- Bruce Arena taking the helm of the U.S. men's national team could open the door for players overlooked or not rated by Jurgen Klinsmann.
In the space of a week, the complexion of the U.S. national team has changed entirely. Gone is the eternally-optimistic, build-for-the-future ethos of Jurgen Klinsmann, undone by a duo of bad results in World Cup qualifying and prior events that signaled that his project simply wasn’t quite working out the way U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati thought it should.
In his place is the pragmatic solution: Bruce Arena, back as national team manager for the second time, with a simple mandate: Correct the course of the team in World Cup qualifying, and lead it to success in Russia in 2018.
Hanging in the balance of the change, of course, are the players.
“No names are off the table,” Arena insisted in a Tuesday conference call with reporters following his hiring announcement. “However, I’d say it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to bring many new players into the program. We’re at a time when we need to get results.”
In other words, Arena’s changes will likely be incremental, not sweeping.
With that in mind, here are the players who could benefit from the change in leadership atop the U.S. men’s national team–and some who could find themselves on the way out of the picture sooner rather than later.
Players who could benefit
Dax McCarty, New York Red Bulls
Among Klinsmann’s missteps as U.S. national team coach was his dead-set insistence on playing Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones together in central midfield. This happened regardless of formation or tactics so long as both were even remotely healthy, and doing this created a sudden lack of experienced depth at the position. In the meantime, Jones and security blanket Kyle Beckerman got up there in age (Jones is 36, Beckerman is 34), and McCarty was developing into MLS’s best all-around midfield facilitator. However, the Red Bulls linchpin never received a cap under Klinsmann despite getting a handful under Bob Bradley (the last coming in 2011).
Arena will be well aware of McCarty’s talents, having been a coach in MLS for almost the entirety of McCarty’s pro career. The Red Bulls captain has a great reputation as a teammate around the league, and is good enough of a two-way player that he would be capable of stepping in as a starter when Bradley is injured, unavailable, or badly out of form. He plays within himself, works for the team, and has shown willingness to mentor younger players; The quintessential Arena player.
Benny Feilhaber, Sporting Kansas City
In his previous stint as U.S. manager, Arena was known to reward players for consistently good MLS performances with a chance at the national team level. That’s how Clint Dempsey began his national career as a young player, and how players like Jimmy Conrad and Brian Ching were able to be valuable contributors as first-time call-ups despite being MLS vets.
For Klinsmann, those situations happened far less often. Feilhaber was the prime example of this, with the midfielder receiving no call-ups since 2014 despite racking up 28 combined assists in the 2015 and 2016 regular seasons (in the league’s top three both times).
A personality clash between Feilhaber and Klinsmann may have had a lot to do with Feilhaber’s absence, and the players’s pointed comments toward Klinsmann before the start of the 2016 season certainly didn’t help. On a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Arena indicated that those incidents won’t have much bearing on Feilhaber’s future.
“I think they and others are good players,” said Arena in response to a question about Feilhaber and Queretaro left back Jonathan Bornstein. “We’re going to give those type of players an opportunity to be back in the national team program.”
Based on play alone, Arena would be crazy not to. For a team that has talented strikers but often lacks the dynamism to break teams down in the final third, a creative presence like Feilhaber would be a welcome addition.
Matt Hedges, FC Dallas
Count Hedges in the “undeservedly spurned” camp along with Feilhaber and McCarty. The FC Dallas man has been an every-game starter for FC Dallas since his first season in the league, became club captain in 2014, and was named the 2016 MLS Defender Of The Year. That’s an impressive résumé, but it only earned him one cap under Klinsmann—a substitute appearance against Panama in a February 2015 friendly.
Unfortunately for Hedges, Arena will already find the cupboard well-stocked with center back options. John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Steve Birnbaum have all gotten time under Klinsmann, and while all have experienced dips in performance, all have proved they belong at the international level. Still, look for Hedges to get a shot to break into that group, where he could earn a role similar to Birnbaum or, perhaps, displace Gonzlaez or Besler if either is off his game. Earning a first-choice starting nod alongside Brooks and Cameron is unlikely in this cycle, but you never know.
Robbie Rogers, LA Galaxy
Whereas McCarty, Feilhaber, and Hedges could earn roles on the national team thanks to their good MLS performances, count Rogers as a player that will benefit for some slightly different reasons. For one thing, he fills a position of need. Klinsmann never sufficiently addressed the U.S.’s gaping hole at left back in his five years at the helm of the national team, evidenced by playing Besler there this year, despite the fact that he hasn’t played there at any level since his rookie year with Kansas City in 2009. Rogers started his career (and earned 18 U.S. national team caps) as a winger, but has been a dependable member of Arena’s Galaxy teams at left back since returning to the league in 2013. In 2016 he even showed some flexibility by switching to right back to make room for Ashley Cole.
There are a few other players who could benefit the same way: Jorge Villafaña, Bornstein and Justin Morrow, for instance. But none of those players has the trust of Arena the same way Rogers does, having worked with him at the Galaxy for years. That is all to say nothing of Rogers’ considerable skill set, which balances hard defensive work with intelligent runs forward and consistently good service from wide positions.
Ethan Horvath, Molde | Bill Hamid, D.C. United
Like Rogers, Horvath and Hamid are the players best-positioned to take advantage of a positional weakness. With Tim Howard injured (and aging) and Brad Guzan struggling to get time at Middlesbrough, the U.S. goalkeeper position is as wide-open as it’s been in several generations. Klinsmann declined to groom a true successor to the Howard/Guzan duo, which means Arena may decide to do so in the team’s first games under his watch.
Horvath is inexperienced at the full international level, but he has been getting consistent time as the No. 1 for Norwegian power Molde, and has experience training with the group under Klinsmann. However, Arena is a coach that values experience very highly, so Horvath’s age (21) may count against him. Hamid isn’t that much older at 25, but he already has six seasons of strong play as D.C. United’s No. 1 under his belt. Based on that and his superb shot-stopping ability, he may be the one to come out the best from this leadership change.
Players who could suffer
Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt
Chandler's form for his club has never translated into consistent success with the U.S. Klinsmann insisted that Chandler was the right play over DeAndre Yedlin in the November qualifiers, and based on how Chandler was playing for Eintracht Frankfurt alone, he may have had merit in that call. But time and time again, Chandler failed to deliver with the national team, and it doesn't appear the switch was going to flip anytime soon. Fullback isn't the USA's deepest position, so it's likely Chandler remains in the conversation at the very least, but Arena needs to be turning to players who can perform when called upon, not those whose potential fails to materialize on a different stage.
Kyle Beckerman, Real Salt Lake
Over and over, Klinsmann found ways to praise Beckerman the same way: “A pure giver.” Klinsmann wasn’t wrong in that assessment—Beckerman performed a valuable role for the U.S. when he was used, shielding the back line and distributing the ball effectively. However, Beckerman is now 34, and after an uneven season with Real Salt Lake, Arena could decide that Beckerman’s time with the national team is finished. That’s due in no small part to the play of younger options that are more likely to be able to continue at the 2018 World Cup, including Perry Kitchen and McCarty. Beckerman should be considered one of Klinsmann’s success stories in his time as U.S. manager, but it’s looking more and more like his time may be up.
Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes
Similar to Beckerman, it seems from the outside that Wondolowski stuck around in Klinsmann’s U.S. squads mostly because of intangibles. Wondo may still be a reliable goalscorer at the MLS level, but outside of a few flashes with the U.S., there was never much reason to believe that he’d be an automatic starter (again, age has something to do with that). Aside from his locker room presence, the primary reason to bring Wondolowski to a World Cup would be for his goal-scoring instinct in the box and…well…
He shouldn’t be in contention for a 2018 spot, so Arena would be well within his right to drop him.
Julian Green, Bayern Munich
One of the many contradictions of Klinsmann’s tenure was his insistence that playing regularly at club level is a must for any national team player. Green’s inclusion on the 2014 World Cup squad went directly in contrast to that, as did his continuing call-ups despite a mild uptick in performances with Bayern Munich. There’s no doubt that Green is a talented player, and he’s still young enough that a long and bring national team career could be in his future. But for an Arena-led team that’s trying to win now, one wouldn't think there would be much use for Green until he finds consistent playing time and good form at the club level.
Michael Orozco, Club Tijuana
If Hedges is to get a shot, someone else will have to make room. Orozco could well be that player, having been given multiple chances to make an impact for the U.S. and never quite seizing his opportunity, save for that memorable game-winner in a friendly vs. Mexico at the Azteca. That’s not to say Orozco won’t still get invited to a camp or two—after all, he is a veteran with international experience, which Arena values. But at this point there aren’t many signs that he’ll be involved in the U.S.’s plan for Russia. He's sporadically been involved in Club Tijuana's.
Jermaine Jones, Colorado Rapids
Of all of Klinsmann’s favored players, perhaps no one was as consistently relied upon as Jones. As SI's Grant Wahl covered recently, Jones wasn't just a lock to start under Klinsmann, he was usually a lock to play 90 minutes as well. Klinsmann proved as much in the past set of qualifiers, where he played Jones for all 90 minutes of both despite his just having returned from a sprained knee.
Jones isn't likely to be entirely dropped from the national team now that Klinsmann is gone. Ultimately, Arena values quality players with experience, and Jones has all those things in abundance. But Arena is also perceptive enough to realize that Jones’s days as a 90-minutes-or-nothing mainstay are over, particularly since he never really found a way to gel effectively alongside Michael Bradley in the middle of the park.