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The Triumphant Return of Bruce Arena

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And you’ll never guess whose fault it was.

United States V Costa Rica
Bruce Arena looking on as the Tico crowd in New Jersey unfairly cheered Costa Rica on to victory.
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

On Friday, old hand Brian Straus scored some access to Bruce Arena and re-visited what went wrong with the 2018 World Cup Qualifying Campaign through the eyes of the very flawed media consensus that will never be re-visited Bruce Arena. You can click on the embed to read the whole thing if you like or merely indulge in these highlights.

It was a loss that was almost impossible to believe but which, in hindsight, Bruce Arena might have seen coming. And at least one of his players may have anticipated it as well, according to an anecdote shared Friday by the former manager. Following the October World Cup qualifying disaster that continues to reverberate through American soccer, that player told Arena, “This was a culture you couldn’t change in a short period of time.”

Ah yes, the sweet sound of an unnamed player exonerating the Bruce. No sense wasting time on revisiting the two losses in the last four games (a home match and a game against the already eliminated bottom feeders). It was ‘the culture’ and no coach could possibly change that in nine months. Don’t ask me- ask the player, who doesn’t need naming- checks out.

The USA had lost its first two games of CONCACAF’s final qualifying stage, resulting in the dismissal of coach Jurgen Klinsmann. It then went 10-1-6 under Arena. That run included a Gold Cup title and a 3-1-3 mark in qualifying.

10-1-6? That’s incredible. I mean can you believe it? (Looks at schedule). Ok, so yeah that’s an awesome record even if the schedule wasn’t exactly fraught with big hitters. And yes, 3-1-3 is a pretty good record for that portion of the Hex. (Looks at record). OK, even with a draw at T&T, that’ll tie the worst record for the US in that stretch of Hex matches, but still...

I’ll leave Straus out of the rest of this. Even though he certainly isn’t an anonymous figure in this saga, I’ll concentrate on the gold offered up by Bruce.

“I never felt real comfortable with the team along the way,” Arena said. “We had eight [qualifiers] to get it right and had a very small margin of error.”

Before the September and October qualifiers, Arena had a January camp, a Gold Cup, and a total of 14 matches to build a team that he could make into his own. Matching the historical worst (13pts from matches outside Mexico at Home and Costa Rica away) in US qualifying history during the Hex would have earned the 3rd spot.

“It wasn’t the same team with the right chemistry. It just didn’t seem like everyone was on the same page with the right mentality and the same understanding of what everything was about,” Arena said Friday. “The chemistry of the group wasn’t right. It wasn’t the character you see out of a U.S. team. And the second part, realistically, was that we didn’t have the most talented players and when we had injuries, it hurt us.”

See above point about chemistry- that’s all on you Bruce. Also, if Arena felt injuries should be accounted for, perhaps he should have stuck up for Klinsmann when Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes, Kyle Beckerman all were ruled out for the 1st group of Hex qualifiers? Maybe?

“You think over 15 years it would look different. So what’s going on?” Arena asked, adding that superior sides representing Mexico and Costa Rica left the less-talented Americans battling for CONCACAF’s third and final automatic World Cup berth.

The day Klinsmann got fired, and Arena got hired, the most talented player pool in US history vanished and was mysteriously replaced by a pool who had been lapped by Mexico and Costa Rica. Suddenly, the US cupboards were bare with the managerial change, and we needed leadership who would challenge our players to strive at the highest level, fight the good ol’ boys’ club, and spur youth development in the country. Funny how that works. But wait, that doesn’t even give you the full picture!

“Behind the scenes there were mistakes on our part, probably,” Arena admitted. “Our social media, our communications department, sent out everything humiliating the Trinidad federation on the training facility, which was the game field for that day. It got them all fired up and when we kicked off on that day, it was a battle.”

Poon, you’re fired. Unless it’s Mo. Or Jared. Maybe I was logged in that day (crap). Which one of us on the social media team couldn’t change the team culture, pick 18 from the most talented player pool in US History, and get one point from the T&T B team again?

“I will never listen to anyone the day after the game with all the answers. You got some answers for me the day before the game? During the game? I’m listening. Everyone the day after, you’re a bunch of phonies. I don’t want to hear about it the day after. We’re all the best coaches the day after.”

Plenty of people were skeptical about you bagging on the former coach, the culture, and your desire to revert to the good ol’ days of US Soccer. 12 points in eight games was the worst performance in US history in the Hex era. Plenty of people offered suggestions; you just weren’t listening. To be fair though, some people touted you as some kind of tactics salve, and they certainly deserve your contempt, Bruce.

“If you have a team of quality with the right chemistry, you battle through that game and get a point,” he said. “That to me was the most disappointing thing. I saw that in the beginning of the Hex in the games against Mexico and Costa Rica, and it came back in the end.”

In your 18th game, you managed to be light years worse than Klinsmann. Bravo.

The locker room was decent, Arena claimed, but “there were a couple of bad eggs like you have on every team. We were well aware of it.” Team leaders like Howard, Michael Bradley and Dempsey set the right examples and Arena stressed, “I do not question their character at all.” Others, however, didn’t rise to the occasion.

It’s a poor craftsman that blame his tools- especially the specific tools that he gets to pick for every project. Next!

“We understood the magnitude of the game. Trinidad played us very well when we played them in Denver. They played very well against Mexico in the previous game. And I told them we’re going to find a team that’s going to play their best game against us, and we’ve got to be ready to play,” Arena said. “I just think a lot of pressure built up on some players, especially when we conceded the first goal. … Some people cracked.”

The loss to Trinidad’s B team was the worst game in US Hex history. If the US had stuck with Klinsmann, we’d be no worse off than we are now. Hell, we might even have Jona Gonzalez in the pool. The Fed would also still have his buyout money and whatever salary you commanded. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

“Maybe we’ll learn something from it. There’s a lot to learn. There’s still a a lot for us to learn to get our act together to make the sport better in our country.”

Ah, finally! After roughly five minutes of reading...at the very end of the article, you get some insight that’s worth considering. There is a lot to learn. The sport can definitely get better in this country, and while this is a harsh lesson, it certainly is an opportunity to be our best lesson for the next five to 50 years.

We can certainly improve upon how youth are scouted and developed in this country, even though Arena seemed to think we were just plaid dandy in this department days after the T&T match. MLS will continue and grow and become more influential in the sport, and perhaps they’ll be able to look past their immediate interests when a National Team manager offers constructive critiques in the future.

Just as importantly, I hope that fans and press take a look in the mirror on this one. For a great spell, we were smitten with the idea that, if only we weren’t stuck with a manager who ‘played players out of position’ (Arena never did that) or constantly tinkered with the lineup/tactics/formation (Also something no other manager does- especially Arena) that we’d be fine, and all would be well. In other words, we were happy to except that Klinsmann was a suitable scapegoat for the problems with the USMNT, and that was completely justified because people had been making totally good faith arguments about it for...a few months?

The urge to rely on scapegoats didn’t relent after we got rid of one German. It metastasized into blaming all the Germans, and we were well on our way to an all to predictable reenactment of American History. Picking a manager that, at best, passively assented to that, was an even bigger error than extending Klinsmann which, by the way, seems to have been more of an option tied to performance than an extension. How could a president-elect manager complain about chemistry and unity when he had acted as such a divisive voice in the years leading up to his appointment?

None of this is to say Arena is the sole source of blame. If anything, I hope he gets as little of the blame as possible, and the Straus article and his own quotes would certainly lead you to believe it had little to do with him. It’s far more important that everyone- the Fed, MLS, media, and fans - look in the mirror and accept, however seemingly minor it may actually be, their share of this glorious disaster and take the opportunity of learning most from a harsh lesson. If we can do that, then the future looks very bright (albeit sadly) in Qatar 2022. For now, I’ll take comfort in the fact that Bruce Arena will have very little to do with it.