Bruce Arena the sequel faces a more skeptical audience than the original.
Arena was celebrated for coaching the Americans to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, and fired four years later after they failed to advance past the first round.
Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann led the U.S. to the round of 16 at the last two World Cups, and a second-round appearance is pretty much a minimum accomplishment for an American coach these days as a maturing fan base has increased expectations exponentially.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that pressure has increased on everyone involved in the game, whether that’s players, coaches, administrators, leaders or anything else,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said Tuesday after replacing Klinsmann with Arena. “Changes in technology and the speed of information and social media add the dimension of pressure that wouldn’t have been the same for Bruce in his first go-round.”
And that’s not all.
“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,” Gulati said. “We have more educated, passionate fans with a way to express their views: social media.”
With five NCAA titles at Virginia, two Major League Soccer championships with D.C. United and three more MLS crowns with the LA Galaxy, the 65-year-old Arena is a proven winner. He was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame six years ago.
But he inherits a roster frequently outmatched, one that appeared dysfunctional in losses to Mexico and Costa Rica opening the final round of World Cup qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
“I think U.S. soccer has made great progress,” Arena said. “I believe since I left in 2006 the pool of players has certainly expanded.”
Both his World Cup rosters included 12 players from European clubs and 11 from Major League Soccer. The U.S. remains a team partly suffering from jet lag when it gathers.
“This group will not see each other again until Sunday or Monday before a Friday qualifier in March,” captain Michael Bradley said after last week’s 4-0 loss in Costa Rica, which led to Klinsmann’s firing.
Arena will have to juggle his lineup right from the start: midfielder Jermaine Jones and right back Timmy Chandler are suspended for the March 24 home qualifier against Honduras because of yellow-card accumulation.
Arena’s national team was known for emphasis on defense and counterattacks. As he takes over, the priority will be on grinding out wins to wipe out the deficit in the Americans’ eight remaining games of the hexagonal. The top three teams qualify and the fourth-place finisher advances to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 team.
If the U.S. wins at home against Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Panama, and picks up a few points on the road, it should qualify for its eighth straight World Cup.
“The American qualities have certainly been teams that are hard to play against,” Arena said. “We’re traditionally strong in the goal; we have very good goalkeepers. We have some young attacking talent, and we have some experienced players in the midfield. We have to find a way to get the right balance, the right combinations on the field and the right mentality, and we'll produce a good team. What it looks like in the end, I can’t tell you now but I’m certain we’re going to develop a good team.”
Christian Pulisic, just 18, already has shown himself to be one of the more formidable dribblers on the team, able to get past several defenders. But he still lacks judgment on when to take on the third or fourth defender or to pass.
Klinsmann had targeted 18-year-old defender Cameron Carter-Vickers and 20-year-old midfielder Lynden Gooch as players of the future. Coaches — and fans — want to look ahead, but Arena’s focus will be earning points.