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.
However, Arena himself is partially responsible for raising expectations beyond reality for this World Cup and has since said that he had internalized that we would be fortunate to advance given the tough group we were placed in.
- We were placed in a very tough group
No arguing this fact. Arena even said before the World Cup our group was tough but that he relished the opportunity to face off with three potentially lethal teams. With the exception of a glorious effort against Italy, we failed the test miserably. We looked lethargic against the Czechs and just plain outclassed versus Ghana, in spite of the controversial PK call. We were in a tough group in 2002, facing the host nation, South Korea, one of Europe’s top teams in Portugal and a seasoned squad in Poland. Yet we advanced unlike this year when we had one of the worst performances of any nation participating in Germany.
- The MLS is to blame for the woes of our National Team.
It’s funny that Steve Sampson made this same point after the 1998 World Cup. However in Sampson case it was a much more justified. When MLS began play in 1996, most top American players led by Tab Ramos and John Harkes felt the need to return home to jump start the fledgling league. When Steve Sampson selected the 1998 World Cup team few American players were left in Europe, and the MLS and USSF were almost one entity, as evidences by Sunil Gulati’s dual role as Deputy MLS Commissioner, and Chairman of the USSF board.
Bruce Arena however bears direct blame for whatever negative affect (if any) MLS has had on the national team. Arena has been quick to call up any domestic based player that is having a decent run in MLS while he has ignored several players that have been successful in Europe. Arena has also adopted MLS style training with the national team, which is less focused and intense than the type of training seen with European clubs. Add that to the reality that MLS and the USSF have a wall of separation now that was unknown in 1998, and it adds up to being more Arena’s fault than that of MLS itself.
- The officiating was to blame.
Arena has implied this, but unfortunately every participating nation, except perhaps Italy and the hosts, Germany have been the victims of somewhat bizarre calls, and quick whistles by the officials. Yes the penalty call on Oguchi Onyewu was horrible, but given that the USA came out of halftime and had no shots on goal between minutes 46 and 63, we don’t have a whole lot to complain about. We still had 45 minutes to score and did not.
Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that Bruce Arena remains as the National Team coach and is given one more run through World Cup Qualifying to fix things. Let’s also assume the US Soccer Federation is willing to admit failure in Germany and change its habits as far as scheduling and competitions entered both to increase the participation on European based players and also to improve the squad. Gulati who has been at the cutting edge of building the US Soccer program to international respectability over the past twenty years now faces many challenges as we enter a rocky transition period following the failure in Germany.
A few suggestions for the Federation:
- We need to return to Copa America, and test our squad against the best of South America. The USA last accepted an invitation to play in Copa back in 1995 when we beat Argentina 3-0 in route to the semifinals. The USSF has declined to play in Copa America since the inception of the MLS because it conflicts with MLS season.
- Use the Confederations Cup in 2007, for which we have qualified by virtue of winning last year’s Gold Cup as a trial run for the World Cup. Have a three week training and player selection process that simulates the World Cup.
- Schedule more friendlies abroad irrespective of the MLS schedule. The USSF has been too deferential to MLS in its scheduling of national team commitments.
- The USSF should work to
send an MLS select team to Europe for an exhibition match or two during the European club season. This would expose American players stuck in MLS to the level of fitness, passion, and skill required to play at high level on the international stage.
- Encourage more youngsters on let’s say the U-23 team to understand the international game by inviting them to train with the full national team prior to friendlies.
- Do not take unfit players to training or to major competitions.
Tomorrow we will have a look at the US player pool for the next few years.