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Can 'Arena football' save U.S. soccer team's World Cup qualifying chances?

Can 'Arena football' save U.S. soccer team's World Cup qualifying chances?

Posted by PanamericanWorld on November 29, 2016

The U.S. has never needed Arena football more than it does now.

Not the sort of American football that's played indoors, but the brand of fútbol employed by former L.A. Galaxy and now U.S. men's national team coach Bruce Arena.

Will Arena, in his second tenure as U.S. soccer coach, change the make-up and the style of the team in the wake of his hiring Tuesday after the sacking of Jürgen Klinsmann?

Given the Red, White and Blue's dire situation in World Cup qualifying, Arena's principal charge is to get the squad pointed in the right direction as it tries to book a spot for the eighth consecutive time at the 2018 edition in Russia.

After the opening two matches of the CONCACAF hexagonal – the fifth and final round of qualifying in the North America and Caribbean region – Team USA's only direction is up. It is in sixth, and last, place with a rather abysmal 0-2-0 record, zero points and a goal differential of -5.

Fortunately for the U.S. and many of its competitors, the hexagonal is forgiving. The three top teams earn automatic berths to Russia 2018 with the fourth-place team playing the fifth-place Asian side in a home-and-home playoff next November.

With Klinsmann gone, it will be intriguing to see how Arena reshapes the team with so much at stake. With very little room for error, Arena stated that he probably won't bring in many new players.

"I don’t think the roster is going to have radical changes from the last couple of camps, but there will obviously be some changes," he said during a media conference call on Tuesday. "I’ll use our January camp to identify the domestic players – I’m obviously well aware of the pool of players in Major League Soccer. And then continue to keep an eye on our players that are playing abroad, and consider them on their strengths and weaknesses, and certainly have the opportunity to communicate with them as well. I’m hopeful by the time the first qualifier comes around, we can field the strongest team possible.”

One source of largely-untapped talent is pretty close to home.

Of the 23 Americans who were selected by Klinsmann for the two latest qualifying defeats, only three came from Liga MX teams – No. 3 goalkeeper William Yarbrough (León) and defenders Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca) and Michael Orozco (Tijuana).

There are at least 26 American players performing in the Mexican First Division, including several who have been deployed by Klinsmann in the past. That list boasts the likes of defender Ventura Alvarado (Club América), wing back Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), midfielder Luis Gil (Querétaro) and wingers Paul Arriola (Tijuana) and Miguel Ibarra (León), the 2014 North American Soccer League MVP when he starred with Minnesota United.

Several U.S. players fell by the wayside during Klinsmann's 5-year tenure, including defender Jonathan Bornstein (Querétaro) – best remembered as the player who scored the goal against Costa Rica that denied the Ticos a spot at the 2010 World Cup.

During his first tenure as U.S. coach (1998-2006), Arena forged a reputation as someone who gave uncapped players an opportunity at camp and in friendlies. 

One such player could be Seattle Sounders defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who made 16 international appearances for Cuba before fleeing the communist country. Alonso has since gained U.S. citizenship. 

In the past, however, Arena has voiced a concern about relying too much on foreign-born players.

“Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans,” Arena told ESPN magazine in 2013. “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”

The comment was widely interpreted as a dig at Klinsmann, whose U.S. squad in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil had a strong German accent.

Klinsmann, of course, was a top striker for the West German and unified German teams of the 1990s and later coached the country's national team for two years, so it would seem natural that he would prefer to stock his squads with players born in or playing in Germany.

Over the years as U.S. coach, Klinsmann has relied on German-Americans like defenders John Brooks (who plays at Hertha Berlin), Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), midfielder Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids, though he played most of his career in Germany) and Julian Green — who replaced Landon Donovan on the 2014 World Cup team — now is trying to break into the Bayern Munich lineup.

After being named Klinsmann's successor, however, Arena was singing a different tune.

“I don’t know how that came about," he said. "If I made those comments, I certainly don’t believe that’s my attitude. As a starting point, one of my favorite players in my eight years as national team coach was Earnie Stewart."

Stewart, who amassed 101 caps, was the son of an American airman and Dutch mother who was reared in the Netherlands. Stewart is now the sporting director of the MLS's Philadelphia Union.

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