As a veteran manager and one who already spent eight years at the helm of the U.S. Men’s National Team prior to his current tenure, Bruce Arena knows well to plan for all eventualities.
When asked about his roster composition prior to naming last month’s World Cup Qualifying squad, Arena said, “Between now and when the players report, there's going to be a lot of issues, so we have a Plan A, a B and a C, and in a lot of cases we're probably going to go to Plan C.”
That answer came eight days before he announced a carefully crafted 24-player roster that was already missing DeAndre Yedlin, Gyasi Zardes and Eric Lichaj due to injury. In addition, Arena had concerns about the status of a number of other players that had recently returned from various long-term ailments.
Within a day of the announcement, changes started to come: Brad Guzan was ruled out as he and his wife were expecting the birth of their child, Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood withdrew due to injury. While Jordan Morris was present in San Jose for the 6-0 win against Honduras, he couldn’t sufficiently recover after picking up an ankle sprain with Seattle Sounders FC prior to his camp arrival.
Defender Michael Orozco had a knee injury flare up just prior to the match, and then there was the game itself. Arena was forced to use all three subs because of ailments to different players: Sebastian Lletget’s foot injury which subsequently required surgery, Geoff Cameron’s quad strain and John Brooks’ illness all took their toll.
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All said and done, between the initial roster announcement and the day after the win against Honduras, the MNT manager was unable to use eight of the players he had called up in either that game or the away fixture in Panama.
While he and his staff planned for it, he hopes to reduce those replacement announcements heading into June’s World Cup Qualifiers saying, “That’s [nearly] 40 percent of your roster. That’s radical and we can’t have that happen again. We don’t have much of a margin for error [in qualifying], so we’ve got to get that right.”
Forward Plans and Scouting
Originally planning on using Clint Dempsey in a reduced role, the injuries to Wood and Morris necessitated the veteran play the full 90 minutes in both matches. Dempsey – who had only recently returned to game action after being sidelined for months - rose to the occasion, scoring four of the team’s seven goals. While Dempsey’s performance showed he hasn’t lost his finishing touch – he now sits just one goal shy of Landon Donovan’s record mark of 57 – Arena spoke about the team’s depth at forward and what factors will come into play when choosing his strike corps heading into June.
“There’s so many factors that come into play. There’s form, there’s fitness, and your gut feeling. There’s two games in a short period of time – June 8 and June 11 – where one would assume you make some changes because of that. I think we’re going to find that we don’t have enough forwards – three is not enough. Obviously we’ll be watching the players over the next six weeks before we determine how we’re going to play in the games against Trinidad and Mexico.”
Part of the scouting work he and his staff conduct prior to the team reconvening in late May will include another trip to Europe to watch and meet with players early next month. From there he’ll take all factors into account – injury, fitness and form – when whittling down his pool for the matches against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico.
“We obviously are following all the players. We have an extreme pool of 61 players that we can get down to 43 real quick, and then get that down to 31. I think we want to have probably about 35 names that we follow closely and get down to 25 for our camp.”
The Gold Cup
Arena reiterated Thursday that his prime focus is continuing the USA’s turnaround in World Cup Qualifying. And yet, the CONCACAF Gold Cup does lurk later on in July. Arena admits that his roster for that tournament will largely be determined by what happens in June.
“I’m not spending any time right now on the Gold Cup roster, but I think things will come into play with how we do in these two games. What position is the U.S. team in going into the Gold Cup from World Cup Qualifying? If we’re in a desperate situation, we may need to go with the team that we think is somewhat the team we’re going to play with in September. If we come out of these games in good shape, we’ll have a little more flexibility to look at some new players. I think the results coming out of the games in June will dictate what kind of roster we piece together for the Gold Cup. My preference is to have some new faces.”
Placed in Group B, the U.S. will face Panama (July 8 in Nashville), Martinique (July 12 in Tampa) and Nicaragua (July 15 in Cleveland) as the MNT goes for its sixth regional title this summer.