Funny, isn’t it, how Bruce Arena, a coach dismissed by U.S. Soccer on July 14, 2006, after winning more games than any coach in national team history, is now considered the man best suited to correct the Jurgen Klinsmann experiment that didn’t quite work out?
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati pursued Klinsmann for years, fully believing the German legend’s international experience, upbeat personality and modern-age philosophies were just what the U.S. team needed to reach the next level after 13 years under Arena and his successor, Bob Bradley.
Arena led the team to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, the best finish in 70-plus years, but failed to get the team out of the group stage at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Bradley’s team got to the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup, but he was let go in July 2011 after a loss to Mexico in the final of the Gold Cup.
Surely, Klinsmann could do better, Gulati thought.
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But after five years of tinkering and promising, and a parade of players in the lineup, the U.S. team hadn’t really changed all that much. The Americans survived the Group of Death at the 2014 World Cup, but then lost an extra-time game to Belgium. They had an earlier-than-expected exit at the Gold Cup last summer, lost a game to Guatemala, and now find themselves in last place in World Cup qualifying after the first home loss to Mexico since 1972 and an embarrassing 4-0 loss at Costa Rica.
Most troubling of all, the players looked uninspired against Costa Rica and haven’t looked particularly fired up since the World Cup in Brazil.
With a year and a half to go until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it makes perfect sense to bring in a coach who has done the job before, knows the system and is very familiar with the U.S. talent — particularly the players in Major League Soccer, where he has won five titles.
“I don’t view it as Bruce II but sort of Bruce 2.0,” Gulati said. “He’s got far more experience than he did when he had the national team the first go-around and has proven, and re-proven, many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he is an extraordinarily capable and successful coach.”
Funny how we sometimes appreciate someone more after they’ve been gone for a while.
Arena, 65, said he is better equipped for the job now than he was then.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I’ve had 10 years on the field at the club level and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented players in the world and understanding how they work and how to build a team; and I’ve continued to grow on the tactical side.
“I think 10 years later I’m better prepared for this job than I was in 1998 and 2002, and ultimately 2006. I’m better at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of players and I think I’m better at how you build a team. Certainly, this time around it’s going to be a great challenge. I’m excited about it and, hopefully, all my experiences help us quickly get this team turned around and ready for qualifying.”
Don’t expect wholesale changes in the player pool. Although Arena stated in a 2013 interview that he thought all players on the team “should be American” — an apparent knock at the German dual nationals Klinsmann had brought in — he backtracked on those comments last week. In fact, Arena had five dual nationals on his 2002 team and Klinsmann had seven on his team.
“As a starting point, one of my favorite players in my eight years as national team coach was [Dutch dual citizen] Ernie Stewart,” Arena said. “I believe that anyone that has a United States passport is certainly eligible to play for our national team. I embrace all players. I just want to make sure their heart’s in the right place and when they put the U.S. jersey on they’re playing for that crest on that shirt. It’s important to me; I have a great passion for this national team and I expect the same out of all players.
“I really look forward to working with our foreign-nationals as well as our domestic players.”
His first order of business is to “build the chemistry” that might have eroded. Then, to figure out the style that best works with his talent. Arena isn’t much of an experimenter. He tends to keep things simple.
“Your style is dictated by the quality of your players,” Arena said. “Certainly, there are things you can do tactically to allow that to blossom. But we are who we are. The American quality has certainly been a team that’s hard to play against.”
One thing is for sure. Arena will be under more scrutiny now than he was when he took the job the first time in 1998.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that pressure has increased on everyone involved in the game,” Gulati said. “One, changes in technology and the speed of information and social media adds a dimension of pressure that wouldn’t have been the same for Bruce in his first go-round. Two, our fans are far more intelligent about the game. They’re passionate … so our fans know the game in a way that may not have been the case in such numbers 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago.”
Arena is embracing the challenge, and joked: “I would have done this job for free.”
English Premier League: Chelsea (31), Liverpool, Manchester City (30), Arsenal (25), Tottenham (24).
La Liga: Real Madrid (33), Sevilla (27), Barcelona (26), Villarreal, Real Sociedad (22).
Serie A: Juventus (33), Milan (29), Roma (26), Torino, Lazio and Atalanta (25).
Ligue 1: Monaco, Nice (32), PSG (29), Rennes (24), Guincamp, Bordeaux (22).
Bundesliga: Leipzig (30), Bayern Munich (27), Eintracht (24), Koln, Hoffenheim (22).
Sunday: Arsenal vs. Bournemouth (9:15 a.m., CNBC), Osasuna vs. Atletico Madrid (10:15 a.m., BeINSport), Manchester United vs. West Ham (11:30 a.m., NBCSN), Real Sociedad vs. Barcelona (2:45 p.m., BeINSport), Colorado vs. Seattle MLS Playoffs (4 p.m., ESPN).