Bruce Arena presided over perhaps the worst loss in American soccer history, the 2-1 defeat in Trinidad that knocked the USMNT out of the 2018 World Cup. In the aftermath, US Soccer is in turmoil, with Sunil Gulati deciding not to run for another term as federation president, while the election to replace him has devolved into borderline farce. (A farce that will likely result in Gulati’s handpicked candidate succeeding him.)
Arena spoke to SI’s Brian Straus about where things went wrong in his quest to advance from the Hexagonal, and took the chance to blame team chemistry and the hole he was in at the start:
Following the October World Cup qualifying disaster that continues to reverberate through American soccer, that player told Arena, “This was a culture you couldn’t change in a short period of time.”
Arena really seems to have bought into this philosophy, too, despite the fact he took over in November of 2016, nearly a full year ahead of his final match in charge. The USMNT was certainly in a hole after losing at home to Mexico and at Costa Rica, but those were always going to be two of the three most difficult matches in the round; in theory, it should have all been downhill from there. (And in a way, it was, but not the good way.)
Arena brought up team culture repeatedly during the interview:
“It wasn’t the same team with the right chemistry. It just didn’t seem like everyone was on the same page with the right mentality and the same understanding of what everything was about,” Arena said Friday. “The chemistry of the group wasn’t right. It wasn’t the character you see out of a U.S. team. And the second part, realistically, was that we didn’t have the most talented players and when we had injuries, it hurt us.”
Arena even pointed out there were “bad eggs” among the player pool, though he declined to name names. He did make one salient point, that has perhaps been overlooked too often:
He said that only one player who appeared in Trinidad, Christian Pulisic, would’ve been a shoo-in starter on the 2002 USA squad that advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals.
“You think over 15 years it would look different. So what’s going on?” Arena asked, adding that superior sides representing Mexico and Costa Rica left the less-talented Americans battling for CONCACAF’s third and final automatic World Cup berth.
This is an important question! The talent pool looks much weaker relative to other regional nations, and while some view that as an example of other countries getting stronger, there’s an obvious follow-up to ask: if those nations can get stronger, why can’t the United States? Why has American growth stagnated, aside from Christian Pulisic? It’s fair to wonder if MLS is raising the floor without raising the ceiling in terms of player development, and there are fewer top-level American players now than there were ten years ago.
That’s going backwards, and we saw what happens when you have a less-than-dominant roster guided by someone incapable of getting the best out of his players, a description befitting both Klinsmann and Arena.
Something isn’t working, which makes it all the more disappointing to see the federation and MLS attempt to quash anyone who would claim otherwise for fear of interrupting the money train.