When Bruce Arena was hired to replace Jurgen Klinsmann and dig the USMNT out of their World Cup qualifying hole in November 2016 there were a lot of questions about what the roster would look like. How would Arena integrate the dual nationals that broke into the team under Klinsmann? Which MLS players would get a second chance at national team life or which one of “Klinsmann’s guys” would fall out of favor?
Arena put all that talk to bed from the start. Right away, Arena laid out his plans and his goals; he’s here to get the US to Russia for the 2018 World Cup and to manage the team in Russia. He wasn’t looking a day past that and due to that, he’d be more likely to call on veterans that he could trust rather than inexperienced young players.
Ten months later, that is showing to have the USMNT walking in quicksand and could have disastrous long-term consequences for the squad.
For the most part, Bruce Arena has kept the roster nearly identical to what Jurgen Klinsmann was using at the end of his tenure. He dropped 2016 MLS MVP candidate Sacha Kljestan to make Darlington Nagbe a permanent starter, and he’s established Jorge Villafana as the team’s first choice left back. Sort of. Other than that, Arena has left the team nearly untouched apart from moving Graham Zusi to right back. All those dual-nationals fans were worried about? They’re still there and still first choice starters when healthy.
One of the biggest differences between Klinsmann and Arena is Arena’s communication with the players. He has a plan for them and let’s them know it. When the US opened camp in late May, three weeks before their World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, Arena told the players exactly how they would line up against Trinidad and that they would line up a completely different way, with several changes, against Mexico. The players knew which game they’d be playing and what their role would be.
This strategy and openness with the players may be great to get the players on your side, but what it also does is breed a sense of content within the team. Players know exactly where they stand and nothing will change that.
Players becoming content with their place in their teams has become a bit of a problem for the USMNT. Many of their players currently play in MLS where the reality is they aren’t going to be dropped from their team even if they aren’t performing. The reasons for that are simple, most of these players are the marketing draw for their clubs, but more importantly MLS clubs simply don’t have the depth to just drop a Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey or a Jordan Morris.
Four years ago when Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley left Europe to return to MLS, Jurgen Klinsmann drew heavy criticism when he insisted that he’d prefer his players in Europe, fighting for places in the team to play against top competition. The other side of the argument was that Bradley, who wasn’t getting games at Roma, would now be playing. Four years later, it’s clear that not fighting for a place in the team week in week out has had some effect on Bradley’s game. Dempsey, who has been counted out numerous times over the past four years has fought to prove doubters wrong, which has helped him to stay close to the top of his game.
Bruce Arena’s team selections are now beginning to breed the same level of complacency in the team. This summer, in a Gold Cup designed to give teams a chance to look at new players, Kelyn Rowe and Dom Dwyer were the bright spots for the US in the group stage. They were rewarded by being sent home so Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore could play in the knockout rounds.
Granted, the US won the Gold Cup, which is definitely a job well done, it doesn’t change that when it came down to crunch time, Arena relied on his regulars. When it came time to name a World Cup qualifying roster, Arena selected Chris Wondolowski, a player fans lamented Jurgen Klinsmann for constantly calling in, because of Wondo’s “experience.”
Arena followed the same blueprint for this round of qualifiers. He played his Europeans in the home game before making wholesale changes for the second game. The worst part was the changes seemed to be pre-planned rather than as a reaction to the Costa Rica loss.
It didn’t matter that starting Graham Zusi and DeMarcus Beasley at fullback against Honduras was a tactical disaster that failed in a hilariously predictable way. In Arena’s mind, he was always going to go to them because they have more experience than actual fullbacks Jorge Villafana and Eric Lichaj. It wouldn’t have mattered how well Villafana could have played against Costa Rica, the plan was to only play him once. Geoff Cameron wasn’t dropped because he had a poor game against Costa Rica, he was dropped because Arena believes you can’t play your European players in back to back games in September.
That’s become the problem under Bruce Arena. No matter how well, or how poor you play in a given game, your place on the field or in the team isn’t in jeopardy. There’s nobody knocking on the door to take Michael Bradley or Jozy Altidore’s place in the team, mainly because Arena won’t let someone get to that point.
This is what happens when a manager doesn’t want to ruffle feathers, when he’s just here to do a short job. Often times, international managers take over a team and need to make it their own. That means dropping players that don’t fit your style and adding the ones that do. Sometimes that means moving on from a veteran who doesn’t think he’s done yet. Jurgen Klinsmann expertly did this when he took over the USMNT with Carlos Bocanegra, and then did it again in a much less expertly way with Landon Donovan at the World Cup.
However, Bruce Arena’s approach has been the opposite. He’s not changing the team, rather he’s simply expecting to get different results out of the same players. That’s not going to work, especially when a big part of the USMNT’s problem has been the players.
Arena has gotten the US out of their early qualifying hole, though granted nearly any manager would have gotten home wins over Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago. The last two games however have shown a team that looks directionless on the pitch and a manager who doesn’t know how to get the best out of them.
It should be noted, when the US tied the game against Honduras, the goal came after a free kick by Kellyn Acosta was kept in play by Matt Besler, headed by Jordan Morris, and finished by Bobby Wood. Other than Besler, that’s three players who have joined the USMNT despite not being on the last World Cup roster. They represent the new age of US Soccer (along with Christian Pulisic who won the aforementioned free kick), yet none of them (except Pulisic) are automatic starters under Arena.
But maybe they should be. Maybe it’s time to put some of the older established players into lesser roles. Afterall, the current situation isn’t working and the rest of CONCACAF is catching up to the United States much quicker than anyone is realizing.
Maybe it’s time for Bruce Arena to take a stand. Maybe it’s time to stop playing nice.