A few short years ago a former German National Team attacking player living in Southern California called up his friend, the manager of the USA National Team for an internship so that he could learn the ropes of coaching on the international level. Back then, Bruce Arena was at the height of his stature having led the USA within an eyelash of the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup, and Jurgen Klinsmann was a quickly forgotten German striker who had retired from the professional game at the age of 33 and had quietly drifted into the anonymity of being a retired soccer star living in one of the least soccer savvy nations on the planet. Now less than four years later Klinsmann leads his native Germany into what promises to be an epic quarterfinal match versus mighty Argentina back at home as World Cup hosts. While Arena is coming under fire from all directions for the USA’s early and somewhat shocking exit from World Cup 2006. Against this backdrop the German national team has to deal with daily rumors that their manager will leave to take over a US National Team job that as of now is not open even if they capture the World Cup next weekend in Berlin. Klinsmann for his part has denied that he is interested in the USA job, but in all likelihood he’s just trying to deflect the issue while his current side is still alive in the World Cup.
Regardless of how much airtime Eric Wynalda spends on ABC and ESPN attacking Arena for everything from his defensive minded tactics, to his arrogance in the media, to his lack of accountability to his unwillingness to shake hands with the coach of Ghana after the USA (somewhat) controversially were eliminated from the World Cup, Bruce remains the Men’s National Team Coach and very well may be able to write his own ticket as to whether he wants to stay as Head Coach or become a “consultant” to US Soccer. The new President of the US Soccer Federation (USSF), Sunil Gulati is old friends with Arena, and in fact was the most instrumental person in the hiring of Arena in 1998, when many other senior members of the federation felt Bora Milutinovic should logically return as National Team coach following his dismissal from the same position with the Nigerian National Team. It seems more and more likely that Gulati will maintain Arena in some position with the Federation, probably as Head Coach, if Klinsmann is not interested. Gulati has indicated that hiring a foreign coach unfamiliar with the American program is not an option, so at this point in time chances are Arena will be coaching the national team at this time next year.
Bruce Arena has made several observations in the aftermath of the disastrous campaign in Germany. Let’s analyze each of them.
- In an interview with ESPN’s Rece Davis on Monday Arena implied that the USA is several years away from returning to the stage of the World Cup we were in 2002.
While this sounds fatalistic and drew a visceral reaction from Wynalda, much truth exists to this statement. The 2002 team featured seasoned veteran leadership in the form of Ernie Stewart and Cobi Jones as well as several top American players in their prime: Claudio Reyna, John O’Brien, Eddie Pope, Frankie Hedjuk, Tony Sanneh, Clint Mathis and Eddie Lewis just to name a few. Throw in youngsters like Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley and it’s no small wonder why a balanced American team made such a strong run. Contrast that with this years’ team which had few leaders, several unfit players, and inflated expectations. The truth is that the USA, even in 2010 will not have the mix of players and seasoning that the 2002 squad did. That doesn’t mean that the 2010 team will be as bad as this year’s squad either, but Arena does speak to truth when he states we are a long way from returning to the level we were at in 2002.