Will The Real Bruce Arena Step Up?

Bruce Arena. PHOTO: KAY NIETFELD/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Bruce Arena. PHOTO: KAY NIETFELD/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Bruce is back… for the U.S. Men’s National Team. After an 8-year stint at LA Galaxy, rather than ride into the sunset, the decorated 65-year-old coach who pushed the envelop as an MLS general manager and head coach, announced his departure from the side he led to 3 of their 5 MLS Cups. And the man who steered the U.S. MNT to their best finish in the FIFA World Cup, chose to resume his role with the U.S. Soccer, as head coach of the Men’s National Team for at least the next 18 months.

Bruce Arena, who transformed LA Galaxy from a franchise with potential into the star-studded team that sets the bar for wheeling and dealing, becomes the first U.S. National Team coach who will lead the U.S. to a third World Cup. A day after the firing of the coach and technical director who was once sought-after and hailed for his expertise and unique vision, the majority of soccer fans and media breathed a sigh of collective relief upon hearing the announcement. They sense a new hope in an old favorite, in a man that is a known, a resume of successes that in the U.S. are measured by mainly one thing, wins and losses. There will be no surprises. Bruce Arena knows how to win games. He’ll tell you that himself unless his 125-70-77 record doesn’t speak clearly enough. His 202 regular season coaching wins in MLS stands second only to Sigi Schmid. So, we have little doubt Arena’s tactics will enable his players to reach the World Cup. But will there be any advancements in the sport, in USA’s rankings and from a developmental perspective? One need only look at his last confounding year (or two) with LA Galaxy for seeds of doubt to start sprouting. Is it fair to bestow so much praise before Bruce 2.0 even gets started?

Sunil Gulati, speaking with media members this week, cited an erratic record with no real trajectory, and disappointment in generally failing to reach the milestones expected from a head coach, as the main reasons for the decision to remove Klinsmann at this time. “It’s never based on a single game,” he explained“But we felt those two games, combined with everything else we had, we had to go in a different direction to maximize our chances. It’s an overall record and you get new data points. Really starting at the [2015] Gold Cup, we’ve had some very up-and-down results. The Gold Cup was a big disappointment for everyone,” the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation President concluded. If it came down to Klinsmann or Arena, it’s an easy popularity contest and no one will disagree, Arena is the most beloved coach in professional soccer. You can even argue he developed a style for MLS through his enormous coaching network and his business acumen. But, most will also agree, this is a short-sighted move by U.S. Soccer to put a palatable taste in our mouths, after years of being told American soccer was not enough. It was the feeding of a hungry public sentiment.

COACHES’ GOALS

For the most part, Americans appreciate numbers and clamor for change when the numbers don’t tell the story they wish to hear. It’s too bad, because behind the numbers lie a lot of yet-to-be-manifested results. That’s likely the case with the 5-year Klinsmann era. Just like a politcal seat being vacated by one party and won by another, the problems that arise over the short-term will be attributed to a failing on Jurgen’s part, whereas successes that come about will result in compliments bestowed on Bruce Arena.

The outgoing coach once given the responsibility of transforming USMNT into a well-oiled machine failed to satisfy the most basic of needs. He overlooked how important winning is, and he overestimated the patience of Americans. We are a nation often seeking easy answers, and if not, we are a young nation believing that change is a quick process. We dream big but don’t always plan how to acheive it. And yes, unfortunately for those weary of hearing detractors compare it to politics, this was a move made in the aftermath of a divisive national election, after a stinging loss at a time when people were looking for something to hold onto and someone to blame. Rather than sticking with the plan, knowing that short-term losses are often part of a long-term valuation gain, the decision was made to cut their losses and move on. But to what end exactly?

As of late that goal has been to qualify for the World Cup and survive the next group of Death, and to be the best in CONCACAF. The language of development and vision has been abandoned in favor of a save the sinking ship rhetoric. But with the most difficult of WCQ matches of behind them, chances were the USMNT would have qualified.

But there’s an array of goals we’ve overlooked including, developing a pool of world-class players to draw from, growing the sport in the U.S. and increasing revenue. It’s likely Arena is not expected to be able to do that in the short time he’ll now have. It’s also likely the gains Klinsmann helped make in developing a new talent pool and growing the sport won’t be seen for years to come.

THE COACHES’ RECORDS*

Arena coached the U.S. men in their best performance at the FIFA World Cup in 2002 in their quarterfinal finish, a tremendous feat yet to be repeated. He ended his first tenure there with a 71-30-29 record before being fired after the next World Cup in which the U.S. did not make it through to the knockout stage. Looking at it from a purely numbers viewpoint, that bests Klinsmann’s 55-27-16 record since his start in 2011. The 2013 streak of 12 wins (the longest in history) during Jurgen’s tenure was perhaps attributable to luck, talent and timing. In 2014 the U.S. reached the Round of 16 before being dispatched. And, after a bumpy 2015 year of discovery, the Copa America Centenario in 2016 saw the men performing at a level befitting a host nation.

WHAT IS AMERICAN ENOUGH?

Famously, and for which Arena has come under criticism is his statement in a 2013 interview with Doug McIntyre for ESPN The Magazine stating, “Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”

He recanted to an extent in his interview with ESPN FC this week when he attempted an explanation: “It was a comment regarding player development and I probably worded it incorrectly. If they’re good enough and they have the right passion, and want to play for the US team, we certainly want them on our team.” But then, in defining what ‘passion’ meant he wasn’t able to cohesively elaborate. “Passion has nothing to do with being born in the U.S. or not. It’s the mentality of the player. We have to have the right kind of players that want to play for their national team, understand the challenge of playing for a national team and will give everything they have to be successful,” Arena declared.

However, Arena’s his own record in 2006 attests to his MLS-centric and non-foreign-national sentiment. His 2006 World Cup roster did not feature any foreign born players. Arena’s thoughts after Klinsmann, signed on as the first foreigner to coach the Americans in 16 years justify this concern.

“I believe an American should be coaching the national team. I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture,” he shared in a 2014 interview with New York Times’ Sam Borden. “Come on,” he continued when pressed. “We can’t copy what Brazil does or Germany does or England does. When we get it right, it’s going to be because the solutions are right here. We have the best sports facilities in the world. Why can’t we trust in that?” 

There’s actually another fundamental nuance to Arena’s patriotic stance on player recruitment and development. Whereas Klinsmann believed in increasing a player’s experience across leagues, Arena sees no reason for it.

“I understand some of the thinking, and the belief that if you go there [to Europe] everything is going to be better, and your development will be more accelerated. We know from experience that European clubs are more experienced and have more resources than us. I don’t think they necessarily know anything more about soccer. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that we can’t develop elite players here. And we should encourage our elite players to stay here, and we should have the resources to keep them here. We can develop players here,” Arena concluded in February of 2016, when asked about whether player development was enhanced by playing abroad. It’s therefore fairly safe to say that Bruce Arena will not focus on recruiting from the pool of talent that Klinsmann did.

Considering that there are contradictions between his statements just a few years ago and today, the skepticism is mounting.

“We, as a country and as a nation can learn from the best talent in the sport of soccer, regardless of birthplace. We should all be communicating and sharing with each other, not preaching isolationism. Ironically, no U.S. coach pulled more players from MLS than Klinsmann. He scoured the globe to find talent, not just in the U.S. but in NCAA, NASL, dual citizenship, European-born, Mexican-born, etc. We are a country founded by immigrants and we should be proud of that and embrace that. Having an abundance of talent on a global level is a good thing for the U.S.” – Michael Duarte, NBC-Los Angeles sports journalist.

R.I.P. TO ROMANTICIZING SOCCER

Klinsmann was endowed with the task of fostering a lasting style of play in America. He was also given the role of head coach. The two roles were more than he and America could handle at once given different priorities. A coach who was criticized for bringing Buddha statuetes to Bayern Munich’s training grounds and called too American and soft, became a coach in America who didn’t fit in because he wasn’t sensitive enough to American needs.

“He’s a European with American sensibilities,” Tim Howard once said. “Look, this isn’t the N.F.L. The history of the sport is not in America. It is where he is from, in Europe. That’s something people have to realize.” Unfortunately, not everyone has the understanding that Tim Howard has gleamed, playing on both sides of the pond. And the impatience grew into an uprising. In the autumn that brought an inward gaze for the USA, likely shutting the door to many international agreements and collaborations, U.S. Soccer too may have inadverently slammed a door on growing the global game, prefering to build something within its own borders.

When the introspective Pablo Mastroeni was asked what he thought the godfather of MLS would bring to the U.S. National Team as a coach, he drew a picture of what we can expect to see.

“I think Bruce is one of the greatest coaches in history of American soccer. I think he’s proven it at the international level, he’s proven it with LA. And from a playing perspective, when I was playing under Bruce, he was a man that inspired me to be better every day. I say this all the time about Bruce. He put me on the bench more than any other coach I had in my career and yet he’s the coach that I’d run through a brick wall for of all of them. I think that says a lot about reaching the person. I think at this juncture, in the national team, we’re talking about having to fight through some difficult circumstances to get back to the top of the Hex and I think what he will do is challenge each individual to become greater, and collectively as a group he’ll challenge them to play for the USA. And he makes it very clear you’ve got to bleed the red, white and blue to be able to step out on the field for him. And I think he’s the right guy. He’s going to inspire this group. There’s no doubt in my mind, he’ll get these guys in the right position to be competiting for the 2018 World Cup.” – Pablo Mastroeni.

You can hear it in voices echoing across the nation. In Bruce’s arena, you must prove to be truly American to play. It’s his system of pay to play. And it will get the U.S. to the World Cup in Russia. It will bond with the players in a way that Arena is known for. He will protect them from the media, and hold his cards close to his chest. Just as he did for LA Galaxy, he will be a friend and coach. But what he likely won’t do, is somehow help to define an American system of play that will outlast him. Perhaps the lesson we will have to learn, is maybe that is the American way. We don’t play pretty, we don’t play consistently, we don’t have a rich history to guide us, but we get the job done any way we can, with what we do have. History will show how far the U.S. can get with an anti-systematic approach. It all depends on how accountable we hold Arena and those who come after him. If Bruce 2.0 is a more modern version of himself then he will actively incorporate the best of what America and all Americans have to offer. It would be a welcome surprise to see Arena challenge the system, to gleam the best talent from the globe, to push the rules and to succeed in the way he did with the Galaxy, but it seems less likely given his past sentiments.

Meanwhile, the echos of Jurgen Klinsmann are fading and, with it, his belief. “Americans don’t give up. If they fall, they dust themselves off and get back up,” he romantically mused in an interview with Cameron Abadi of the New Yorker. One of the things lovers of the global game cherish most about soccer is its ability to cross borders and transcend nationalism, while at the same time rooting itself in patriotism and competition. While the notion of ‘Made in America’ is romantic in its own way, it may not be the most pragmatic approach to creating a version of the game that satisfies those who wish to see the beautiful game thrive and contribute to the world’s conversation.

*author’s note: I didn’t want to go into their records because we’ve already seen countless comparisons. This was my attempt to bring up a less palatable topic – something we should address as a soccer nation, because the balance between shutting ourselves off from the world and developing our own culture is important. We’re still a young soccer nation and there’s a lot to gain from the experiences of other soccer nations too, without losing our own identity.

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