After stubbing its toe while taking a bold step toward its future, United States Soccer reached back to its past to revive its floundering chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Unlike his recently-sacked predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann, newly-renamed USA head coach Bruce Arena did not charge himself with revolutionizing the United States soccer program from the youth level through the senior team.
Arena has only one responsibility after being appointed for the second time in two decades – get the United State to Russia anyway possible.
“Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team, it’s an honor,” said Arena, who guided the USA to the World Cups in 2002 and 2006. “I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the (final round of CONCACAF qualifying for 2018).
“Working as a team, I’m confident that we’ll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”
The situation is similar to 2002 when the United States was in a state of transition and Arena incorporated a young generation of American players with aging veterans and surprisingly advanced to the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
That’s what the United States is now.
Klinsmann, who guided the United States out of the “Group of Death” at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, was sacked after the USA opened the hexagonal with a late 2-1 loss to Mexico at home and a disgusting 4-0 shellacking in Costa Rica.
With eight qualifying games remaining, the United States is in last place with zero points and a goal differential of -5. Qualifying resumes in late March with the USA facing Honduras and Panama.
That gives Arena four months to get a floundering ship back on track to go to its eighth consecutive World Cup.
That is his only directive.
When Klinsmann was hired in 2011, the controversial German demanded authority that would allow him to shape the entirety of United States soccer into what he envisioned would make it successful.
Ultimately, he promised more than he could deliver in a limited time.
Turning United States soccer into a world power is a decades-long proposal not an eight-year one.
Still it wasn’t Klinsmann’s failure to deliver fully on the future that forced United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati to fire him.
It was the threat that he could not maintain the status quo.
Klinsmann had highlights but the United States also lost alpha dog status back to Mexico in the CONCACAF region.
The USA flamed out in the 2015 Gold Cup as host nation and then got beat in a home playoff match against Mexico that determined who represents CONCACAF at next summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia – a valuable tune up for the World Cup.
The two losses to start “the Hex” were the final straws.
Now back into the picture is Arena, who is the most accomplished USA coach ever with five NCAA championships at the University of Virginia, five MLS titles with D.C. United and Los Angeles Galaxy, two Gold Cups with the national team, and a surprising quarterfinal berth at the 2002 World Cup.
Although Arena, 65, has not coached the national team in a decade, his position in MLS kept him familiar with much of the current United States talent pool.
What will be most interesting to see is how Arena deals with the influx of dual-nationality players that Klinsmann has integrated into the United States team.
Back in 2013, Arena infamously criticized Klinsmann to ESPN The Magazine by saying, “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.”
Arena has already backed away from that xenophobic stance, and frankly, he had no choice.
The only “making progress” that matters right now is making it to Russia, and there are too many foreign-born players integrated into the USA team for that to happen without them.
“If I made those comments, I certainly don’t believe that that’s my attitude,” Arena said earlier this week. “I embrace all players that are eligible to play. I just want to make sure their hearts are in the right place.”
This issue is a red herring as Arena’s 2002 World Cup team had five dual-citizen players while Klinsmann had seven in 2014.
I’m also always concerned about stepping back into the recycling bin. Still, right now, the USA team needs a coach who knows the game, knows the players and knows the international playing field.
Arena certainly does.