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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.