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.