The start of the World Cup in Russia is less than ten months away, and the U.S. has a new lease on life.
Since Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm of the national team last November, the U.S. has gone unbeaten in fourteen straight games – winning the Gold Cup, taking a point out of the Azteca, and jumping from last to third place in the Hex in the process.
It’s been a dramatic turnaround – and the rest of the region has taken note.
“Their players feel happier,” Costa Rica manager Oscar Ramirez said of the U.S. at the Gold Cup in July. “With Klinsmann there was a certain tension, perhaps because several had problems with him.
“But now you can tell there is a happier environment, an environment in which the players apply themselves and play with more freedom. Bruce has brought that calmness in the Hexagonal… [he] has restored their level,” he continued.
When next they take the field, tonight at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, the U.S. can come full circle.
It was a humiliating defeat to Costa Rica that cost Klinsmann his job last year; if the U.S. wins the rematch against the Ticos this evening, their World Cup qualification will be virtually assured.
That’s not to say that the U.S. will have an easy time. Ramirez is a canny coach, and his team is stocked with American and European-based players who won’t be daunted by tonight’s occasion or their opposition.
Costa Rica is a legitimately good team – arguably more talented now than they were when they advanced to within a penalty shootout of the 2014 World Cup semifinals – and they’ll be in Russia next summer.
But the clear and overriding expectation tonight is that the United States will win. That’s the kind of confidence Arena has restored – both in his team, and in those who follow it.
Confidence is a key word with Arena. We heard it after the Gold Cup from goalkeeper Tim Howard, when he said, “Bruce has lit a fire under us. He’s got us going again. [He] has come in and given us a lot of confidence and I think we’ve repaid him through these results.”
Arena’s own confidence – especially in MLS, in the American player, and in the American game at large – is clear.
The squad that was trounced in Costa Rica and November featured just eight MLS players. The one that trounced Honduras 6-0 in Arena’s first game the following March featured eighteen. So will the one that takes the field tonight.
Some of that is MLS continuing to improve and continuing to increase its financial outlay.
Klinsmann came in to shake up the system. He was openly critical of MLS and seemed distrustful of players who chose to play in.
That wasn’t all bad. No orbit like U.S. Soccer improves unless it is challenged. But it’s hard to create a cohesive, positive atmosphere as U.S. Soccer coach if you’re at war with much of U.S. Soccer.
Klinsmann’s team was heavily reliant on the dual-nationals he recruited – and while many of those players have represented and continue to represent the team well, it’s clear from listening to the U.S.’s leaders that the team was fractured towards the end of Klinsmann’s reign.
“For me, the biggest thing is always the mentality of your group,” Michael Bradley said Tuesday. “How the group of guys, with the staff and with the coaches, feel they’re in something together and it’s not just a bunch of guys who come in and who are looking to do their own thing and who only care about themselves and what is good for them as individuals.”
“The only chance you have is to have, again, a team full of guys and people around you that understand that everybody has to give a little bit of what they are to make everybody around them better. You can create this mentality. [Arena] and his staff have done a really good job of getting that part back to where it needed to be.”
Arena’s tenure hasn’t just been marked by its success thus far. It’s also been marked by its harmony. For the first time years, it feels like everyone involved with the national team is pulling in the same direction.
Has it helped that Arena is an MLS guy who has drawn heavily from MLS to revitalize the team? No question. American soccer can be clannish, and were Arena not following Klinsmann, his impact might not have been so great so soon.
But whether Arena’s tenure has been the revenge of the MLS sector of the U.S. Soccer world or not, there’s no arguing with the results its produced. And with the World Cup on the horizon, that’s all that matters.
As Arena – who has now coached the U.S. in each of the last three decades – can attest, this is the deepest, most talented, best-experienced player pool the national team has ever had.
Howard, who was first capped fifteen years ago, agrees.
“The makeup of this team, I keep talking about, is probably the best I’ve ever seen,” Howard said on Tuesday. “From top to bottom the team is structured really well to not only be a good team, but [to] compete.”
Win tonight, and the U.S. will have the chance to do just that next summer.
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