Bruce Arena rejects concern that U.S. Soccer favored MLS players

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Former United States coach Bruce Arena says it is "completely false" that U.S. Soccer tried to "market" MLS with its player selection during World Cup qualifying, following suggestions from midfielder Danny Williams.

Williams said in an interview with NBC Sports last week that a topic of conversation in the most recent national team camp was the belief that "political things going on behind-the-scenes" influenced call-ups in favor of MLS players during the campaign that saw the U.S. miss the World Cup.

Williams, who joined Huddersfield Town this summer after the English club was promoted to the Premier League, also questioned why he was never called up Arena in 2017.

But Arena rejected the claims, telling ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle in a text message on Tuesday: "We took who we felt were the best players, regardless of where they played. The statements are completely false."

Arena resigned in October, and Williams then returned to captain the U.S. squad that drew 1-1 with Portugal in a friendly last month. Two-thirds of the players in that team were not in the squad that lost to Trinidad and Tobago in the final World Cup qualifier in October.

"I think there are too many political things going on behind-the-scenes," Williams told NBC, though he also cautioned: "I wasn't really close enough with the team for that amount of time so I can't really talk, or give too much information, because I don't really know about what happened."

He added: "Obviously I spoke to the boys when I was in Portugal. Everybody has a different view. I heard from a few people that they tried to 'market the MLS' a bit more, in the 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."

MLS and U.S. Soccer declined to comment to ESPN FC about Williams' remarks.

The numbers behind the teams for the U.S.'s World Cup qualifiers do not support Williams' suggestions that MLS players were favored over foreign-based players.

The U.S. began the final CONCACAF hexagonal qualifying round under German coach Jurgen Klinsmann. In opening defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica, Klinsmann started four MLS-based outfield players -- Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Jozy Altidore -- and six players who belong to foreign clubs.

Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard faced Mexico, while Middlesbrough's Brad Guzan played against Costa Rica. Guzan then signed with MLS club Atlanta United two months later, before his next U.S. appearance.

After those results, U.S. Soccer fired Klinsmann and re-hired Bruce Arena, who had coached in MLS since his last stint as U.S. manager ended in 2006 and said in 2013 he wanted more American-born players in the U.S. squad.

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.

Nevertheless, Williams, who was born and raised in Germany and has never played in MLS, couldn't help but wonder why he was left out completely by Arena. He earned five caps in 2015 and three in 2016 under Klinsmann but also said he "never felt the trust" under either coach.

"It was frustrating but nobody really ever talked to me or gave me a reason [for not recalling me]," said Williams, who was unavailable for the October qualifiers with a foot injury.

"I didn't even know what the reason was, you know? Some people might have said 'you only play in the [English] Championship' or whatever, but I think the Championship is still a strong league and I think you could see last year with Newcastle and even the teams down there now they are big teams, big, big clubs and good football players.

"I could never understand why I was [not] invited because I think in the four years at Reading I did, basically, everything in my power to show the world that I am still on a good level and I can perform. Obviously I was a bit unlucky with injuries but in my opinion nobody really spoke to me.

"Some people wanted to play the MLS guys a little more but whatever, but 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.

"I was around the camp but I read something where he said the players Klinsmann invited were German-Americans, I don't know what it was, but I felt a bit weird about it because I played on a high level for basically now eight or nine years.

"But again, I didn't really want to say anything because, what could I do? I can't influence if a manager likes me or not but I think we could all get a fair chance. It was a bit weird but hopefully now that I'm in the Premier League, that will change."