Tuesday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup group announcement added more details to what will be a busy and significant year for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Already charged with turning around the MNT’s fortunes in 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, that process will pause in July as the U.S. seeks its sixth regional title. Today the team learned it will face Panama, Martinique and the winner of a playoff between Haiti and Nicaragua in the Group Stage of the 14th edition of the confederation championship.
Asked about the group, MNT head coach Bruce Arena indicated he is most familiar with Panama, a team the U.S. has faced in every Gold Cup since 2005, when an Arena-led U.S. side defeated Los Canaleros in penalty kicks to earn its third regional crown.
“I’ve obviously seen them for a number of years and a number of their players play in Major League Soccer,” Arena told reporters Tuesday. “I know [former LA Galaxy] goalkeeper Jaime Penedo quite well. They’ve been a very good team in CONCACAF over the last five or six years, so it’ll be a tough match.
“In all honesty, I know very little about Martinique and very little about Haiti or Nicaragua, so we’ll have to do a little work and get caught up to speed with those countries. These days in CONCACAF all the matches are difficult, so it’s going to be challenging. We’re playing one of the strongest teams in the tournament in the first match, so that’s going to be important.”
WATCH: Bruce Arena's Facebook Live Chat from Wednesday
While the U.S. will look to rebound from a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2015 tournament, Arena said this summer’s competition isn’t necessarily about making amends for that performance, but rather to create a solid body of work for all of 2017.
“The year is so important for the U.S. team. We’re not going to be allowed to have peaks and valleys during the year. We have to be fairly consistent. We have to start in March and get points in World Cup Qualifying. We have to do the same in June, have a good tournament in the Gold Cup in July and have the momentum necessary to be successful in September and October. A perfect year is to qualify for the World Cup and win the Gold Cup.”
Most immediately, Arena’s focus is towards the MNT’s qualifying matches at the end of the month: USA-Honduras, Presented by Volpi Foods, on March 24 in San Jose, Calif., and the team’s away visit to Panama four days later. Following the MNT’s 1-0 friendly win against Jamaica on Feb. 3, Arena and his coaching staff have traveled the globe, scouting and meeting with players in Germany, England, Mexico and in Major League Soccer with the goal of having the 25 or so players selected for the camp as prepared as possible to earn much-needed points.
He spoke highly of several of the foreign-based players in the pool.
“There have been real positive weeks with Fabian Johnson and Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood and John Brooks. Timmy Chandler has been playing consistently as well,” he said of the MNT’s German-based contingent. “It’s good to see Geoff Cameron played this past week, so that’s encouraging. Omar Gonzalez in Mexico has played consistently. We have some players at Tijuana that have been playing on a regular basis. We have an interesting pool of players to consider for these games in March.”
Arena confirmed the U.S. roster for the two matches will be named March 15, and while he’s been busy preparing for his team to hit the ground running when players land in the Bay Area on March 19 and 20, he and his staff are homed in on the strategy Honduras will likely take for what will be a crucial qualifying match for the United States.
“From what I’ve seen is that they’re a very strong team. They have good attacking players, very solid defensively – at times they play with five at the back – and will make it difficult on us. I would think they’ll have a road mentality because they’re sitting there with three points and they’d like to steal a point on the road, so they’ll come in here and be pretty conservative and counterattack with the kind of speed they have going forward. It’s going to be challenging for us.”