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Assessing Arena

806101006 Assessing Arena Arena in full control during the 2002 World Cup/YahooSports
1275838512 Assessing Arena John O’Brien’s goal against Portugal in 2002 sent Arena’s side on its way to a deep World Cup run/yahoospots

Assessing Arena

Prior to the 2002 World Cup Bruce Arena tempered the expectations of many in the soccer media. While on paper it appeared the USA had its best team ever, Arena’s squad had all kinds of difficulty in CONCACAF Qualifying, struggling to escape the 2nd round and then finishing 3rd overall in the final round, grabbing CONCACAF’s last World Cup slot. While the USA had been very strong in Arena’s first full year on the job 1999, with friendly wins over Argentina and Germany as well as a third place finish at the FIFA Confederations Cup, 2000 and 2001 were uneven years for US Soccer and in my opinion were worse overall than any years since the early 1990s.

While the results were uneven, Arena was deepening the player pool and taking a good look at every possible option for the national team. By early 2002 when we captured first CONCACAF Gold Cup championship since 1991 we had developed through Arena’s testing a core of about 25 players that worked well together and fit niches on the field in Arena’s loose system. In other words we were a team first and a collection of individuals second. Some players like the heady and unfit but exceedingly talented Clint Mathis didn’t fit the mold, but Arena put up with him anyway. Veterans like Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart bought into Arena’s philosophy as did youngsters like Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley and core players such as Eddie Pope, Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien.

Unlike in 1998, when Steve Sampson’s USA team came out against Germany in the World Cup opener looking for a draw, Arena’s squad came out against an overconfident Portugal side flying high and smelling blood. John O’Brien scored a goal in the fifth minute to begin the USA’s magic carpet ride to the Quarterfinals and perhaps had it not been for Hugh Dallas eating his whistle, further than that. Game after game in the 2002 World Cup, Arena altered his lineup, getting the fittest and most capable players on the pitch. This meant the trouble child Clint Mathis sat versus Portugal, started and scored a goal versus South Korea, set up a goal versus Poland, sat again versus Mexico and then almost set up several equalizers against Germany. Arena knew when to play whom and whose buttons to push and how to push them. Every single midfielder and forward Arena took to Korea played key roles in the team’s success. For Arena, it was like flipping a switch. The team worked well together, and he knew what to expect from each individual and he got amazing performances from youngsters DeMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan. Arena’s tactical brilliance is in the freedom he gives talented players to push forward and create scoring opportunities. By European standards, Arena is not a top manager because he doesn’t have some fancy formation or system, but his players in 2002 all understood what playing for him entailed. After the World Cup it was obvious what many had already thought about Arena- that he was the only American born manager who could coach on a world class level.

US Soccer had never been stronger, and Arena was given a fat contract extension by the US Soccer Federation following the World Cup. Following an unimpressive performance at the Confederations Cup in 2003 (an event in which yours truly predicted we would beat Brazil and build towards a run at the semi-finals in 2006 ) we embarked on an easy qualifying campaign through CONCACAF, finishing first in each stage of qualifying. But unlike 2000 and 2001, Arena had settled on a core of players, and some of these players like Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley were getting less and less aggressive in matches. During this period Donovan also for all intents and purposes flopped in Germany (yes flopped is a strong word but for someone with so much talent to not tough it out and fight for a starting spot to me is still difficult to accept) and came home to the security and sanctity of MLS. Arena as a coach in this period became less and less interested in looking at players deeper in the player pool, the sort of depth that Arena himself had taken advantage of in the run up to the 2002 World Cup. Unfortunately since 2002 Arena has become the all knowing one in his own eyes, and his arrogance has bred complacency in my opinion.

Where did Arena drop the ball in the run up to the 2006 World Cup?

Player Selection
As mentioned above Arena was much more thorough in exploring the deep American player pool prior to the 2002 World Cup. Part of Arena’s problem in the lead up to the 2006 World Cup is that he was much more eager it appeared to give call ups to mediocre MLS based players than to those players fighting for their careers on a daily basis in Europe. Germany and England’s lower divisions are filled with American players eligible for National Team duty (one such player Jay DeMerit could not make an MLS first team roster but subsequently went to England and has found success with Watford FC who was recently promoted to the English Premier League.) Arena’s reliance on MLS based players for World Cup qualifying was not entirely his fault, since European clubs have given the US such a hard time about releasing players for international duty through the years. Players like Brian Ching, a slightly better than average MLS player just do not belong on a World Cup roster.

Arena also neglected to take a young player or two to the 2006 World Cup to foster their development. We’ve heard a lot of discussion about whether or not Freddy Adu should have been included on the 23 man roster, but other options included Brad Guzan and Jonathan Spector. Arena also needed some additional attacking options in the lineup, and both Connor Casey who plays in Germany or Taylor Twellman should have gotten a more serious look. The USA produced less shots on goal in this World Cup than any other team in the last two World Cups, and less shots on goal in the entire world cup than in any single game the USA played in the 2002 World Cup. That is simply put, pathetic attacking football!

Training
Bruce Arena has never coached in Europe or South America. I’m not a Euro-snob but it has become obvious that Arena’s training is more MLS-like than Euro-club like. Fitness which was the great hallmark of American soccer going back to the intense “Camp Bora” at Mission Viejo in 1994 was severely lacking in this World Cup. In fact we looked to be one of the most unfit sides in Germany. Arena claimed he had learned from 2002 not to take unfit players to the World Cup (probably a reference to Clint Mathis who while unfit did score a goal and set up another in the World Cup), but compared to this lethargic squad the 2002 side seemed to have a remarkable level of fitness and intensity.

Moreover the USA looked worse on set piece both offensively and defensively than any other side competeting in this World Cup. Set pieces are the bi-product of work on the training pitch and considering most goals in the World Cup come from set pieces the lack of preparation the US showed was alarming to say the least.

Scheduling
While the USA did have close to a month together to prepare for the World Cup, the choice of weak opposition for friendlies all on American soil was poor to say the least. The loss to Morocco should have been a sure warning sign of trouble to come. Matches against weak sisters Venezuela and Latvia did little to test the squad for Germany. Other non-European nations sent its squads to the European contineent early to prepare for the conditions present in Germany and to compete against World Cup quality European sides.

Managing Expectations and the Media
Unlike 2002, Arena allowed expectations to get out of hand early and as usual was caustic if not downright condescending towards anybody in the media that did not accept his brilliance and questioned his decision making. ABC in its pre-World Cup special the Sunday before the tournament began tried to sell the American public that this US team was a threat to go all the way to the World Cup Finals and featured interviews with a cocky Landon Donovan (who stated among other things that he really didn’t understand the game in 2002 and would be much more dangerous in this World Cup and that the USA could beat anybody outside of Brazil without much trouble) and Coach Arena as supporting evidence. After all, Arena was one of only two coaches returning to his club from the 2002 World Cup (England’s Sven Goran Eriksson is the other) and given this was the most talented US Squad ever, why not inflate expectations even though the squad had been embarrassed by poor results in friendlies against Morocco, Jamaica and Germany in the previous three months? ABC Sports certainly bought into the Arena/Donovan hype machine.

Tactical Mistakes
Arena has never been known as a tactical genius. The World Cup preview by World Soccer Magazine described Arena’s system as “simple, straightforward and uncomplicated.” Arena made a headstrong decision before the World Cup to use Brian McBride, who lacks the pace to create space in the flow of play as a lone striker. Arena played players such as Eddie Lewis and DeMarcus Beasley totally out of position and destroyed their confidence by calling them out in the media after games. Arena also seemed to depress the squad’s attitude with a defensive minded lineup.

Motivating Players
No team in Germany looked more unprepared for its first match from an emotional and physical standpoint than the United States. The team seemed to believe the pre tournament hype about its prospects and suffered from a real lack of leadership on the pitch. Arena’s no-nonsense style and propensity to criticize players in the media curtailed the development of on the field leaders and furthered the cult of personality around the national team. This week after drawing with Italy the United States had virtual control of its own destiny and came out looking flatter than teams like Paraguay and Poland who had already been eliminated from the World Cup. That simply put is unacceptable.

Bruce Arena stated before the 2002 World Cup, that “International coaches are judged by the World Cup, plain and simple.” Arena passed the test in 2002 but failed miserably in 2006. It’s time for a change.

This entry was posted in Bruce Arena, US, US National Team, US Soccer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
View all posts by Kartik Krishnaiyer →

19 Responses to Assessing Arena

  1. Anonymous says:

    Kartik – much too long to read. This is an easy analyis. Arena screwed up the entire program and has set soccer in the US back a decade. He did not bring the most talented team, and lef t the best talent he had on the bench. Dempsey should have played every minute of every match pure and simple. Arena played awful strategy. This is supposed to be an offense minded team and they scored 1 goal in 3 games, pathetic. There were no set plays, not continuity, not heart and no effort. This team was a failure, led by a failed leader.

  2. Sams Army says:

    What a facre this whole war and peace length article is.

    Arena is a great coach who has brought US Soccer to its greatest heights ever. We were a few bad calls away from advancing to round 2 in consecutive world cups for the first time ever, and we proved that we could bounce back from adversity when we like heroes drew with Italy despite being two men down. If it wasn’t for FIFA’s bizzare love affair with yellow and red cards and the famous german dentist posing as a ref we have 6 points win our group and are preparing to slaughter the inexperienced Aussies.

    One game does change everything as they say, or one or two bad calls do also.

  3. Gregg says:

    Excellent piece Kartik.

  4. DC United Fan says:

    Hey 5:39, you claim Arena is a failed leader but he led us to the Quarterfinals in 2002!

    Players must motivate themselves. If they cannot get excited about the World Cup they are not truly professionals of any repute.

    Kartik, your argument about Arena not coaching in Europe and using MLS style training didn’t seem to hurt the team in 2002. Why did it hurt them now? It didn’t!

    Kartik, who would you take instead of Ching? Connor Casey? You got to be joking! Clint Mathis? Maybe if McDonald’s is near by! Freddy Adu? It’s not his time yet. The World Cup squad isn’t the U-23 developmental project!

    Everybody is being selective in their memories of Arena and the next time I hear Eric Whine-alda attacking Arena and impugning his character I am going to smash my TV in and boycott ESPN.

  5. Tim L says:

    From what I understand most national team coaches leave their post after the World Cup anyhow, successful or failed. Why has Arena tried to hang on to this job forever?

  6. Sams Army says:

    Eric Wynalda was long a favorite of mine as a player but he has turned into an emotional out of control immature kid in the studio. He’s totally out of hand and his criticisms of Arena going back to the first game were way below the belt. He is the one who on the air said this team could go to the finals. Arena never created those expectations, it was Wynalda and the other ESPN people. Now he’s the ultimate critic and acts as if the same group of guys he thought could get to the finals have accomplished nothing. He’s turned into a bitter jerk, plain and simple.

  7. Xavier says:

    2000 and 2001 were uneven years for US Soccer and in my opinion were worse overall than any years since the early 1990s.

    A point almost always lost on Arena lovers. After finishing either 1st, 2nd or 3rd in every Gold Cup since it began in 1991 the USA lost in the quarterfinals in 2000. The USA needed a win over Barbabdos on the last day of the 2nd round of qualifying to actually make the final round and in the final round lost several games including at one point three straight. The qualifying campaign when compared to Sampson’s team prior to the 1998 World Cup was a disaster.

  8. Xavier says:

    Some players like the heady and unfit but exceedingly talented Clint Mathis didn’t fit the mold, but Arena put up with him anyway.

    Some of us would argue that Clint Mathis was the difference between the USA possibly not qualifying for the 2002 WC and making it fairly safely. Mathis was the only American player consistently showing good form in the 2000-2001 time period where we all agree the results were subpar. Then in Korea, O’Brien and Mathis combined on the goal that sent the USA out of the group stage and beyond. No he wasn’t terribly fit and yes he was a problem child but you don’t run off talented players like him when you do not have adequete replacements.

    Veterans like Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart bought into Arena’s philosophy

    Those two guys along with Joe Max Moore and Tony Sanneh were the leaders of the great 2002 team. All four are now retired from int’l soccer and no one stepped up to fill their shoes as a leader.

    During this period Donovan also for all intents and purposes flopped in Germany (yes flopped is a strong word but for someone with so much talent to not tough it out and fight for a starting spot to me is still difficult to accept) and came home to the security and sanctity of MLS

    This is harsh. While he did not feel comfortable there, he would have eventually played his way on to the first team.

    one such player Jay DeMerit could not make an MLS first team roster but subsequently went to England and has found success with Watford FC who was recently promoted to the English Premier League.

    Enough about this already. We all admit this was a huge mistake, but DeMerit will rightfully get a call up quite possibly in the first match for the new manager.

  9. Xavier says:

    We’ve heard a lot of discussion about whether or not Freddy Adu should have been included on the 23 man roster, but other options included Brad Guzan and Jonathan Spector.

    This does not bother me as much as passing on Twellman or Ralston two guys that could have really helped this team.

    Arena made a headstrong decision before the World Cup to use Brian McBride, who lacks the pace to create space in the flow of play as a lone striker.

    Excellent, excellent point. McBride requires good service and a running mate to be effective. Many fans are down on McBride, but I’m not. I realize, like you that he was put in an impossible situation by a tactically inept manager.

    Good job with this posting, Kartik. Excellent work!

  10. Federico says:

    Arena’s tenure though successful at one point will be remembered for the meltdown in this World Cup, the first World Cup where major respect was being paid to the United States team.

    The lack of success on set pieces was alarming and quite frankly I do not think Landon Donovan is worth all the hype.

    In fairness to Arena losing a John O’Brien type caliber player due to injury is tough to overcome when you are the USA and your talent doesn’t run as deep as someone like Brazil or Spain. So many of the attacks that led to goals in the 2002 World Cup were started by O’Brien and often times involved either Clint Mathis or Tony Sanneh. This includes the goals scored by Landon Donovan and Brian McBride. While Claudio Reyna is a tenacious ball winner and could control possession, O’Brien was a better tough passer and a much better player of long balls.

    Arena has to take O’Brien. He doesn’t have a comprable player and even if only a small chance existed he’d be fit you have to take a chance. Again America doesn’t have an excess of talented players. When you have maybe 3 world class players and one of them is hurt but may recover, you have to take a chance. It didn’t work out because O’Brien didn’t heal quickly enough.

    Arena does need to go, but honestly if a healthy John O’Brien plays 90 minutes in all 3 group games in Germany my guess is that the USA is still playing.

  11. Gator says:

    Excellent analysis. Whatever you think of individuals like Arena or Donovan, the fact is that the United States’ team was poorly prepared for and poorly motivated in the World Cup.

  12. A whiny Yank goes down says:

    Toasted Yanks!

    You make some excellent points here though, but as long as you hire American coaches who hail from your minor leagues, you’ll suffer.

    I’ve seen the DeMerit kid play in person. He’s a gritty tough player, unlike your pretty boy center midfielder Donovan who was one of the worst players in Germany.

    Hire Klinnsman or Kevin Keagan!

  13. Sams Army says:

    Klinnsman’s team is already up 2-0. He ain’t coming.

  14. Xavier says:

    The beginning and the end:

    Arena’s first game the USSF scheduled a patsy to beat up on……Australia! And the US named a full MLS based squad and killed the over matched Aussies.

    Arena’s last game, the USA is surprisingly eliminated early from the world cup, the same day the former patsy aussies advance to the knock out round.

    How’s that for setting soccer back in this nation?

  15. Sams Army says:

    ” How’s that for setting soccer back in this nation? “

    I must assume you are joking, right?

  16. USA06 says:

    I happens to every manager or head coach – the treatment of the players becomes stale and the players stop responding. Arena is long known as a players’ coach. USA was successful in 2002 with the confidence and freedom Arena instilled in the team. This time around USA was overconfident – too loose – too cool.

    The team needs a tough kick-in-the-ass coach who will stop pampering these primadonnas. Of course over time that will become stale and the players will cry for a “players’ coach”.

    It’s a viscious circle.

  17. Hernandez says:

    I cannot log in…….

    arena will be joined by lavolpe on the unemployment line after today.

    arena didn’t give donovan the freedom to attack, not did he put his best player o’brien on the field.

    reyna’s injuries and o’brien’s fitness hurt as well.

    arena is gone. let’s discuss mexico/argentina and the future usa roster. the new coach will make many changes. eddie pope for instance will not be returning.

  18. Kartik says:

    Arena’s press conference yesterday was a major letdown. Rather than be accountable he continues to blame everyone from the players to MLS itself for our failures. His time is up.

  19. Federico says:

    LaVolpe like Arena has a problem putting his best players on the field. Where was Bravo????? We were fortunate the ref blew a call late in regulation or we never would have even made extra time.

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