Former US Men’s National Team manager Bruce Arena has opened up about the failure of the team to reach the 2018 World Cup, culminating in an embarrassing and humbling 2-1 defeat at Trinidad & Tobago that left the USA on the outside looking in.
During a Q&A session in Philadelphia, Arena takes some blame but also dishes out a lot more, throwing everything from team chemistry, a weak player pool, weak mentality on the field, and even the national team’s communications department for the nightmare scenario that came to fruition in Couva.
“There are a lot of excuses, but at the end of the day you find a way to get off that field with a point,” Arena said to Straus, before laying out all those excuses he referred to. First up? The team chemistry, which was laid bare after injuries to John Brooks, Jordan Morris, and Sebastian Lletget.
“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 said there were signs of life in June after a win over Trinidad followed by a quality point against Mexico. However, it all came crashing down during a brutal week in early September that ultimately doomed the United States. After a stunning 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, Arena made a whopping seven changes to the starting lineup, none of which worked as a listless USMNT had to scrap and claw for a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Honduras. While Arena said the leaders on the team like Michael Bradley and Tim Howard were there when they were needed, “there were a couple of bad eggs like you have on every team. We were well aware of it.”
The 66-year-old blamed the pre-match buildup to the Trinidad & Tobago team as part of the issue, throwing the communications department under the bus for energizing the home side. “Behind the scenes there were mistakes on our part, probably,” Arena said in what began sounding like an admission of guilt. “Our social media, our communications department, sent out everything humiliating the Trinidad federation on the training facility, which was the game field for that day. It got them all fired up and when we kicked off on that day, it was a battle.”
Arena then railed against those who questioned his tactics or player choices after the disaster, saying, “You got some answers for me the day before the game? During the game? I’m listening. Everyone the day after, you’re a bunch of phonies. I don’t want to hear about it the day after. We’re all the best coaches the day after.”
It took everything Arena had to admit he may have played a part in the failure to qualify, and even then, he did so with plenty of restraint. “I accept that responsibility,” Arena said. “That’s why I resigned so quickly. I accepted my responsibility. That’s the way it goes. I don’t feel good about it, but that’s life.”
Few United States men’s national team matches are as weird as Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Portugal, a feeling that had little to do with a fairly exciting contest.
That’s because the game meant so little, yet meant so much. The Yanks are turning the page after a horrible World Cup, and did it with the failing ex-coach of the bunch serving as an in-studio host and most of its top players at home.
That led to some interesting conversations, including this one traded by PST staffers Nick Mendola and Andy Edwards during and after the match.
Nick Mendola: Alright, Andy, I’m going to go ahead and say it: For as much vitriol as I feel toward all of U.S. Soccer for ruining one of the precious World Cup summers we get during our time on this Earth, it was a really smart move to play almost exclusively kids on Tuesday.
The first half was fun, the players showed abandon and ambition, and there was a real zest from both sides. Putting aside the howler from Ethan Horvath and the inclusion of Bruce Arena in the pundits’ room, and I have to say that was actually, kinda, fun?
Andy Edwards: What good would it do, having all this “young talent” if we didn’t take the earliest possible opportunity to take a group players like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams (above), Kellyn Acosta and Matt Miazga and mold them into a cohesive unit? With all due respect to the “old guard” — the previous generation of USMNT regulars — there’s no reason in the universe that they should play a single minute in the next 12 months.
Rather than filling the cracks with youngsters who might not be ready, the “new guard” needs a year — at least — to grow together, before sprinkling in a handful of veterans around them. It’s that kind of entitlement and inertia that, in my opinion, resulted in so much complacency throughout qualifying.
NM: For sure. And that begs as a question before we go forward full throttle: How much vitriol are we allowed, and when does it have to stop? Because watching the World Cup is going to sting like a melon farmer, and the U.S. should always qualify out of CONCACAF.
With respect to an all-timer in Michael Bradley, when I see Kellyn Acosta delivering on his promise a lot better alongside Danny Williams — and let’s face it: Portugal’s B Team is better than T&T’s B-plus team — I get angry.
When I see Miazga — who did have an error — looking better than Omar Gonzalez — I get angry. Is this unfair? And if not, when does it become unfair? Sorry for the aside.
AE: I’m happy to let go of the vitriol and ill will for as long as I don’t hear any excuses from any of the offending parties — or until the former head coach pops up on television broadcasts and I’m forced to relive last month’s debacle again, simply at the sight of his face.
As my own aside: what’s that all about? We’re supposed to move forward under the watchful eye of Bruce Arena, TV analyst? I can’t think of anyone who’s less qualified to tell us, “Here’s what comes next,” and more likely to rehash the same tired debates and practices of the last decade which ultimately got us nowhere. Just like the squad need fresh faces for the long road ahead, the American soccer public needs fresh voices and ideas to challenge and elevate it. If asked again, Bruce, please say no.
Now that that’s off my chest, I’m ready to move on with the rebuild.
NM: When he was asked, “Would you change anything?” and he opted for “Well, we won the Gold Cup and then I called back those pesky guys playing in Europe” — right before calling his phone “the expert machine” as if to flip the bird at any fan who hasn’t managed a team — I almost climbed into my dryer with 1,000 pushpins and a gas can.
Andy, I seriously cannot go any further with this. We need to go back to the game.
So, Tyler Adams can play basically every position, Weston McKennie has more attacking nous than expected, and basically none of these dudes were afraid of the spotlight that came with standing on the pitch when the curtain raised for the first time after disaster?
That part, my friend, is awesome.
AE: Another topic…
It’s great that McKennie, Acosta, Adams, Miazga and a handful of other youngsters answered the call and largely showed well against Portugal, but an important deficiency remains: a secondary playmaker — whether it be someone central when Christian Pulisic plays out wide, or a wide man capable of either stretching the field wide or cutting inside to combine underneath.
The aforementioned bright spots are strike me as functional players in a side built around a strong spine, but lacking the flair and game-changing instincts that so many others lacked before them. It’s great that we have Pulisic, don’t get me wrong, but where do we find — or, do we? — him a suitable running mate?
NM: That’s a terrific question. I really wanted to see more of Kelyn Rowe, and Arena’s right that he probably earned a carryover nod from Gold Cup to WCQs.
But isn’t that the potential beauty of the next few months? You can give any number of players the chance to show they can be that guy, and USMNT matches also put guys in the shop window.
Again, we’ve got — weeping, weeping, nearly uncontrollable weeping — nearly five years to sort it out. The hope is that Andrew Carleton, Luca de la Torre, Gedion Zelalem, or preferably some veteran will fill that void. I like Rowe, but maybe Nagbe would shine with less defensive responsibility (I’m a lot lower on him than most), or Kenny Saief.
Also, only 1/4 kidding, clearly it’s going to be Clint “Our Pescadito” Dempsey. Speaking of which, where are we on the futures of Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, and Jordan Morris. How many of the three are parts of the next Hex?
AE: Well, Wood is 24, so he’s (hopefully) got two more full cycles as a key contributor. He has to be close to playing himself into a move to a slightly bigger team in the Bundesliga — you know, one that’s not in the relegation scrap every single year. For what it’s worth, he’d have been perfectly suited to play with the pressing and counter mindset of the midfield on Tuesday — much more so than Sapong, at least.
As for Altidore and Bradley, there’s clearly still a place for players with the amount of experience and talent. What there hasn’t been for the majority of their USMNT careers — and it’s hurt the program, in hindsight — is anyone to challenge their automatic starting places. That will, hopefully, change once they’re brought back into the fold, roughly this time next year. They’re capable of — and should be doing — much more than their last three years for the Yanks. With that said, if they don’t return with a renewed sense of motivation and gigantic chips on their shoulders, though, it’ll be very easy for me to say goodbye and move on.
NM: That’s the big question, right? Bradley might be the wrong example given that his key work doesn’t necessarily jump off the screen, but that’s — again, hindsight 20/20 — the reason you bring in outside eyes and not go with Arena 2.0. You invite Tata Martino, or Peter Vermes, or Eddie Howe, and they get the keys to the car. No, “Well he’s done a lot for the program.”
Don’t hire the personality for the personality. Don’t hire the guy who has an agenda. Hire the guy who is willing to put the best guys out there every time, who’s willing to be wrong every now and again.
One final question: You calling in Pulisic, Cameron, Wood, and the gang come January, or keeping up a similar “new” vibe for another couple months?
AE: I’m definitely calling in Pulisic and Wood — anybody under 25, really — during the first FIFA window of 2018. To me, it’s paramount that the new guys get reps alongside players of that quality. They’re the ones, after all, who’ll make up the majority of the squad in 2022, with a little bit of luck.
As far as Pulisic has come in the last 12 months, he’s still got a lot to prove and add to his game — as both a player and a leader. We know he’s a brilliant individual player, but his next for years have to be about making everyone else — players both his age and older, don’t forget — better. That’s a lot to ask of a 19-year-old, but he’s given every indication that he wants that responsibility and will hold everyone, himself included, accountable.
With all due respect to Cameron and a select few others, I know what they are at this point. If there’s a need for them to be recalled closer to 2022, I hope they’ll accept the call and make themselves available. But, in my opinion, every opportunity has to be given to younger guys — many of whom we saw on Tuesday — to make one of 23 spots their own. Wasting the next four years by constantly calling in players who’ll be on the wrong side of their primes in 2022 — a la Dempsey and Jones from 2014 to 2018 — would be the grossest mismanagement job this side of the just completed qualifying cycle. Let’s not do that.
NM: And part of that identifying the old guys. Danny Williams, especially as a man holding down a starting spot in the central midfield-driven world of the Premier League, took a large step in that direction on Tuesday. Now who will join him?
The juiciest and most head-scratching quote came when it came to who in Tuesday’s young lineup would’ve been a part of his crew for Russia.
Arena didn’t have access to John Brooks for the final two qualifiers, and sat Stoke City mainstay Geoff Cameron. Instead he chose Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler at center back, not even calling in Matt Miazga.
FYI, according to Arena (yes, I’m still bitter): Miazga wasn’t good enough to get that call for the qualifiers, but likely would’ve started for Arena in Russia.
“We had some injuries during the year in particular the center back position. John Brooks wasn’t available for a long time and today we see John Brooks partnering up with Matt Miazga. If I were a betting man, I would’ve bet that those two would be our center backs for the World Cup.”
Sweet. Sweet, sweet, sweet.
As time goes by, it seems more and more like Arena thought the “Don’t do what Klinsmann did because he’s dumb” game plan was all he needed to make it to Russia. He followed his preconceptions and is now still trying to find a rationale for his side’s big failure.
Rogers did not play this season after playing 24 matches including playoffs for LA last season.
Here’s what Rogers had to say about his retirement, thanking his legendary Galaxy coach for support and encouragement to play after coming out. From LAGalaxy.com:
“I would like to thank Bruce Arena for encouraging me to return to professional soccer after I came out as a gay man. I’d also like to thank all of my LA Galaxy teammates for accepting me from the first day I stepped back into the locker room at StubHub Center. Finally, I’d like to thank the fans for their continued support throughout my career. I’ll never forget the feeling of returning to the field in my first game back. That feeling of acceptance and support pushed me as an athlete and as a person. Having the opportunity to win an MLS Cup in my hometown, with my hometown club as an openly gay man will be something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I will remain deeply connected to this sport and its surrounding community. I leave the game full of pride of what I have accomplished as a person and a player. I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life.”
Rogers finishes with 18 caps and three goals, the first coming in January 2009 against Sweden and the last in Slovenia in 2011.
After more than 100 matches for the Columbus Crew, Jurgen Klinsmann helped Rogers get a run with Leeds United. His stay was dogged by injuries and featured a loan to Stevenage before he returned home.
He will walk away from the game with one of the most important assists in U.S. men’s national team history, sending in the corner kick nodded home from Jonathan Bornstein to clinch the top spot in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in 2009:
The report states that the USMNT is likely to name its interim manager “some time this weekend,” however, U.S. Under-20 manager Tab Ramos likely won’t be the one named.
Ramos is reportedly seeking a full-time position as the USMNT boss, and the interim tag could be a turn off for the 51-year-old former national team midfielder.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati had stated following former U.S. manager Bruce Arena’s departure that he expected to make a decision in “seven to 10 days.” A decision this weekend would stick with Gulati’s original intentions.
The Americans will reconvene next month when they take on Portugal on Nov. 14 in an international friendly in Leiria.
The match was originally scheduled to be played in Faro, but due to recent devastation in the are the fixture will be played in Leiria and all proceeds will go to the victims of wildfire damage. Portugal will also play a friendly four days prior to taking on the U.S. against Saudi Arabia at the same stadium.