Bruce Arena realizes he has very little time to get back into his groove with the U.S. national soccer team. After all, two vital World Cup qualifiers are looming just two months away.
Luckily for Arena, he has done this job before. He’s also returning to work in extremely familiar surroundings.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for me personally, but it’s an important time for this team,” Arena said Wednesday. “Our goal is pretty clear: We need to qualify for Russia in 2018.”
Arena convened the first training camp of his second stint in charge of the U.S. team under sunny skies at its training base south of downtown Los Angeles. The complex also is the home of the LA Galaxy, where Arena served as the coach and general manager of the MLS club for the past 8 1/2 seasons.
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Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann in late November, accepting the task of salvaging the Americans’ World Cup qualification hopes. Two losses last year dropped the U.S. into last place in its qualifying hexagonal, albeit with eight games to go.
The transition isn’t easy, and the stakes are high. But Arena seems to be better equipped for the task than just about anybody.
“I’m having the time of my life,” Arena said, with his usual sardonic tone. “I haven’t had to move. The hotel is about a five-minute drive from my house. I’ve been coming here for the last eight years. I had to move about 30 yards from my past office. So life could be worse.”
Although the U.S. players on European club teams can’t attend this camp, Arena held his first practice with 28 players, including several MLS stalwarts who couldn’t crack the Eurocentric Klinsmann’s talent pool.
Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber, FC Dallas’ Matt Hedges, the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget and the Red Bulls’ Dax McCarty will get a look from Arena’s fresh eyes during the monthlong camp. Arena also has changed Klinsmann’s strict rules for diet and fitness, hoping to restore a team spirit that appeared to fade late in the German’s tenure.
“You can expect honesty from Bruce,” said the LA Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, who broke through on the U.S. team under Klinsmann. “He’s easing us into camp, but he’s already made a terrific speech about knowing each and every player, so you don’t have to impress him. I love playing under him.”
Arena has personal history with several camp invitees. Along with Galaxy stars Zardes and Lletget, Arena previously coached DaMarcus Beasley, Nick Rimando, Chad Marshall, Jozy Altidore and captain Michael Bradley, who had a thick, lustrous head of hair when he got his U.S. break in 2006.
“I’m very excited to be back playing for Bruce,” Bradley said. “He was the one who gave me my first opportunity with the national team, and that’s something you never forget. … He’s going to create an environment where guys are going to compete, guys are going to enjoy themselves, and there’s going to be a real team and a real spirit and a real feeling that we’re all in something together.”
Arena is counting on Bradley and fellow veteran Jermaine Jones to be leaders for the U.S. over the next few months. He also complimented Beasley, the 34-year-old veteran hoping to continue with the American team two years after announcing his international retirement.
“Obviously, he’s not the same player as he was (when) playing in the 2002 World Cup,” Arena said. “But good players, guys that can think on the field, know how to compete, use their experience well, are always good to have around.”
The camp will end with friendly matches against Serbia on Jan. 29 and Jamaica on Feb. 3. The Americans face Honduras on March 24 and Panama on March 28 in World Cup qualifiers.