Bruce Arena, who oversaw the failed U.S. bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, said Thursday he will “do whatever is right” in terms of his coaching future with the men’s national soccer team.
Two days after a 2-1 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago ended seven consecutive appearances in the sport’s biggest competition, Arena said he has yet to discuss the matter at length with U.S. Soccer Federation officials.
He and USSF President Sunil Gulati were on the team charter Wednesday, and “we talked about things,” Arena said. “We know where everything is at, the status of things. We’re all on the same page. We’ll talk again.”
He was hired last winter to replace Jurgen Klinsmann, the 2014 World Cup coach who was fired after losing the first two final-round qualifiers. Arena’s contract was believed to run through next summer, but he said Thursday that, because of the qualifying failure, it might expire this fall. The USSF did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.
“Obviously, I have no interest in going on a four-year cycle right now” to the 2022 World Cup, said Arena, 66. “I’ll do whatever is right. That is the approach I am going to take.”
Gulati is scheduled to address Arena’s future and the program at large on a Friday conference call with reporters.
In a 10-minute telephone interview from his home in Manhattan Beach, California, Arena addressed several subjects related to what is probably the lowest moment in U.S. soccer history.
Needing just a draw against a last-place opponent, the Americans fell from third to fifth in the six-nation qualifying group and missed the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama will represent the CONCACAF region, while Honduras advanced to a playoff against Australia.
Arena, a Hall of Famer who guided the 2002 and ’06 World Cup squads, said that, “despite the fact we didn’t play well in the first half, we should have still walked off that field with at least a point. We have no excuses.”
The Americans yielded two goals before halftime – an own goal by defender Omar Gonzalez and a blazing shot from great distance by Alvin Jones. Christian Pulisic scored early in the second half, but the United States missed several opportunities to pull even.
“Look at the two goals we conceded: How bizarre,” he said. “Does it get any more bizarre than that? So you are down two goals, you get a goal early in the second half and there’s plenty of time to get a second goal. We had our chances. But what can you say? Even despite conceding those two bizarre goals, we still positioned ourselves to get out of there with a point. I can’t look anywhere else except inside our team.”
Asked whether he has second-guessed himself about using the same lineup that started in the 4-0 victory over Panama four days earlier, Arena responded forcefully.
“You can lay all the [stuff] you want on the thing,” he said. “You can say I could’ve played this guy, that guy, and then you’d come back the next day if we had lost and said, ‘Why did you make those changes and play those guys?’
“The job we have doesn’t allow us to be the Monday morning quarterback. [Trinidad and Tobago] played almost the same team that played against Mexico on Friday, so there’s no difference. So that’s all a bunch of baloney. It has nothing to do with formations or not making changes. We didn’t get the job done. If we played the first half like we played the second half, there is no question we win that game or at least get a point. There’s no finger-pointing or excuses; it’s all on us.”
Arena did not think fatigue over the two matches was a major factor, saying: “You have a little bit of a heavy field and it’s hot. Yeah, there’s fatigue. Did you notice their players going down with cramps? We weren’t cramping.”
Arena said the qualifying campaign was an uphill battle since the two early defeats. The Americans went 2-0-2 in the first four qualifiers under Arena, including a 1-1 draw at Mexico, but earned just one point from the two matches in September.
“We knew we were behind the eight-ball since last November. We were hoping we could pull it off, and we might have been a post away from making it,” he said, citing Clint Dempsey’s late bid Tuesday that struck the right post.
Despite the defeat, the Americans still could’ve reached the playoff against Australia, had Panama not come from behind to defeat Costa Rica, 2-1. Panama’s tying goal clearly did not cross the line.
“That’s CONCACAF,” Arena said. “If the officiating is right, probably half of those [Panamanian] guys aren’t even playing in that game because of what they did to us on Friday.
“They are punching people, kicking people, throwing elbows. It was ridiculous,” that the referee did not issue more yellow cards in the U.S.-Panama match, which would’ve resulted in suspensions for the next Panama match. “But that’s CONCACAF. It’s all part of the exercise.”
Arena came to the defense of Gulati, the longtime USSF executive with whom he has had a hot-and-cold relationship over two decades. On social media, many fans are blaming Gulati for the program’s shortfalls and demand his resignation.
“The criticism on Sunil is unfair,” Arena said. “Why is the president of the federation responsible for the result on Tuesday?”
Asked about the USSF’s role in player development, he said: “Why do people think U.S. Soccer is in charge of player development? Players play in clubs. Why is that U.S. Soccer’s responsibility? They support the clubs in this country, they support player development, but that’s not their responsibility.
“They are a governing body that runs our national team programs. They have coaching education. All of that has to get better, but the infrastructure now for player development in the United States is set. There will be more players developed over the years. Every MLS club has an academy program. Everyone has done a lot of leg work and invested a lot of money to get it going.
“We’re not catching up with the big countries in the world just because of what we’ve been doing the last five years. It takes time. We have a ways to go.”