Arena must learn from setbacks, but reaching Russia will define his reign
During Bruce Arena's first eight months at the head of the United States men's national team, he didn't get a whole lot wrong. There was a curious lineup choice here, a delayed substitution there, but not much more than minor mistakes. He brought a preparedness and stability to the squad, and his players, still reeling from the whiplash-inducing Jurgen Klinsmann era, responded well. The team went undefeated in its first 16 games, winning the Gold Cup and taking eight points from four World Cup qualifiers.
They weren't brilliant, but they were good enough and moving in the right direction, which was exactly what the red, white and blue needed to do. United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati didn't hire Arena for the second time because he wanted magic and innovation; he installed the coach in the top spot because he needed the Americans to qualify for the World Cup. The early return on Arena's tenure saw the U.S., led by its manager, drawing ever closer to that goal.
The road to Russia has taken a detour in the past week. A 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica followed by a last-minute draw against Honduras sees the U.S. still in control of its destiny -- two wins in the final two games should be enough to finish third, the final automatic qualification spot in CONCACAF -- but the margin for error is now next to nothing. Had Bobby Wood not scored in the 85th minute in San Pedro Sula, U.S. supporters would be frantically considering the cost of plane tickets for November's inter-confederation playoff.
Following 180 minutes of soccer in which the U.S. struggled for long periods, it's fair to ask how much is on the manager. Arena is aware of the question.
"I thought they outplayed us and outcoached us tonight," he said following Friday's defeat to the Ticos. But that's not all that true. He said as much a couple days later, admitting that his statements were designed to give the media something to write about rather than being a truthful assessment of the match.
The Americans played well enough to beat the visitors, but they were undone by bad luck and uncharacteristically poor finishing rather than coaching choices. While Arena earned criticism for waiting until the 65th minute to bring on his first substitute in Clint Dempsey, the truth is that the U.S. starters were creating enough chances. They couldn't solve goalkeeper Keylor Navas. That futility, however, isn't a coaching issue.
While the choice to start Tim Ream alongside Geoff Cameron didn't succeed, it wasn't wrong considering Ream had experience in Red Bull Arena and had been playing well in England. Installing Fabian Johnson in the starting lineup after just 10 minutes of club football wasn't ideal, but again, that's a move that's much easier to criticize in retrospect after it fails to produce the desired results.
Arena's individual decisions against Costa Rica largely made sense. The failure came in the players' execution.
Some of Arena's decisions against Honduras were more concerning. The choice to bench Cameron, who despite his abysmal performance at Red Bull Arena remains the U.S.' best central defender, its most capable organizer and an underrated passer, didn't look good at kickoff and got worse as Omar Gonzalez struggled. DaMarcus Beasley, who's tried to retire from international duty on multiple occasions, worked hard at left-back but couldn't hold up physically. The fact that he can still sniff a starting spot is as much a testament to his dedication and professionalism as it is to the U.S.' continued inability to produce full-backs.
But the manager also pulled some of the the right strings when required in San Pedro Sula. Matt Besler played well. The substitutes -- Paul Arriola in the 62nd minute, Cameron in the 63rd and Bobby Wood in the 73rd -- contributed to the afternoon-saving result. Jordan Morris rewarded Arena for handing him a start, showing he could survive 90 minutes in the Central American heat and win a crucial second ball to set up Wood's tally.
Less than a year after complete capitulation in a 4-0 loss to Costa Rica, a result that got Klinsmann fired, the U.S. didn't quit. At least some of that heart and effort is attributable to the belief that Arena and his staff rebuilt over a short period of time.
The coach should learn from the past two games, specifically with regard to the youngest player in the pool. In both matches, he deployed Christian Pulisic on the right side of the formation. The idea was a tradeoff: by moving Pulisic wide, he would have to deal with fewer defenders and could have more one-on-one situations. His time on the ball would decrease, but his effectiveness per touch would jump higher. At least that was the theory.
The plan backfired. Against Costa Rica especially, the Americans forced the ball to their young star, firing it into him in situations where he had no chance to make a play. When he did get the ball, he was surrounded by two or three defenders, the Ticos keying on the Borussia Dortmund star. On the few occasions when Pulisic did manage to get in situations where he could make something happen, he got fouled.
Moving Pulisic out wide was a curious choice, especially at home. Simply put, the teenager has been better in the middle of the field. He's shown that he's capable of being the focal point of the attack, and that he's the best player to man that position. Arena surely had his reasons for starting Pulisic on the right -- he created a goal from there against Panama in March -- but it shouldn't happen again going forward. Fortunately, the solution is simple: switch Pulisic with Darlington Nagbe. And write it in pen.
In two crucial qualifiers, Arena could have been better. He could have been a lot worse, too, and the team remains a heavy favorite to reach the World Cup. The path has a couple more twists and turns than American supporters would like, but the goal is within reach. In the end, getting to Russia is the only thing that will define Arena's success or failure as a coach.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.