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Danny Williams says he heard MLS marketing influenced USMNT roster selections

Bruce Arena denies the claims

Portugal vs USA - International Friendly Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

U.S. Men’s National Team and Huddersfield Town midfielder Danny Williams gave a wide ranging interview with Joe Prince-Wright of NBC Sports last week. In it, he discussed his national team and club career. However, the comments that are getting the most attention are those he made about not being included on the USMNT and why he thinks he never got a call up by former manager Bruce Arena.

Despite being a regular starter for Championship side Reading FC and Huddersfield Town in the Premier League, Williams had not received a USMNT call-up since October of 2016 until his most recent call-up last November. Williams acknowledged that there were trust issues between between him and his USMNT coaches in the past and that his performances hadn’t been excellent. However, Williams says he has grown as a player telling NBC, “I’m a bit more mature and older now and nobody can break me down that easy. I’ve shown people I can fight and I want to leave that in the past.”

Williams went on to say that in the year between national team call-ups he never got a good explanation from coach Bruce Arena about why he wasn’t being called into USMNT squads. This is despite his play taking a step forward, as shown by his transfer to Premier League side Huddersfield. The response he got from Arena confused him even more as he told Prince-Wright, “Bruce Arena emailed me and said ‘you’re in the picture but I haven’t really seen you.’ And I thought that was a bit strange because you must know your players, don’t you? Especially because I am not 18.” As a result, the midfielder was never given a chance to show the leadership and talent he did in the recent friendly against Portugal while Arena was manager.

The result was that Williams watched a team that had central midfielders Dax McCarty and Alejandro Bedoya called in ahead of him lose to Trinidad & Tobago and fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

As the months have passed since the USMNT was eliminated from the tournament, just about everyone has asked: how this could happen? It seems like one explanation could be that Bruce Arena wanted a core of “his guys” to get the team to the tournament. That notion is seemingly illustrated by the fact that he played a starting 11 with six MLS based players in back to back games in the final two matches of the Hex. Williams added to that narrative telling NBC, “I heard from a few people that they tried to ‘market the MLS’ a bit more, in the [World Cup] qualifying games and get a name for the MLS. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about quality and bringing the best players and having a plan. That is it.”

In response to those comments, Bruce Arena sent a text message to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle saying, “We took who we felt were the best players, regardless of where they played. The statements are completely false.” The article then goes on to point out that neither MLS nor U.S. Soccer would comment about Williams’ claims. However, the text message from Arena must have been persuasive to Carlisle, who called what Williams was told about marketing MLS players absurd on Twitter, because he did say:

But despite Arena's close ties to the domestic league, only 52 percent of starters in his eight World Cup qualifiers in charge came from MLS. Considering only outfield players, the percentage of MLS-based starters drops to 47.5. The numbers varied by game. Four MLS-based players started in the squad that drew in Mexico City in June, but nine MLS players started the draw in Honduras in September.

Somehow, this defense of Arena managed to omit that he started 6 MLS players in back to back games for the final two matches of the Hex. This doesn’t include Omar Gonzalez, a player Arena coached in MLS at the LA Galaxy, being selected over Geoff Cameron. After the match, it was reported that Arena told Cameron he was not fit enough to play, despite having gone the full 90 in his most recent match for Stoke City in the Premier League, and that Gonzalez would start in his place. Cameron was one of only seven players on the roster called into the final two matches who play in leagues outside of MLS. To put it another way, 30 percent of the players for the last two deciding games of the Hex were from leagues other than MLS.

In addition, the notion that Arena prefers MLS players, as Williams says he was informed of, has been asserted by Arena himself several times. Before the 2014 World Cup, he told the New York Times, “I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer.”

Arena has even gone so far as to describe the benefits of marketing in his roster selections by suggesting dual-nationals not be selected saying, “When they can recognize our players and who they are and where they came from, they’ll be more supportive of the sport, and that’s a big plus in terms of marketing. When we do it with randomly selecting people from all over that really have no connection, I don’t think it hits home with people we want supporting our sport and our national team.” Of course, the former USMNT manager also infamously told ESPN the Magazine, “Players on the national team should be–and this is my own feeling–they should be Americans.”

Somehow, the ESPN article doesn’t take into account what Arena has said time and time again and how his comments support what Williams says he heard. It also doesn’t say if Williams was reached out to for further clarification on who told him what he heard. Rather it uses a selective choice of statistics to defend the former USMNT manager in the discussion of Williams’ comments. Based on his roster selections and what he has said in the past about preferring to select MLS players, it certainly seems like Bruce Arena was trying to prove the point that he had made time and again about foreign-born Americans and players in leagues outside of MLS.

As far as looking forward, Williams is hopeful for the USMNT telling NBC, “When I see the young boys I played with against Portugal, I am sure there are more out there who are hungry and happy to learn and make the step to Europe to get out of their comfort zone and be successful. That is what it needs and what it takes.” For now, the USMNT is in a rebuilding process, a process that Danny Williams hopes to be a part of.