World Cup qualifying

JACKSONVILLE, FL - JUNE 07: Midfielder Michael Bradley #4 of the United States congratulates forward Jozy Altidore #17 after Altidore's first half goal during the international friendly match against Nigeria at EverBank Field on June 7, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

USA vs. Serbia preview: Bruce’s USMNT (re-)debut

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You only get one chance to make a first impression, or so they say. That rule doesn’t apply to Bruce Arena, though, who’s less than 48 hours from making his re-debut as head coach of the U.S. national team.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Fairly or unfairly, more concrete conclusions will be drawn from Arena’s first two games back in charge — friendlies against Serbia (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET) and Jamaica (next Friday) — than any other January camp fixtures in recent memory. With 2018 World Cup qualifying set to resume in March, the USMNT currently sits sixth out of six sides in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal round, with zero points from two games.

Thus, momentum and a cohesive unit must be realized with startling urgency. Without a single on of the USMNT’s European-based players available for the annual winter camp, it’s the MLS-based players, with whom Arena will be quite familiar thanks to his time as LA Galaxy head coach, who have the first crack at impressing the new boss.

[ MORE: Arena not panicking (yet) about USMNT’s place in WCQ ]

All the usual suspects retain their places — Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore (set to earn his 100th USMNT cap), Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, to name a few — remain as holdovers from the Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann years, while a whole host of castaways and/or overlooked prospects return with a new lease on life — Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty and Sebastian Lletget, for example.

Arena named 31 players to the original roster as camp kicked off two weeks ago, before Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges and Kekuta Manneh departed earlier in the week, and six more players — Gyasi Zardes, Taylor Kemp, Keegan Rosenberry, Brian Rowe, Wil Trapp, and Chris Wondolowski — were released back to their club teams on Friday as the squad was whittled down to 23 players for Sunday and Friday’s friendlies.

FULL 23-MAN ROSTER

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna, MEX), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union)

Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)

VIDEO: Arena not panicking (yet) about USMNT’s place in WCQ

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Bruce Arena isn’t panicking about the U.S. national team’s current standing in 2018 World Cup qualifying — not yet, at least.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

In truth, why should the newly re-appointed USMNT boss be worried? He was only brought into the job in November, and won’t take charge of his (second) first game until Sunday (4 p.m. ET, versus Serbia), so while the present predicament is now his problem, it’s also 100 percent not his fault. In a sense, Arena’s playing with house money — if the Yanks qualify for the World Cup, he’s the hero who swooped in a saved the day; if they don’t, zero points from two games to begin the Hex was just too deep of a hole to climb out of:

“I think there will be pressure on the teams. I think there’s pressure on all six teams in the competition right now, because even Costa Rica, because any kind of slip-up from them, everyone’s back in the hunt again. It’s still early in the campaign, and I think a win [for the USMNT] changes a lot of things — three, four, or six points in the first two games would get us right back in the thick of things.”

[ MORE: Finally official — Guzan returning to MLS, but not until the summer ] 

Along with the obviously — qualifying for Russia 2018 — Arena has one eye squarely focused on this summer’s Gold Cup, which will not only give a number of youngsters their first competitive crack at the USMNT, but move the program that much closer to qualifying for the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar, the year prior to the 2022 World Cup:

“We brought in some young guys that I’m more or less looking at for the Gold Cup. I would say that would be the case with [Taylor] Kemp and [Keegan] Rosenberry, for example. Even [Walker] Zimmerman, I think they’re all candidates for the Gold Cup, so we wanted to have an opportunity to see them here, then we’re going to follow them during their MLS seasons before we make those decisions.”

“Exceeded expectations — I would say Walker Zimmerman impresses me every day, and Matt Hedges did as well. They are two good center backs at [FC] Dallas, and it’s unfortunate that Matt got nicked up a little bit, but we really feel responsible to the MLS clubs in these kind of settings, where if there’s any damage or injury to a player, we’re going to be responsible and send them back, so they’re ready for their seasons. We’ve done that in this case. We could have kept those guys around, but we felt that that’s the more responsible thing to do.

“So, Zimmerman has done well; I think [Sebastian] Lletget has done well; I think some of the veteran guys continue to demonstrate why they’ve been leaders with the team. I would say [Michael] Bradley, [Jozy] Altidore, [Jermaine] Jones, they’re really impressive individuals on a daily basis, and they bring a lot of character and experience to the team.”

The merits of a 48-team World Cup (and sample draw)

DUBLIN, IRELAND - NOVEMBER 18:  Anthony Stokes (R) of Ireland takes on Fabian Johnson (L) of USA during the International Friendly match between the Republic of Ireland and USA at the Aviva Stadium on November 18, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
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There are fans in certain confederations disappointed at the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026.

A vocal group of Europeans already think it should essentially be a Europe-heavy tournament, and expect the expansion will lead to many blowouts.

Some American and CONCACAF fans worry it will dilute World Cup qualifying, snaring drama from so many fun nights across North and Central America.

[ MORE: World Cup expansion confirmed ]

There’s something in those arguments, but the gains will outweigh the losses across the world. In other words, we have to be careful that we aren’t living in an echo chamber that the political world would even find a bit goofy.

Consider New Zealand, by far the strongest team in its region, has not be assured a spot in the tournament unless it can win a playoff tie. Or great stories like Bob Bradley‘s Egypt, who was at the mercy of a home-and-home battle for a World Cup group despite going 6-0 in group play.

Look it’s easy to be selfish in these instances, but we are not likely to be dealing with the oft-cited “Tahiti in the 2013 Confederations Cup” scenario.

In fact, let’s consider how it would look. Let’s assume that the 16 groups of three teams still feature one seeded team and confederations remain separated.

[ MORE: Explaining the format ]

UEFA will get 16 teams, and have one team per group. CONMEBOL goes up to six teams, with CONCACAF going to 6.5. Africa goes up to nine, while Asia moves to 8.5. Oceania gets one, presumably, with the hosts snaring an extra.


Using ELOratings.net and the FIFA ratings, here is who would be headed for the World Cup:

Seeded: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, Colombia, France, Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, Switzerland, Wales, England, Croatia, Poland, HOSTS.

Remaining UEFA (5): Italy, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland, Turkey, Ukraine.

Brazil Soccer WCup Colombia Ivory CoastRemaining CONMEBOL (1): Ecuador.

CAF (9): Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Tunisia, Ghana.

Asia (9): South Korea, Iran, Japan, Australia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Syria.

CONCACAF (7): Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Panama, Honduras, Canada, Jamaica.

Oceania (1): New Zealand

[ MORE: Schneiderlin off to Everton ]



Now a sample draw, where two teams would advance from each group.

GROUP A:
Argentina
Italy
Senegal

GROUP B:
Brazil
Netherlands
Egypt

GROUP C:
Germany
Ivory Coast
Mexico

GROUP D:
Chile
Republic of Ireland
Nigeria

GROUP E:
Belgium
Syria
Algeria

GROUP F:
Colombia
Turkey
Cameroon

GROUP G:
France
Qatar
South Africa

GROUP H:
Portugal
UAE
Tunisia

GROUP I:
Uruguay
Ukraine
Ghana

GROUP J:
Spain
Saudi Arabia
Costa Rica

GROUP K:
Switzerland
Uzbekistan
United States

GROUP L:
Wales
Australia
Panama

GROUP M:
England
Japan
New Zealand

GROUP N:
Croatia
Iran
Honduras

GROUP O:
Poland
Ecuador
Canada

GROUP P:
HOSTS (Let’s cater to UEFA and say, uh, Greece)
South Korea
Jamaica

[ MORE: Odegaard leaving Real Madrid on loan ]


RECIFE, BRAZIL - JUNE 29: Giorgos Samaras of Greece controls the ball against Oscar Duarte of Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Costa Rica and Greece at Arena Pernambuco on June 29, 2014 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
RECIFE, BRAZIL – JUNE 29: Giorgos Samaras of Greece and Oscar Duarte of Costa Rica  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

So, you’re getting more games and more meaningful games, each in their own individual television window. Even groups that seem clean cut — like Spain, Saudi Arabia, and Costa Rica — could be flipped on their ear by the end of the first match.

For what it’s worth, I would not end every match with penalty kicks and keep draws. I’d rather see extra time than an impetus for Greece to pack it inside its own 18 for 90 minutes.

But I believe we’d see something better from a 48-team tournament, and it would mostly end the days of, “Man I wish this list of stars was at the World Cup” (or at least make the list much smaller).

As for the “dud teams” involved, those countries get one less guaranteed game by the move to 3-team groups. And while in some ways qualifying would certainly suffer, consider the following scenarios. With CONMEBOL having 1.5 more spots, you’d see teams 9 and 10 alive longer in qualifying. That’s why it’s arguably an improvement for South America, who should’ve gone to a Hex-style format long ago.

What do you think? Are you bummed about the 48-team World Cup? Or is a lot of the furor rooted in a preference to dislike FIFA moves from the hop?

Follow @NicholasMendola

USMNT World Cup qualifiers moved up slightly

PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Jermaine Jones #13 of the United States protects the ball against Hector Herrera #16 of Mexico during the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup Qualifier at Rose Bowl on October 10, 2015 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)
Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images
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CHICAGO (AP) The United States’ World Cup qualifiers in June have been moved up slightly because of Mexico’s participation in the Confederations Cup.

The U.S. Soccer Federation said Tuesday that the Americans’ home game against Trinidad and Tobago will be played June 8, a day earlier than first scheduled. The Americans’ match at Mexico will be played June 11, two days ahead of the original date.

Mexico plays its Confederations Cup opener against Portugal on June 18 in Kazan, Russia.

[ EXCLUSIVE: PST chats with Keegan Rosenberry ]

After the U.S. lost its opening two games in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region, coach Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena, the U.S. coach from 1998-2006.

The Americans resume qualifying at home against Honduras on March 24, then play four days later at Panama.

USMNT: Arena hopeful Dempsey ready for World Cup qualifiers

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 21:  Nicolas Otamendi #17 of Argentina and Clint Dempsey #8 of United States battle for the ball in the second half during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Semifinal match at NRG Stadium on June 21, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images
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USMNT coach Bruce Arena plans to call up Clint Dempsey, saying he’s “hopeful” the Seattle Sounders striker will be prepared to play in March’s World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Honduras.

Dempsey has been out of action since August, having undergone a pair of operations to correct heart problems.

[ PL: Top Six face December challenges ]

Goal.com’s Seth Vertelney has a quote from Arena:

“I spoke to Clint yesterday, he is making good progress,” Arena said. “Obviously his health is a priority. And we are hoping we can bring him into camp in January, just casually get back into the swing of things. Perhaps not even considering him playing, and then have him ready to go as Seattle starts their preseason (in February).”

The 33-year-old was part of the locker room celebrations on Saturday in Toronto following the Sounders’ triumph over TFC in penalty kicks.

Dempsey has scored 52 goals in 130 caps, with three of those goals coming in a star turn for the U.S. at the Copa America Centenario.

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