The Bruce Arena era (v 2.0) of the U.S. men's national team is finally ready to begin. The USMNT will open the year with a friendly vs. Serbia on Sunday and then one against Jamaica on Feb. 3, and there is plenty we can learn.
Sure, these friendlies aren't against the toughest teams, and they don't fall on FIFA dates, so clubs don't have to release players and it is mostly MLS players. But this is Arena's first camp of the year as he figures out what to do when World Cup qualifying resumes in March and stakes, in that sense, couldn’t be higher.
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Who is the right guy to partner with Michael Bradley?
Even under Jurgen Klinsmann, this was something of an open question. It's pretty much a given that Bradley is going to be starting in the central midfield. Whether Bradley is in a two-man or three-man central midfield, as long as he is used properly, in a box-to-box or holding midfield role, he can be a solid presence. But who should be next to him and who can he build the right chemistry with?
If Arena uses a two-man midfield, is there anyone who can play more of the attacking, distributor role so Bradley can do what he does best? And can anyone do that while knowing when to get back and avoid leaving the USMNT exposed defensively in the middle? If it's a three-man central midfield, who can link up with Bradley and communicate shared responsibilities while someone else acts as the playmaker?
While Klinsmann often put Bradley and Jermaine Jones together, Jones is aging and suspended in March anyway so they can't completely rely on him. Arena may look in the direction of Sacha Kljestan, Darlington Nagbe or even perhaps Benny Feilhaber. All of those guys can play an attacking central midfield role and they do it in different ways. But if the USMNT looks to have a double pivot behind a No. 10, how would Bradley work with Dax McCarty, Wil Trapp and even Sebastian Lletget? Would they be organized together sharing the defensive end of the midfield?
Whoever plays with Bradley in these upcoming games won't be promised a spot in World Cup qualifying, but it will be worth seeing who clicks and who doesn’t.
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Is there a starting-quality left back in this group?
The bigger question might be whether the player pool itself has a natural starting-caliber left back, but the group in camp now offers some of the most obvious solutions. Under Klinsmann, Fabian Johnson, who plays as a wide midfielder for Borussia Mönchengladbach, was the go-to left back. But is there someone who can take that spot and free up Johnson, who isn't in this camp, for his natural role?
One player to watch is DaMarcus Beasley. Arena made it clear that he is considering Beasley because of the dearth of left backs in the USMNT player pool. But Beasley, for all his quality, will nearly be 35 when World Cup qualifying resumes and has noticeably slowed a bit. He hasn't played on the international level since 2015 and it remains to be seen whether he can still contend for a spot at that level.
A couple others are Greg Garza and Taylor Kemp. Garza is a natural left back, but since injury not long ago, Garza has barely played on the club level – he played just twice for Tijuana this season before joining Atlanta United. For Kemp of D.C. United, this is his first-ever USMNT call-up.
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Can Graham Zusi really be a right back?
For all the concerns about the left back spot, the right back spot isn't all that much stronger. There are more natural options, to be sure, but Arena is looking at Zusi there for a reason. Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes experimented with Zusi in the spot, and Arena is keen to see if it can be a full-time thing.
Zusi, who has typically been a winger, is good on the ball and is capable of making the overlapping runs forward that Arena probably wants. The lingering detail – and it's no small one – is whether he can do the job on the defensive end. His 1v1 defending and positional discipline will be two key things to watch.
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Who will be the starting goalkeeper?
These days, the goalkeeper position looks as unsettled as any. Tim Howard is still injured, not to mention he is 37 and wasn't spectacular with the Colorado Rapids. Brad Guzan still isn't starting in Middlesbrough. A third-in-line goalkeeper was never very consistent under Klinsmann. Arena can go in any direction.
An obvious candidate was Bill Hamid, but injury forced him out of this USMNT camp, and given his history with injuries, any coach might be wary of counting too much on him. Stefan Frei also left injured, so he's out of the picture for now. It looks like a battle between Nick Rimando and David Bingham, and as much as these friendlies don't really matter, a chance to move up the goalkeeper depth chart – both in the near term and longer term – looks very much in play.
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What will the team's style look like?
One of the biggest criticisms under Klinsmann has been that he promised an identity and never delivered. Now, Arena will come in with a chance to set an identity immediately.
Will the Americans play direct? Will they build out of the back slowly? Will they press high? Will they sit back and counter? Given the relative weakness of the upcoming opponents, the USMNT should be able to play exactly how Arena wants them to, and it could give us an insight into his plans for World Cup qualifying.
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