Carson, Ca. – After several uncharacteristic days of rain, the sun finally won out last Saturday presenting us with a stereotypically perfect Southern California day at the StubHub Center.
The StubHub Center, home to the Los Angeles Galaxy and now the San Diego, sorry L.A. Chargers, stood behind us at the end of a palm tree-lined drive surrounded on either side by playing fields.
The setting at the Glenn “Mooch” Myernick field was idyllic as 32 players more or less, waged a friendly/serious all out war to catch the eye of the new/old boss, Bruce Arena.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati has dubbed this Arena, Bruce 2.0 and open practices like this one seem to indicate a new era of clarity following five years spent squinting through the opaque haze under Arena’s predecessor.
Standing pitchside after Ubering out from downtown L.A. I stood amongst a small group of media taking in U.S. MNT training while a decent smattering of fans was welcomed to watch from just beyond the chain link fence.
No state secrets were revealed as a result of this new transparency, what was learned, however, was just how badly this group of MLSers wanted to be out on that field, fighting for a place on the national team.
Arena divided the players into four groups and let them have at it. I spoke one on one with Jordan Morris afterward and the 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year told me there is “a good energy surrounding the group, obviously, with a new coaching staff guys are excited to get in and try to prove that they belong here.”
After receiving his first call-ups under Jurgen Klinsmann while still attending Stanford University, Morris was left off of the U.S. MNT that took on the best that South America and CONCACAF had to offer last summer. Given the rapid rise Morris had enjoyed with the national team I asked the 22-year-old if he had been surprised by Klinsmann’s snub.
“It’s always your goal to get called into tournaments like Copa America,” Morris said, “but I understood. There were a lot of good forwards and that’s ok, it just added a little bit of fuel to my fire to try and get back.”
The way Morris was flying around Myernick Field only underscored what he told me when he said, “now that I’m back hopefully I prove that I belong here and try to get a few more minutes on the field.”
Morris was just one of several players who impressed on the morning that I attended training. Some highlights included a Jermaine Jones goal off of a bicycle kick that was set up by a lovely chip from transitioning fullback Graham Zusi.
Greg Garza and youngster Keegan Rosenberry also impressed from the fullback position while Juan Agudelo scored a couple of goals that not too many other U.S. players are capable of. Jozy Altidore banged home a couple of goals as well and was also involved in an interesting exchange of challenges with Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp.
In the first action the TFC forward cleanly dispossessed Trapp with the ease of an overzealous parent at a father-son game. But Trapp showed his mettle moments later when he went back at the big striker, clipping Altidore’s heels with a tackle of questionable legality while sending a message of his own.
All the while Arena and assistant coach/son Kenny, shouted instructions and encouragement at the players from either end of the pitch, the younger Arena looking like a time-lapse image of his father while also sounding virtually the same.
After, Bruce roamed among the recovering players offering aid and comfort. Leaning down to give a pat on the shoulder to Agudelo, then asking Chad Marshall, “how are you doing,” before answering for him. “I know you’d rather be lying on a beach somewhere.”
For Morris, after his hectic 2016, national team camp was exactly where he wanted to be. Having turned pro after three years at Stanford, Morris began his rookie season as the third, maybe fourth option in a Seattle attack that featured Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, and Nelson Valdez.
By the time the Sounders raised the MLS Cup, Morris along with mid-season arrival Nicolas Lodeiro was the focal point of the attack that had lost Martin to China, Dempsey to a heart scare and was just then beginning to get something from Valdez.
Standing patiently in his stocking feet on a muddy Myernick Field, Morris told me he “liked being the guy to try and score the goals,” adding, “it helped me grow as a player.” “Coming in,” Morris recalled, “I could kind of pass it off to him (Dempsey), let him do his thing but I kind of did take over a little bit more of that responsibility with him out, so I think it helped me grow and become more confident.”
Morris hopes that new found confidence has been showing through in camp, noting “that the goal in every training camp is to try and prove yourself.”
Minus the European and Mexican-based squad members, Morris and his fellow campers have the chance to make a positive first impression on the new boss and from what I witnessed on that sunny Saturday morning the players on hand are doing just that.
As Morris put, “the guys have been buzzing.” “Everyone,” Morris said, “is very friendly, there is a healthy competition there, people are fighting for spots and I think it’s a good thing.”
The first chance to see how Arena has evaluated this group’s efforts will come in a pair of friendlies at the conclusion of camp. Up first is Serbia on January 29, at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, followed by a showdown against Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tennessee on February 3.
Then it is down to business when the Americans begin the process of trying to dig out of a two-game hole in World Cup Qualifying. On March 24, the U.S. will host Honduras. ESPN is reporting the venue as San Jose’s Avaya Stadium, although U.S. Soccer has yet to confirm.
The Yanks then take to the road to face Panama on February 3. We’ll know a lot more about the fate of the U.S. World Cup bid after this two-game set, and depending on the results, we may see just how committed the U.S. MNT and Bruce Arena are to this whole new openness policy.