Bruce Arena stepped down as U.S. men’s national team coach Friday morning, three days after the team failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup with a humiliating 2-1 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago.
In a statement released by U.S. Soccer, Arena said: “When I took the job last November, I knew there was a great challenge ahead, probably more than most people could appreciate. Everyone involved in the program gave everything they had for the last 11 months and, in the end, we came up short. No excuses. We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, who has been under pressure from critics to resign, said he also takes responsibility for the team’s failure, but does not plan to give up his job. At least not right away. He said he’ll decide “in the coming weeks” whether to seek re-election in February 2018.
Pressed about why he thinks he deserves to keep his post when the U.S. team will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986, Gulati defended the sport’s growth in America during his 11-year regime.
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“I look at the totality of where we’ve come from, and where the game is generally now — with our professional leagues, with player development, with our economic resources, all of those things — those things didn’t happen overnight, and they didn’t happen on their own.”
Gulati said an interim coach would be named in the next 10 days to lead the team in a pair of November friendlies.
Arena took over the team on Nov. 22, 2016 and replaced Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired following World Cup qualifying losses against Mexico and Costa Rica. Arena was a logical replacement, as he had coached the national team from 1998 to 2006 and led it to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
The team was energized by Arena’s hiring early on, but appeared sluggish when it mattered most, in a do-or-die game Tuesday at last-place Trinidad and Tobago. The U.S. team needed only a tie to stay alive. There was only one scenario in which the United States would be eliminated – a U.S. loss coupled with wins by Panama and Honduras – and the unthinkable happened.
Gulati said it is unfair to judge the entire U.S. program based on one painful loss. Nevertheless, he admitted the U.S. elimination from World Cup contention was “a shock to the system.”
“We’re going to look at everything we do on the technical side,” he said. “It is something we do after every competition. This will obviously be a deeper dive. Player development, coaching, pay-to-play model, our universities. … Where we need to make major changes, we’ll do that. Where we have to make incremental changes, we’ll do that. We’ll probably get external help.”
Arena called the national team job “the greatest privilege for any coach” and said he was “honored and grateful” to have had that opportunity twice in his career.
“This certainly is a major setback for the senior Men's National Team program, and questions rightly should be asked about how we can improve,” Arena said. “Having said that, it also is important to recognize the tremendous growth and accomplishments we have achieved over the past two decades in all areas, including player development, coaching education and a stable domestic professional league. This work is ongoing and despite the result in Trinidad, the sport is on the right path.”
He apologized to fans.
“Obviously, the biggest disappointment is for our fans,” Arena said. “As a person involved in the sport for more than 40 years, to see how support for soccer in the United States has grown is incredibly gratifying. I believe I speak for everyone involved in the game in thanking all of you for your passion and commitment, and I hope you maintain your steadfast support of U.S. Soccer.
“While this is a difficult time, I maintain a fierce belief that we are heading in the right direction. I believe in the American player and the American coach, and with our combined efforts the future remains bright. I don't know what the future holds for me, but I can say this from the bottom of my heart: from the high of reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup to the low of a few days ago; I have appreciated every minute of being a part of this program.”