Bruce Arena's simplified approach is just what the U.S. need right now
Let's not overthink this as a certain tan, beach-loving, khaki-wearing German might. Let's not summon every stat showing whether a player's movement off the ball is instinctual or inadvertent. Let's not bring in the sports psychologist to determine the exact location of a player's comfort zone and how the hell he can get out of there.
Let us not debate how the U.S.'s 6-0 beatdown of an absolutely abysmal Honduras side will change the way people think about the sport in this country. Instead, let's just rejoice in the simplicity and clarity that Bruce Arena has brought to the U.S. men's national team, and let's be thankful that when confronted with the potential horror of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, U.S. soccer had the good sense to pull an old card out of their wallet and dial 1-800-BRUUUCE.
The prodigal Arena hath returned. In 2002, he led a band of plucky upstarts (Brian McBride, Clint Mathis, DeMarcus Beasley) and a couple of relatively skillful ones (Claudio Reyna and a 20-year-old named Landon Donovan) to within an egregious non-call by the referee (yes, we still remember Hugh Dallas) of reaching the World Cup semifinals only to do a face plant four years later, crashing out of the tournament with no victories and a single, embarrassing goal to its name.
Arena went on to an illustrious career in Major League Soccer, winning three titles with the LA Galaxy and ensuring that his face will be chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of American soccer coaches, no doubt bearing his signature smirk. But in November, when Jurgen Klinsmann's four-and-a-half year "Das Reboot" spiraled into tactical and psychic chaos on the back of consecutive World Cup qualifying clown shows, Arena was tapped for the rescue mission.
It was, to be sure, a marriage of convenience, and we all know how well those work out in soccer (in 2007, Leroy Rosenior was sacked after 10 minutes of being named Torquay United manager), not to mention in real life (Britney Spears and her childhood sweetheart Jason Alexander lasted all of 55 hours). But desperate times make for strange bedfellows and the U.S. was in danger of being denied its FIFA-given right of life, liberty and a ticket to Russia.
Not surprisingly, the now-older version of Landon Donovan had his usual diplomatic take: "What surprises me is we don't seem, in the last five or six years, to have progressed a lot."
It's not that Klinsmann didn't try to take the U.S. to a higher stage of soccer evolution. If anything, he tried too hard, pushing, prodding, goading and ultimately criticizing his players until their heads were spinning and their confidence wobbling. Sometimes, the most obvious step is the correct one and Arena's instinct to value fundamental American soccer qualities like perseverance and resolve over complex tactical schemes and sophisticated positional interchanging is nothing more than a realistic assessment of his team's limitations.
I mean, why ask a central defender to play out wide, or a flank midfielder to play in the middle of the back four unless you're trying to recreate the storied 1974 Johann Cryuff-led Dutch World Cup team whose innovative style of Total Football empowered players to pop up anywhere on the field?
Arena doesn't go in for grandiose visions; he's a workaday pragmatist. A case in point was his message to the U.S. team before the Honduras game -- "Let's get after them right away." Sure, it may have lacked the oratorical flourish of Churchill's more celebrated "we'll fight them on the beaches," but it's simple and effective, like Arena's soccer ethos: Select the right players in the right positions, put them in a formation that maximizes their strengths and take the game to the opponent from the opening whistle, whether that be Honduras or Germany. Fortunately, this time it was the former.
It didn't hurt that Klinsmann left behind a much bigger talent pool than Arena 1.0 had at his disposal. American soccer may not have scaled the heights its fan base dreamed of after 2002 but it has finally produced at least one player who may eventually get near the summit.
Managing extreme talent is an art in itself and Klinsmann deserves credit for the way he slowly and carefully integrated Christian Pulisic into the national team. The German all but chaperoned him to his senior prom and shielded him from the hypemeisters eager to elevate the teenager from Hershey, Pennsylvania, to world-class status.
All Arena had to do when he arrived was to rip the bubble wrap off the 18-year-old, put him in the place (central midfield) where he could do the most damage and let him loose.
With the notable exception of Donovan (and, to a lesser extent, the Galaxy's Gyasi Zardes), Arena has rarely been known for putting an inordinate amount of faith in young players, preferring to take his chances with battle-hardened veterans. But Pulisic is the obvious outlier, and his exhilarating performances for both Dortmund and the national team show he is seemingly immune to the pressures that normally affect players who have barely learned to shave. So Arena doubled down on Pulisic's outsized gifts and made him the team's creative fulcrum, operating in the middle of the pitch rather than out wide where Klinsmann tended to deploy him.
But an old dog doesn't betray his core instincts, so Arena also put his trust in Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, two longtime U.S. mainstays struggling with form and fitness respectively. The 30-year-old Bradley made no secret of his frustration with Klinsmann's mixed messages and erratic selections, but the German can't be blamed for the U.S. captain's recent string of indifferent performances.
For his part, Dempsey looked to have finally come up against an opponent he couldn't use his strength and ferocious will to shoulder aside: an irregular heartbeat that caused him to spend nine months on the sideline before returning to the Sounders only three games ago. With Bobby Wood out injured and few other options available, Arena decided to gamble on Deuce's warrior-like mentality overriding any fatigue issues.
The U.S. will not always be confronted by such obliging opponents as Honduras but Los Catrachos' frailty shouldn't detract from the speed of thought and movement that Pulisic and Dempsey displayed in forging a seemingly instantaneous connection. That this is the first time they ever played together must make Klinsmann want to knock back a double espresso and hurl himself into the surf.
Lurking behind the telepathy twins, Bradley bristled with authority and menace, whether spraying balls out wide or linking deftly with Pulisic, while still finding time to disrupt the intermittent Honduras threat and score an excellent goal of his own.
Reveling in his conductor-in-chief role, Pulisic exhibited his usual assortment of preternaturally calm touches and clever flicks while Honduras tried unsuccessfully to knock him off the ball with jarring challenges. His two defense-shredding assists were Champions League worthy and he gleefully contributed to the goal-fest with a cool finish. All Dempsey did was score a hat-trick in his return to international competition and look strong enough to run all the way to Moscow in 2018 if asked.
None of this came as a surprise to Arena. Despite the absence of four potential starters and a pre-match fugue of anxiety and uncertainty, Arena never wavered in his confidence that the team would emerge with a win and a renewed sense of self-belief heading into Tuesday's qualifier in Panama.
But six goals? If you didn't know better, you might have thought he was trying to change the culture of American soccer.
Nah. Let's not go overboard. The three points will suffice.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.