The U.S. face Jamaica in the 2017 Gold Cup final in Santa Clara, Calif. on Wednesday and winning this competition would be very significant for the USMNT and head coach Bruce Arena.
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This is much more than a second-tier tournament for the U.S.
Arena arrived in November 2016, just days after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired as USMNT head coach following five years of ups and downs which yielded one Gold Cup (2013) a Round of 16 spot at the 2014 World Cup and a semifinal appearance at the 2016 Copa America Centenario. The downs were too numerous to mention.
In his 13 games so far, Arena has yet to lose in his second spell in charge of the USMNT.
Sure, plenty of those games have been friendlies, winnable World Cup qualifiers (points on the road in Honduras and Mexico were huge) and Gold Cup group games, but he’s still managed his squad exceptionally well and has put both himself and his players in a much more positive frame of mind heading into a big 12 months.
If Arena leads the U.S. to Gold Cup glory on Wednesday, it would not doubt prove U.S. Soccer correct in hiring him and turning around the fortunes of the program which seemed riddled with infighting and anguish under Klinsmann.
Arena is a straight talker, we all know that, and the Brooklyn native is feeding off his vast experience in MLS and from his first stint in charge of the the U.S. from 1998-2006. The 65-year-old is a consummate man-manager, the Sir Alex Ferguson of the U.S. soccer scene if you will, and Arena has already fostered a strong team spirit despite having a huge player pool and almost three separate squads to juggle over the past seven months.
Sure, the European contingent from the U.S is missing for the Gold Cup and so are plenty of stars from Mexico, Costa Rica and other nations but on home soil the U.S. has got by shaky defensive displays to breeze into the final. The USMNT was in a similar situation in the last Gold Cup and didn’t handle it well.
Arena has juggled the demands of his senior players, promising youngster and certain situations (think of the tactical and personnel switches at the Azteca in June) admirably but he knows his strongest team and sticks to it when crunch time arrives.
The U.S. are the heavy favorites against the Reggae Boyz but we all know what Jamaica is capable of after they beat Klinsmann’s U.S. side 2-1 in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinal to hammer another considerable nail into his fast assembling U.S. Soccer coffin.
Arena has a contract through the end of the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer and although the U.S. still has to qualify for the tournament, if these positive results continue then maybe Arena is the long-term answer for Sunil Gulati and Co.
First up, he has to win the Gold Cup. Secondly, he has to guide the U.S. to the World Cup. And then if he excels in Russia next summer (another Round of 16 berth, or better, would be a great success) then who knows what’s next for Arena?
Everyone agreed he was the smart hire with the USMNT in turmoil back in November but nobody saw it going this smoothly.
Kudos to Arena for his understated, straight-forward approach which is exactly what the USMNT need right now, and possibly for many years to come.