Arena has exceeded expectations since replacing Klinsmann as U.S. manager
When Bruce Arena took over the U.S. men's national team in late November, he inherited a squad in disarray. The Americans found themselves in last place of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, mired in mediocrity and trending downward as previous manager Jurgen Klinsmann's motivational ploys and tactics lost effectiveness.
Arena, who coached the United States from 1998 to 2006, got the job because of his familiarity with the program and its players as well as his presumed ability to get the red, white and blue to Russia in 2018. He was the choice by necessity and by default, the best man to get the job done, but also the only one who could.
As a result, while his hiring was applauded as the right decision, it wasn't exactly met with overjoyed enthusiasm. The return of Arena signified a return to the past, an admission that before the Americans could move forward, they needed to go back. Arena wasn't a forward-thinking coach; he was a pragmatic one. He probably could lead the team to the World Cup but would do so by going back to the basics, leaning on athleticism and effort rather than technical ability and tactical nuance.
Now that Arena's side has returned eight points from four World Cup qualifiers, including an impressive draw at Mexico's soccer fortress, Estadio Azteca, on Sunday, it's time to consider that he has exceeded expectations. Not only has the coach gotten the tactics right and brought the fight back to the U.S., but he's building a blueprint for a team that could find success in 2018 and beyond.
It starts with the appealing blend of talent Arena is deploying on the field. In the past, the coach was criticized for being unable or unwilling to give younger players a chance, but he has shown no such reluctance since getting the top job again.
Christian Pulisic is now the engine that makes the attack go, and Kellyn Acosta excelled in a central midfield role against El Tri and will soon take over for Jermaine Jones as a starter if that hasn't happened already. Arena handed Paul Arriola his first World Cup-qualifying start Sunday night, and the 22-year-old midfielder didn't look out of place. Arena isn't working miracles, but he is setting up his team -- arguably the most talented in U.S. history -- to succeed, and his players are responding positively.
"I thought the mentality of the group to understand what the game was going to be about, to commit to how we wanted to play, it was amazing," Michael Bradley said after the 1-1 draw with Mexico. "Obviously, Bruce laid out things early on in terms of his idea of how we wanted to go about the two games. You always know that things can change, but ultimately we stuck to exactly what he wanted to do."
In Mexico, two moments stood out to me. The first was Bradley's goal. While we'll remember it for the shock value and the pureness of his strike, the moment before was more telling. The American captain stepped into space and created a turnover, after which he went sprinting toward the Mexican net. Asked after the game how he made the play, Bradley said that he knew the pass from Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez was coming. The U.S. team watched film of their opposition and noticed that specific pattern of play. They were prepared, and the result was a goal. The Klinsmann era, it's fair to say, frequently lacked that type of attention to detail.
The second was a conversation with Arriola after the game. All week long the U.S. players talked about how they felt more prepared under Arena, but the midfielder explained specifically how this happened. "We talked about [my role] a couple days ago in breakfast," he said. "We just had a short meeting, each person, and I think that really helps a lot; everyone really understands what their role is and what the team role is."
A bit later, he continued: "At halftime, we talked about a tactical switch. Their left back was coming up a lot, so how can we avoid him receiving the ball, or do we want to hold in and allow him to receive the ball? We kinda talked over that. And everything was pretty clear. Myself, I was never confused."
Coaching a national team, a squad that doesn't spend much time together, doesn't need to be complicated. The players need to know what function they play on the field, where their skill sets fit into the specific game they are playing and the larger player pool. They need one or two discrete instructions or guidelines, and the freedom and flexibility that comes from knowing that their coach trusts them in the situation where he's put them.
Arena's impact on the state of the U.S. program was immediate -- he improved morale off the field and performance on it. Increasingly, it looks to be long-lasting, too. While he was always the right man for the job, he has been better than advertised and deserves credit. (And credit to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati for giving Arena so much latitude. It took too long to get rid of Klinsmann, but when the split came, it was clean and thorough.)
"At the end of the day, what Bruce sets for us to do, we'll be ready to do," Acosta said before the Mexico match. He and his teammates were ready, and they nearly emerged from Mexico with three points. After the match, Arena was already looking toward the future, his vision clear.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.