Anybody out there still wonder whether Bruce Arena was the right choice to replace Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. men’s national coach?
No, didn’t think so.
Arena, coaching his first World Cup qualifier since 2005, led the U.S. team to a 6-0 rout of Honduras late Thursday night in San Jose, Calif. It was the largest margin of victory ever for the United States in the final round of qualifying. Not only did they win big, “it looked pretty,” in the words of veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard.
The game was a must-win for an American team that was buried in last place in the six-nation World Cup qualifying group after being humbled by Mexico and humiliated by Costa Rica by a combined score of 6-1.
Somehow, Arena took a roster very similar to Klinsmann’s (minus some injured players) and was able to motivate the players and organize them into a team that hardly resembled the listless one that was shut out 4-0 at Costa Rica.
Klinsmann was a legend as a player, is a very nice guy, and did a good job with the U.S. team at the 2014 World Cup; but he seemed to have lost the locker room sometime over the last year. He kept tinkering to try to find the right combinations and formations; but in the process, some of his players seemed confused by their roles. Against Costa Rica, the team came out flat and things got worse as the game wore on.
Arena is known to keep things simple. Thursday night, the Americans were aggressive from the opening whistle, looked hungry, organized and confident. It could be they felt the sense of urgency after two losses. It could be they were energized because they were trying to impress their new coach. It could be that Arena’s lineup and tactical decisions worked better than Klinsmann’s.
Arena chose to start 34-year-old Clint Dempsey, who missed much of last year with an irregular heartbeat. Dempsey wound up scoring a hat trick, and giving a team on life support a new heartbeat.
Arena decided to play 18-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic at center attacking midfield instead of the wing, giving him more freedom to create offense. He had beautiful assists on two of Dempsey’s goals.
Although Dempsey is nearly twice Pulisic’s age, they connected as if they had been longtime teammates. That also allowed the other forward, Jozy Altidore, to do what he does best – hold the ball, draw defenders, and open space for others.
Arena started Portland’s talented midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who had fallen out of favor with Klinsmann. And he started San Francisco native Sebastian Lletget, whom he coached with the L.A. Galaxy, but who was never in Klinsmann’s plans. Lletget scored the first goal at the five-minute mark.
U.S. fans had more fun watching their team than they had in a long time. And they’re feeling a lot better about the team’s chances of reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The U.S. moved up to fourth place from sixth with six games left heading into Tuesday’s game at Panama. The top three earn spots to The World Cup. The fourth-place team goes into a playoff against the fifth place team from Asia.
The U.S. converted six of its eight shots against Honduras. It took only five minutes for Lletget to find the back of the net when he knocked in Pulisic’s deflected shot. Captain Michael Bradley made it 2-0 in the 27th minute and then Pulisic chipped a pass to Clint Dempsey, who made it 3-0 before halftime.
The Americans didn’t let up after the break. Pulisic scored 12 seconds into the second half to make it 4-0. Pulisic and Dempsey connected against to make it 5-0 and Dempsey struck again on a curling free kick in the 54th minute to stretch the lead to 6-0.
“The combination of Altidore-Dempsey-Pulisic was outstanding,” Arena said.
Yes, it was.
After the game, former U.S. players Landon Donovan and Alexi Lalas shared their views on Twitter. Most U.S. fans surely share their sentiments.
Donovan tweeted: “Emphatic statement by the US team and Dempey/Pulisic were sensational. Looked like a new team tonight. Can’t wait for Tuesday.”
“Welcome back, #USMNT. I missed you,” wrote Lalas. “This wasn’t just a win, this was a cleansing.”
Nobody came right out and said it, but the message was clear. A coaching change was needed, and Arena looks like the right man to right the ship.
English Premier League: Chelsea (69), Tottenham (59), Manchester City (57), Liverpool (56), Manchester United (52).
La Liga: Real Madrid (65), Barcelona (63), Sevilla (57), Atletico Madrid (55), Villarreal (48).
Serie A: Juventus (73), Roma (65), Napoli (63), Lazio (57), Inter (55).
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (62), Leipzig (49), Dortmund (46), Hoffenheim (45), Hertha (40).
Ligue 1: Monaco (71), PSG (68)m Nice (64), Lyon (50), Marseilles (46)
MLS: East – Atlanta, Orlando, NYRB 6. West – Portland 9, Dallas 7, Houston and San Jose 6.
Sunday: Azerbaijan vs. Germany World Cup qualifier (noon, ESPN2); Romania vs. Denmark (2:45 p.m., ESPN Deportes).