Feilhaber, Villafana, and the four others who improved their stocks with the USMNT's win over Jamaica
United States men’s national team head coach Bruce Arena has now had two friendlies to identify players he can call on to supplement the core roster for March qualifiers.
Arena has stated multiple times that there won’t be wholesale changes to the U.S. team. Not with the Americans’ World Cup qualification in the balance. But with Jermaine Jones suspended for the team’s next qualifier and the U.S. looking to upgrade its depth at multiple positions, several players made a case for inclusion in this cycle.
Some deserve to be a part of the team in March. Here’s a look at the players who left an impression coming out of January camp. (Graham Zusi certainly increased his value as a player that can provide depth in two spots, but because he’s been such a big part of the U.S. pool, he won’t be included on the list.)
The Sueño MLS winner finally got an invitation to the U.S. national team, joining January camp for the friendlies, and the left back showed why so many had called for him to join up with the national team.
Villafaña showed the same attacking qualities that made him so dangerous for the Portland Timbers during its 2015 run to an MLS Cup, and his combination play on the left with Sebastian Lletget was one of the bright spots of the Jamaica win. With little to no depth at left back, Villafaña could finally be the answer at the position – which would also allow Arena to move Fabian Johnson back up into a midfield role.
If there’s one player we point to that emerged in this camp, it might just be the 27-year-old Santos Laguna defender.
The LA Galaxy midfielder has fought his way back into the player pool, and he’s earned consideration for a starting job in the midfield in March. Lletget is the type of No. 8 who can cover ground and create in the final third, which would be a nice substitute for Jones, who won’t be able to play against Honduras. Whether Lletget starts depends on if Arena opts for a four- or five-man midfield – a 4-4-2 might force Arena to go with a more attacking-minded player like Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber – but the 24-year-old has showed enough to earn a spot in the squad in March.
McCarty wasn’t perfect in his national team return, but his smart defensive positioning and ability to keep things calm from a deep-lying role in midfield makes him the clearest back-up to Michael Bradley in this pool. McCarty has proven his ability at the MLS level, and he had to wait almost six years for a chance to prove his mettle on the international level. McCarty was solid against Jamaica, setting up the Jordan Morris goal with a pass that beat the lines to allow Benny Feilhaber to make the final combination, and he definitely proved he is the type of Kyle Beckerman-esque presence missing in the current U.S. team. He’s a reliable, quality depth piece that can also help the U.S. if it needs to play with two deep defensive midfielders in front of the back line.
As the U.S. national team considers the best formation to play going forward, it needed a No. 10 to emerge in this camp. Kljestan has shown flashes since his return to the national team, but if there is one playmaker that stood out across the two games – and yes, Kljestan missed the second game to be with his wife, who is expecting – it has to be Feilhaber.
The Sporting Kansas City midfielder had a better showing against Serbia and then set up Jordan Morris’ goal in a 1-0 win over Jamaica. As Landon Donovan said during the broadcast “there are many players that can make average plays, but can you make a special play? Benny made a special play tonight.”
Feilhaber isn’t a perfect player, but if you provide him the support behind in midfield, he’s more than capable of picking out the final pass, which is something the U.S. has been lacking in recent years. If Arena opts to go with a 4-2-3-1 moving forward, Feilhaber showed enough to be in the conversation for that No. 10 role, though Kljestan probably ranks atop the depth chart at this point in time.
Nagbe found his way into the doghouse during Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign. He quickly worked his way out of it under Arena.
Nagbe is a playmaker, and he has a skillset that isn’t exactly found in spades in the U.S. pool. His ability to play on either wing or centrally makes him a valuable option for Arena on the roster come World Cup qualifiers in March. He will push the likes of Johnson and Pulisic on the wings, while also being an option in the No. 10 role in a pinch, though he’s been much more effective on the outside for Portland.
The Timbers star shouldn’t be considered a surprise out of this camp, but he’s worthy of a shout after a strong camp.
The young FC Dallas center back earned plenty of praise coming out of January camp – from Arena and the broadcasters during the game, Landon Donovan and Stu Holden, two former U.S. national team stars.
Zimmerman played mistake-free soccer in his first international appearance, and at a time when the center back depth chart has been cut down some by injury, he becomes yet another option at the position. Zimmerman has been very good in MLS, though he does partner with the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, Matt Hedges, but he did well enough in his first cap and earned at least a look down the road.
Will he be a part of the March qualifiers? Maybe not. But you can definitely expect to see the 23-year-old Zimmerman called up for the Gold Cup this summer.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.