Filed under: Bruce Arena, Juergen Klinsmann, Uncategorized | Tags: 2002 World Cup, 2018 World Cup, Apollo XI moon landing, Bob Bradley, Brasil '14, Bruce Arena, CONCACAF Champions Cup, CONCACAF Gold Cup, Copa America Centenario, Costa Rica, DaMarcus Beasley, Dan Flynn, DC United, Germany, Hertha Berlin, Honduras, Interamerica Cup, John Brooks, Juergen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan, Los Angeles Galaxy, Mexico, Montreal '76, Moscow '80, NCAA, New Zealand, Panama, Panama City, Paraguay, Portugal, Project 2010, Rafael Marquez, Russia, Salt Lake City, Sunil Gulati, U.S. Open Cup, Under-17 World Cup, University of Virginia
Bruce Arena was named coach of the U.S. National Team, replacing Juergen Klinsmann, who was fired a day earlier.
It will be Arena’s second stint as U.S. coach. From 1998 to 2006 he compiled a 71-30-29 record, the most successful stretch in American history. A two-time winner of the CONCACAF Gold Cup (2002, 2005), he guided the Americans to an historic quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Portugal in their opening match before advancing out of the group and earning a 2-0 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16. The run ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Germany in the last eight.
“When we considered the possible candidates to take over the Men’s National Team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list,” said USSF President Sunil Gulati of Arena, who also led the U.S. to a three-and-out finish at the 2006 World Cup. “His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach. We all know Bruce will be fully committed to preparing the players for the next eight qualifying games and earning a berth to an eighth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.”
Since his first tour as U.S. boss, Arena served as general manager and coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2008 through this past season, winning Major League Soccer titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014. He rose to prominence by winning five NCAA championships as coach of the University of Virginia, then led DC United to the first two MLS titles, in 1996 and ’97, as well as the ’96 U.S. Open Cup. He also helped United become the first-ever U.S. team to lift the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the now-defunct Interamerican Cup, winning each in 1998.
“Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team, it’s an honor,” said Arena. “I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex. Working as a team, I’m confident that we’ll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”
The U.S. in early November opened the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with losses to Mexico, 2-1, at home, and at Costa Rica, 4-0. The Mexico defeat was the first home loss in a World Cup qualifier in 15 years. Those results left the Americans in last place, four points off the pace for the last direct qualifying berth with eight games remaining on the schedule. [November 22]
Comment I: The timing for the change was obvious for more than one reason.
The next U.S. qualifiers, against Honduras in Salt Lake City and Panama in Panama City, aren’t until March 24 and March 28, respectively. Roughly four months. Preceded by a low-key camp in January that traditionally includes a couple of friendlies where hopefuls from MLS and youngsters get a look. There isn’t as big a window for the rest of the Hexagonal. Plenty of time for Klinsmann’s replacement to pull together a staff and execute a smooth transition. It’s the American way. The USSF doesn’t fire its coaches on airport tarmacs after a big loss.
Then there was Arena himself. On a personal level, he was the obvious choice, like him or not. Arena is not the coach he was a decade ago. He’s now 65, and a doting grandfather. He signed a two-year contract with the USSF, and this obviously is his final hurrah. He has an ego, and he’d like to go out with a signature accomplishment, like a successful World Cup run, which wasn’t going to happen if he stayed in Los Angeles. What’s one more MLS Cup to Arena at this point?
Comment II: Juergen Klinsmann made the fatal mistake of over-promising.
He was hired to replace Bob Bradley in 2011 on the promise that he would not only lead the U.S. to victory but remake American soccer culture from the top down. Gulati doubled down on that promise in 2013, on the heels of a U.S.-record 12-game winning streak and Gold Cup title, by extending Klinsmann’s contract (a reported $3.2 million a year, through 2018) and crowning him men’s technical director to boot, placing the fates of the Olympic and national youth teams in his hands.
But the ups and downs of the Klinsmann era turned mostly to downs by 2015. That year the national team failed to finish in the top three in the Gold Cup for the first time since 2000, part of a slide in which the Americans lost four consecutive games on U.S. soil for the first time in a half-century. Meanwhile, on his watch as technical director, the U.S. failed to qualify for consecutive Olympic tournaments, something that hadn’t happened since Montreal ’76-Moscow ’80. As for the U.S. youth teams, the kids haven’t been alright. The U.S. under-20 team is winless in its last eight games against European nations by a combined score of 27-7, including a humiliating 8-1 pounding by Germany. The U.S. went winless at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, four years after failing to qualify for the first time ever. Remember how the U-17s reached the semifinals of the 1999 world championship in New Zealand and teens Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were named the tournament’s top two players?
Klinsmann, 52, departs having compiled a fine 55-27-16 record. There have been two World Cups, including one in which his team won a so-called “Group of Death,” in 2014. There was the fourth-place finish at last summer’s Copa America Centenario. And startling friendly victories: 1-0 at Italy in 2012; 4-3 at home over Germany in 2013; 4-3 at Holland and 2-1 at Germany in 2015. But he also exits with the cupboard bare: the Klinsmann national team pool is overly reliant on German players with U.S. passports and his youth teams–based on results–are a shambles. Little was built, and the fallout is the minor chaos that’s now Arena’s problem.
Comment III: So who’s to blame? Sunil Gulati.
He was one of the driving forces behind the ill-fated Project 2010, a laughably optimistic $50 million development surge launched by the USSF that was supposed to make America a legitimate contender for a World Cup title. The title of the 1998 report that introduced the project, “Winning the World Cup by 2010: Soccer’s Equivalent to the Apollo XI Moon Landing,” is best forgotten.
Gulati’s first major decision as federation president, in the weeks after the 2006 World Cup, was to allow Arena’s contract to expire, saying the team needed to go in a “fresh direction.” He hired Arena’s assistant, Bradley, as new national team coach, then found him wanting in 2011 and hired Klinsmann, ultimately giving the German, as noted above, an extension and adding technical director to his titles. Now it’s Arena, back to direct the U.S. in a presumably fresh direction.
As he completes the final two years of his third four-year term as U.S. Soccer supremo, Gulati’s legacy, and that of USSF Chief Executive Dan Flynn, will be one of continued success on the part of the U.S. women and utter mediocrity–even retreat–by the U.S. men at all levels.
Comment IV: Had Klinsmann lost his team?
One can only wonder. But there’s Klinsmann’s track record of rarely owning up to a mistake, of throwing players under the bus. The latest victim was young Hertha Berlin center back John Brooks who, as Klinsmann pointed out, lost his mark, Rafael Marquez, on Marquez’s late winner off a corner kick in the 2-1 loss to Mexico. Four nights later down in San Jose, a demoralized Brooks turned in a disastrous performance against Costa Rica. This same 23-year-old came close to earning a near-perfect player rating in the USA’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.
You don’t have to be embedded in the U.S. dressing room to draw the conclusion that Klinsmann, with his insistence on getting his players out of their “comfort zone,” his thinly veiled disdain for MLS players, his willingness to take chances on any and all European-based players, his infamous dropping of longtime U.S. captain Donovan on the eve of Brasil ’14 . . . was not a players’ coach. And players’ coaches tend to have some support among the people in uniform when they get into trouble. There was barely a peep from those wearing U.S. uniforms after Gulati dropped the hammer.
Comment V: Is Arena Mr. Fix-it?
His first stab at professional coaching, with DC United in 1996, was, initially, a disaster. A month into Major League Soccer’s first season, the team representing the nation’s capital was a laughingstock. Arena quickly fired several players and United went on to win the league championship. A year later, it won another.
Can Arena fix this with eight CONCACAF qualifiers remaining? Odds remain good that the U.S. will qualify for the 2018 World Cup regardless of who is coach. The top three finishers earn berths in Russia, and the fourth-place team remains alive through a home-and-home playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher.
But at this point, U.S. Soccer is in the position of merely hoping for an eighth straight World Cup appearance. Should the team reach Russia ’18, the U.S. will be back in the familiar position of hoping for little more than surviving its first-round group and a trip to the second round of a World Cup. Klinsmann’s promise of genuine progress remains a luxury . . . and an unfulfilled dream.