germany. That was before the recent national team camp, however, so Arena now should have a better idea of the team's needs, strengths and how those players will fit in next month. 

“We’re going to visit them,” Arena said of his Europe/Mexico-based contingent. “We remain in contact with all of these players and as of today, we’ll probably have had contact with every player in our pool … emails, phone conversations, and then 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 so, as will other staff members. We’ll be going to Germany, England, Mexico, as well as following the players in the United States.

“We understand how we’re going to play. We have a depth chart, and we’re going to sit down and have some conversations, make sure the players understand what we’re trying to do before we even get [to San Jose].”

Bruce Arena poses at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., in October 1995 after being named coach of the U.S. Olympic team. Joe Marquette/AP
Bruce Arena talks at a February 1996 press conference with D.C. United, the club he guided to MLS Cup titles in the league's first two years. Doug Pensinger/Allsport/Getty Images
Bruce Arena is introduced as the head coach of the U.S. men's national team in October 1998 at a press conference in New York. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Bruce Arena talks with soldiers at a U.S. military base north of Seoul, South Korea, in December 2001 prior to a friendly against South Korea in preparation for the 2002 World Cup. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Bruce Arena looks out the window of a U.S. Army helicopter as the pilot prepares to take off from Camp Liberty Bell following the team's visit to the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea on May 31, 2002, in Panmunjon, South Korea. Tony Gutierrez/AP
Bruce Arena holds a U.S. training session at the Misari Football Center in Seoul, South Korea on May 29, 2002 prior to the start of the World Cup. Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Bruce Arena gives a fist pump as U.S. players celebrate during the USA's landmark 2-0 win over Mexico in Jeonju, South Korea, in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup. Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images
Bruce Arena and the 2002 USA World Cup team present a jersey to President George W. Bush in the Oval Office at the White House. Mike Theiler/Getty Images
Bruce Arena, coach of the U.S., and Frank Yallop, coach of the MLS All-Stars, answer questions at the only USA vs. MLS All-Star Game in league history, which MLS won 3-2 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., in August 2002. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Bruce Arena and England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson answer questions at a pre-friendly press conference in Chicago in May 2005. Brian Kersey/AFP/Getty Images
Bruce Arena gives instructions to Landon Donovan during the USA's World Cup qualifying match against Panama at Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City on June 8, 2005. Rodrigo Abd/AP
Bruce Arena shows off his agility during a U.S. training session in Glasgow prior to a November 2005 friendly against Scotland. Ian Stewart/AP
Bruce Arena shares a hug with Jurgen Klinsmann during a March 2006 friendly between the USA and Germany in Dortmund. Their paths would cross later in life... Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images
Bruce Arena steps off the plane in Hamburg, Germany, where the USA arrives for the 2006 World Cup. Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images
Bruce Arena, Eddie Pope, Tim Howard and Josh Wolff are welcomed by the mayor of Hamburg at The Ratthaus in June 2006 ahead of the the Americans' participation in the World Cup. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Bruce Arena stands with Claudio Reyna and Steve Cherundolo after a press conference in Hamburg, Germany leading up to the 2006 World Cup opener. Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images
Bruce Arena celebrates after his USA's 1-1 draw against eventual champion Italy after a hard-fought World Cup group-stage match at Fritz-Walter Stadium on June 17, 2006 in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images
Bruce Arena is introduced as manager of the New York Red Bulls in July 2006 following his dismissal as U.S. national team coach. Rich Schultz/MLS/Getty Images
Bruce Arena leads an LA Galaxy postseason training session at Mt. Smart Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, in December 2008 after taking over as manager midway through the 2008 MLS season. Sandra Mu/Getty Images
Bruce Arena is one of four National Soccer Hall of Fame inductees honored on the field during the USA's friendly vs. Brazil in August 2010, standing with Kyle Rote Jr., Sunil Gulati, Thomas Dooley and Preki Radosavljević. Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI/Getty Images
David Beckham and Bruce Arena share a joke at Sydney International Airport on November 25, 2010, during a postseason trip to Sydney, Australia. Brendon Thorne/Getty Images
At a star-studded event in July 2011, Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, Iker Casillas and Jose Mourinho pose with the LA Galaxy's Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Bruce Arena to announce the Herbalife World Football Challange 2011 friendly tournament in which the Galaxy and Real Madrid played one another. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
With help from Landon Donovan and David Beckham, Bruce Arena introduces Robbie Keane as the LA Galaxy's third Designated Player in August 2011. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Bruce Arena hoists the MLS Cup after the LA Galaxy's 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in 2011, the first of three titles he would win with the club. Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Bruce Arena holds the MLS Cup trophy in between Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, David Beckham and Dave Sarachan after the 2011 triumph over the Houston Dynamo. Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Bruce Arena shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the White House during a 2012 ceremony honoring the 2011 MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy. Carolyn Kaster/AP
Bruce Arena, Landon Donovan, President Barack Obama and David Beckham are front and center as the LA Galaxy celebrate their 2011 MLS Cup title at the White House. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Bruce Arena holds one of his grandsons and looks on as Landon Donovan kisses the MLS Cup trophy after the LA Galaxy beat the Houston Dynamo for the 2012 title. Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Bruce Arena and David Beckham share a light moment in the post-match press conference after the LA Galaxy beat the Houston Dynamo for a second straight season in the MLS Cup final, winning the 2012 title. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Bruce Arena returns to lead the U.S. men's national team, hired as Jurgen Klinsmann's replacement following a pair of World Cup qualifying losses in November 2016. Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Bruce Arena chats with MLS commissioner Don Garber and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati prior to his first match of his second stint with the U.S. men's national team, a friendly vs. Serbia in San Diego in January 2017. Kent Horner/Getty Images

If it’s a challenge, it’s a good one to have. Arena said he thought Wood, Pulisic and DeAndre Yedlin, who’s at Newcastle United, all have been playing well and that Johnson and Brooks are healthy and returning to form. Arena also mentioned Julian Green, who scored his first goal for VfB Stuttgart on Monday, and Timmy Chandler, who’s suspended for the Honduras game but has been solid at Eintracht Frankfurt.

“Certainly those players are going to be given strong consideration,” Arena said.

English Championship-based defenders Eric Lichaj and Tim Ream also received a Thursday shout-out, as did Liga MX regulars Paul Arriola and Omar Gonzalez.

“I think in particular Lichaj and Arriola are players right now that we have to strongly consider for the March camp. We’re going to get to see those players in the next couple of weeks to help make some of those decisions,” Arena said.

Two big names that Arena likely won’t be able to see this month are veteran goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. Howard was hurt in the November loss to Mexico and the subsequent surgery on his groin kept him out of the Colorado Rapids’ conference finals series against the Seattle Sounders and then January camp. Guzan has been stuck on the bench at Middlesbrough. He’s played only five times for the Premier League club this season.

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Arena had praise for Nick Rimando, who was the No. 3 goalie for most of Klinsmann’s tenure and who shut out Serbia on Jan. 29. But the manager said he hadn’t given up on Howard and Guzan.

“Brad Guzan’s a very experienced goalkeeper and as we saw in the case of Nick Rimando in the January camp, that experience means a lot and just because they’re not getting games on a consistent basis doesn’t mean you can rule them out,” Arena said. “Brad has shown enough that he’s still a strong candidate to be our No. 1 goalkeeper.”

Arena added that Howard’s prognosis at the time of his injury was a break of 12-16 weeks.

“He’s on schedule to hopefully start in the first weekend of the Major League Soccer season,” Arena said. “Perhaps he won’t be a candidate for March, but right now he’s in the picture and that’s a positive as well.”

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It’s a picture that came into slightly sharper focus last month. Benny Feilhaber and Dax McCarty are back, Sebastian Lletget and Jorge Villafaña are legit, and there is an increasing plethora of permutations in defense. There are more questions in goal than usual, and how the U.S. will balance winning the midfield while providing Jozy Altidore with the support he needs to thrive remains uncertain. Now throw in all the foreign players and the uncertainty of early season fitness and form for those in MLS, and you get a sense of the scope of Arena’s task.

Now the process of narrowing that picture begins.

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