Even though Bruce Arena has had the U.S. national team coaching job for three months, and has already held a January training camp, there was still a sense of mystery surrounding the unveiling of his first World Cup qualifying squad since replacing Jurgen Klinsmann.
How different would Arena's selections be? Would we see Klinsmann favorites disappear? Would long-time Klinsmann snubs feature prominently?
The reality is the 24-man squad revealed by Arena wasn't that much different than the squad Klinsmann might have called in if he had been able to survive the two World Cup qualifying loses in November that cost him his job. That shouldn't be a surprise, mainly because Arena has all but said as much ever since he took charge.
The roster does answer some questions about Arena's preferences, such as his decision to call in Jorge Villafana over Greg Garza and Dax McCarty over Perry Kitchen or Danny Williams, or Walker Zimmerman over Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez over Steve Birnbaum. Might Klinsmann have made different choices? That's a safe assumption, though there is plenty about this roster that has a Klinsmann feel to it.
Take Michael Orozco for example. A player who has long been a Klinsmann favorite, Orozco has also long been a player U.S. fans don't really care much for, but here he is, on Arena's squad and looking like a good candidate to start at right back. Benny Feilhaber, a player long seen as the poster child for Klinsmann snubs, didn't make this squad after having a chance to make his case in the January camp.
Arena is differentiating from Klinsmann in other ways though. He made it clear Fabian Johnson will be a wing midfielder instead of a fullback, and sees Kellyn Acosta as a central midfielder rather than a fullback. Klinsmann never bothered with Villafana, even when he was starting for Santos Laguna. Now, Arena calls Villafana in even though he can't crack the Santos Laguna starting lineup for Liga MX matches.
It's natural for Arena's actions to be compared to Klinsmann's, but the real differences will be seen soon enough, when Arena's team takes the field and we see the system or systems he deploys and how comfortable the team looks.
Here are some more thoughts on the U.S. roster for the March qualifiers:
FABIAN JOHNSON MOVING UP
We knew it was going to happen eventually, but Bruce Arena isn't wasting any time, declaring his intent to play Fabian Johnson as a left winger. It's a move that makes plenty of sense, though there's at least a bit of surprise given how important the match is and how unsettled the fullback positions still are.
The decision should be seen as a major positive because it's a safe bet Arena conferred with Johnson to get his take on where he's best suited and it always felt like Johnson wasn't a big fan of playing at fullback. Giving him a clearly defined role that he actually likes is a good way for Arena to win over one of his player pool's best players, while also helping make the attack that much more dangerous.
Someone else who will love this news? Jozy Altidore, who has shown an excellent understanding with Johnson on the occasions when Johnson has been deployed in the attack. Johnson is also a player who can help Christian Pulisic adapt to an attacking midfield role by giving him another elite-level teammate who can play at his level.
THE FULLBACK GAMBLES
It's easy to look at Arena's fullback selections for this squad and think he's taking some serious risks, but the reality is there's not much of a way to avoid that when DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj are injured and you've made the decision to play Johnson as an attacker.
DaMarcus Beasley's inclusion was a surprise for two reasons. First, he played just four minutes the U.S. team's January friendlies despite being in camp. Second, he missed the Houston Dynamo's recent win against Columbus for personal reasons.
The decision to select Villafana over Garza was a bit of a surprise considering Garza has looked good as a starter in two matches with Atlanta United while Villafana has played one Copa MX match since taking part in the U.S. January camp. Villafana did look better than Garza in the friendly appearances for the U.S., which has given him the edge.
At right back, Orozco has an advantage in that he's started in that role in Club Tijuana's past two league matches and has plenty of experience at the position. That said, his lack of pace could be a problem against Honduras speedsters like Romell Quioto and Andy Najar.
Arena did say that Geoff Cameron is a possibility at right back, which makes sense, although a John Brooks-Omar Gonzalez center back pairing could be vulnerable against Honduras' pace as well.
CAMERON POSITIONAL ROTATION RETURNS, TO A DEGREE
Just when you think Cameron has settled on a position, he winds up somewhere else. He had a monster Copa America as a center back, then Klinsmann played him at right back in September's qualifying win against Trinidad and Tobago. Upon his return to Stoke City, he has played exclusively as a defensive midfielder.
Arena wouldn't settle on a specific position for Cameron like he did for Johnson, but it does sound as though he won't be using Cameron in midfield.
"At Stoke he’s playing as a defensive midfielder, sitting in front of the center backs. For the national team, he’s played more often than not as a center back, but he’s also played right back and holding midfielder," Arena said. "We don’t want to make a habit of moving players around a whole lot, but in this case we’ll probably look at Geoff as either a center back or a right back."
What Arena does with Cameron will depend on both the opponent and his other center back options. If Arena finds a suitable partner for John Brooks in central defense, be it Gonzalez or Walker Zimmerman, it would make it that much easier to play Cameron at right back. Panama's forwards are more dangerous than its wingers, while the reverse is true for Honduras, so we could see Cameron at right back against Honduras, then in central defense against Panama.
What is clear is that Cameron will start. It's just unfortunate for Arena that he doesn't have three versions of Cameron, because all three would start for the U.S.
PASSING ON OLDER PLAYMAKERS
When Klinsmann was fired, Feilhaber probably figured this was his opportunity to return to the national team fold and stake a prominent claim. Arena did give him a look, but what Feilhaber may not have considered is younger options who would also be battling for the same spots.
Arena rates Sebastian Lletget (24) and Darlington Nagbe (26) very highly and both are younger than Feilhaber (32) and Sacha Kljestan (31), who were both left out of the squad. Arena clearly believes Lletget is a dynamic player capable of taking on a big role with the national team and it wouldn't be a shock if he gets the starting nod against Honduras.
There is also the Pulisic factor. The teenager has been thriving in an attacking midfield role with Borussia Dortmund, on the occasions when Thomas Tuchel deploys him centrally, and Arena clearly likes what he sees. If Arena is ready to give Pulisic the playmaker role, then it makes sense that he would also see it as an opportunity to develop some other young options.
One older playmaker who is on the team is Clint Dempsey, who is more than comfortable playing behind the strikers. Arena is trying to temper expectations around Dempsey by suggesting he could play a super sub role, which isn't a bad idea.
When the New York Red Bulls traded away McCarty in stunning fashion this winter, it would have been easy for him to sulk and be distracted. His reaction instead was to be motivated by the move, jumping into the U.S. January camp and impressing Arena, then joining the Chicago Fire and helping the Fire get off to a 1-0-1 start.
It was enough to convince Arena that the midfielder was worth having for some crucial matches, and now McCarty will have his first chance to take part in meaningful national team action.
"I’ve known Dax for a number of years, I think he’s a very good player," Arena said. "I saw him up close in our camp in January. He played well. He’s experienced, he communicates well. He fits in well with the group, and watching him play in his first two games with Chicago convinced me that he can be a player that can be an important part of our squad."
Arena had other options he could consider, such as Perry Kitchen, Danny Williams and Alfredo Morales, but seeing McCarty thrive in the face of adversity was enough to show Arena that McCarty is just the kind of player you want on your team with everything on the line.
SHAKE-UP AT CENTER BACK
It wasn't too long ago that Walker Zimmerman couldn't make the U.S. Under-20 World Cup squad. Four years later, the center back could feature prominently in matches that help determine whether the senior team goes to its eighth straight World Cup.
The 23-year-old FC Dallas standout enjoyed a breakout 2016 season, then jumped right into the January camp and turned heads with his work ethic, poise and toughness. That has helped him move past some accomplished central defenders to make a team where the likes of Steve Birnbaum, Matt Hedges and Besler didn't get in.
Will Zimmerman start in the March qualifiers? That might be too much, too soon, but the experience of even being in a World Cup qualifying camp should help him continue to grow as one of the best young defenders in the national team pool.
Tim Ream's inclusion is also noteworthy because he has managed to move ahead of Besler in the pecking order for left center backs. While Brooks may be the clear-cut first choice in that role, the Hertha Berlin star has had his struggles with staying healthy, so Ream could be called on sooner than later. It is a deserving nod given the fact Ream has played well and settled into a starting central defender role at Fulham.
What does it mean for Besler's national team future? At 30, he could be phased out soon, but he should see another opportunity this summer to reclaim a role. The same goes for Birnbaum, who has had his share of strong outings for the national team and, at 26, is still very much in the conversation.