National team remedies
HAMBURG, Germany -- Bruce Arena, you're fired. Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson, get your butts over to Europe. FIFA, come up with a fairer draw next time. See, winning the World Cup was never so easy. Ah, if only it were that simple. As disappointing as this tournament was for the Americans, what it showed was that there are problems facing U.S. soccer that run very deep.
Does anyone remember Poland in 2002? Heading into that game, the Americans had four points in the bag and their fate firmly in their own hands. Instead, they coughed up two goals inside the first five minutes, and only an extraordinary set of circumstances in the Portugal-South Korea match prevented a monumental choke job.
In 2002, Arena was lauded for changing lineups and tactics on the fly. But it's important to remember that a glut of injuries and suspensions to the back line forced the U.S. manager to juggle his lineup. And it's not as if he didn't change this time. Arena has drawn much flak for his vaunted 4-5-1 formation. Against the Czechs, the niceties of the alignment were made irrelevant the moment Jan Koller scored. Against Italy, the U.S. actually was carrying the play when two red cards in five minutes forced a change in approach. And against Ghana, Arena actually did tweak his formation, pushing DaMarcus Beasley alongside Landon Donovan so Brian McBride's aerial game would be better supported. It might not have worked, but it illustrates that Arena wasn't as stuck in his ways as some would allege.
Where Arena was rigid was in his choice of personnel, and for that, he deserves criticism. As I've mentioned previously, his faith with underperforming players was his undoing in this tournament, and the continued inclusion of Donovan and Beasley created a domino effect that excluded other performers playing closer to their peak.
Of course, there are those who would claim that the 2006 team was more talented and deeper than in 2002 and, for that reason, that it falls on Arena that they underachieved. That might have been true in defense, but I don't believe this premise applies in the offensive half. The U.S. badly missed John O'Brien, who Arena said "was never able to get over the hump physically." And the form displayed by most of the U.S. attackers since the start of the year has been abysmal. Beasley has been struggling for six months. Does that fall on his club coach, much-respected Guus Hiddink, or on Arena? I would say it falls mostly on Beasley himself.
The point in all this is that the line between genius and dunce is razor thin, although if Arena and U.S. Soccer decide to part ways, I wouldn't necessarily have a problem with that. Eight years is a long time to be in any job, and it might be time for a fresh approach. But if Arena is replaced, it should be done only on this condition: The person the U.S. Soccer Federation hires had better have a demonstrably better pedigree.
If one looks domestically, that would eliminate all but a couple of American coaches, with Chivas USA's Bob Bradley and Columbus Crew coach Sigi Schmid about the only people who come close. And don't be fooled into thinking there are all that many foreign coaches who fit the bill, either. If you believe outgoing captain Claudio Reyna, the confidence Arena instilled in his players was what separated him from his predecessors, both foreign and domestic.
"I think for a lot of the [previous] coaches, that's where they struggled," Reyna said. "Whether they were good tactically, or understood the game, they didn't really give the belief to the players that [Arena] did."
That belief is something I think will be tough to replicate. Of all the foreign coaches out there who might be available, I think the best fit would be Jurgen Klinsmann. He has tremendous experience, and he's familiar with the culture. Of course, his availability is tied to Germany's performance in the knockout stages. Fortunately, the USSF can bide its time and wait to see how the World Cup pans out.
But the coaching situation aside, what things must be done with regards to the players? With Reyna and McBride retiring, and the likes of Eddie Pope likely to follow, the topic of how to replace those performers -- as well as raise the overall standard of play -- is just as pressing.
At his final World Cup news conference, Arena emphasized that more U.S. talent needs to get over to Europe. That way, American players will be better able to handle the pressures of the World Cup because playing overseas offers many of the same challenges.
Although that is no doubt important, one has only to look at Beasley's performance to see that going to a European club is no guarantee of future success. Therefore, it seems improving things closer to home will need just as much emphasis.
One issue Arena touched on is that MLS clubs need to start beginning their own youth policies so elite players can get exposed to professional environments at a younger age. That would mean college soccer, with its limited calendar, wouldn't be counted on as much to supply tomorrow's professionals. According to Arena, it also would prove a better alternative to the U.S. U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
"Bradenton is not the answer to player development," he said. "That's a naïve approach, to think that we can magically select the best 40 players every two years and that's it. We have thousands of kids playing that have a future in this game, and it will only get better if we have better soccer environments year round."
That means MLS will need to step up to the plate and find a way to fund such programs, much as it did with the Reserve League. According to MLS officials I've talked to, such discussions are already in the works, but it remains to be seen how quickly such a program can be set up. That said, this is probably the area with the most upside in terms of player development.
There is also the issue of finding better competition for the U.S. national team. At present, the Gold Cup is the only other international tournament in which the U.S. participates, and this needs to change because the games don't come close to providing the kind of pressure and atmosphere present in a World Cup.
Entering Copa America, the South American continental championship, would seem to be a logical step, but there is a major stumbling block to overcome. Both the Gold Cup and Copa America are held every two years at nearly identical times on the calendar, making it impossible to do both, given the amount of time MLS players would miss with their club teams. European-based players would be forced to select one or the other, as well.
The solution is for CONCACAF and its South American counterpart, CONMEBOL, to hold their competitions every four years instead, but that seems unlikely. USSF President Sunil Gulati, for one, isn't holding his breath.
Gulati stated, "From a competitive point of view, would [Copa America] be great for our players? Yes. Is it practical right now? The answer is no. And I don't see that changing in the short term."
Gulati's short-term plans undoubtedly will focus on his coach. But it's the longer-term issues of player development and better competition that will determine the Americans' success in future World Cups.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org