A soccer coach who is a friend of mine once said: A coach isn't the genius everyone says he is when he wins, and said coach isn't the dunce everyone alleges when he loses. It's hardly rocket science, but as the U.S. attempts to rebound from Saturday's pasting in Costa Rica on Wednesday in final qualifier against Panama, those foaming at the mouth over national team head coach Bruce Arena's decisions in the last two qualifiers would be wise to heed that advice.
But when it comes to his approach during the last two qualifiers against the Ticos and Guatemala, it's clear that Arena is not only making some determined decisions, but he is also asking some appropriate, hard questions about his personnel. I say determined because it's easy to get caught up in results, even when you're in the position that Arena is in, that of having qualified for next summer's finals with three games to spare. Instead, the U.S. coach has opted to experiment, regardless of the potential results, which is exactly what he should be doing.
There are some who will question Arena's decision to go with a veteran lineup last weekend, but he's still asking the questions of his players that need to be asked. Namely, will some of those performers on the bubble, like Eddie Pope, step up or fade away? Does Arena have any tactical options other than the tried and tested 4-4-2? And what flexibility does the U.S. coach have in terms of what roles can be filled by certain players?
That some, if not all, of these questions were answered in the negative last Saturday doesn't diminish the value of the information. It's better that Arena finds out now that Pope's form at the international level is no different than with his club, as opposed to next spring, when it will be too late to blood in a new center back.
If, God forbid, Claudio Reyna, John O'Brien and Landon Donovan all get injured, Arena now knows that he will probably need to look at players other than DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey to fill the role of orchestrating the U.S. attack. And if circumstances next summer dictate a change in formation -- like they did during the 2002 World Cup when injury and suspension nudged Arena in the direction of playing 3-5-2 -- the U.S. head man has a much better idea of which players will excel in the formation and which ones won't.
And that's not to say that last weekend's match will be the last time Arena asks these questions. One game on the road in difficult weather conditions provides data, but few hard and fast conclusions.
Given the relative lack of experience on the roster, you can bet the house that Arena will continue his quest for information on Wednesday by playing several inexperienced players. Of course, there are those who said that the likes of Ricardo Clark and Jonathan Spector should have gotten their baptism last weekend. But Arena's style has always been to break players into the squad slowly by bringing players into camp first, exposing them to the atmosphere of international games next and finally giving them their chance in an actual game. That's why the two aforementioned players were always more likely to soak up the experience of the Costa Rica match and play in the Panama match.
The composition of Arena's roster certainly makes for some interesting guesswork as to Wednesday's lineup. Tim Howard seems a cinch to return in goal, otherwise he would have hopped on the first plane back to England. If Arena continues to experiment with a three-man backline, there is a chance that Spector could end up on the left side of that alignment, preferably alongside Danny Califf and Chad Marshall. But I get a sneaking suspicion that we haven't seen the last of Pope, especially given the fact that his 73 caps make him the most experienced player in the squad.
With Steve Ralston and Justin Mapp set to man the flanks, that would leave the center of the park to Clark, Clint Dempsey, and Kyle Martino, which would make for some intriguing viewing.
If Arena reverts to four at the back, then Chris Albright probably slides into the right back spot with Martino reduced to a sub's role.
As for who will play up top, it appears that Taylor Twellman and Brian Ching will get another go, although Ching's sub-par performance certainly opened the door for Santino Quaranta to get a start. But given the Hawaiian's recent return from injury, it stands to reason that Arena will give Ching every chance to prove himself, especially given the form the San Jose forward showed earlier in qualifying.
Just what Panama will bring to the table is also a huge unknown. Will the visitors resemble the side that fell meekly to the United States 6-0 back in October of 2004, or the team that fought the Americans tooth and nail in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup last summer? With nothing but pride on the line, the former is the more likely scenario. But one thing is certain. Arena will ask plenty of questions Wednesday night, and get some answers as he begins to assemble his team for Germany.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org