By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 2, 2016) US Soccer Players – So a new (old) boss has taken charge of the USMNT. Will he follow the fashion of his predecessor and stamp his authority on everything within reach? Or does a more subtle style await?
After officially taking the USMNT helm again just before Thanksgiving, Bruce Arena visited New York this week to make the media rounds. The pragmatic Arena didn’t serve up too many surprises for the microphones. He did, however, provide some intriguing hints of what may lie ahead for a program poised at a delicate moment in its history.
One of the first tasks for a coach in Arena’s situation is drawing a box around the “ancien regime”. The emphasis is on a fresh start. He did that on multiple fronts.
“In general, in both games, our back line played poorly,” he said of the World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. “I don’t think they’re poor players. We’ve got to get them organized. We’ve got to get them playing better as a unit.”
Recall Jurgen Klinsmann’s emphasis on tough friendly matches – especially the ones he won, like Italy 2012 and Netherlands 2015 – against top nations.
“Friendlies don’t mean a thing,” Arena said on Tuesday. “Players don’t want to play, they don’t want to get hurt, and their club teams don’t want them to play.”
OK, how about that endlessly-discussed Klinsmann-ism about expansive, “proactive” styles of play?
“We’re not going to look like Barcelona,” Arena wisecracked. “There is nothing wrong with counterattacking. Real Madrid does it pretty well, if you watch them lately.”
Arena is back because above all he’s not going to take many risks. He’s got to work with what he’s got, and he knows it. The famous Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote of his nation’s ruthless and bloody revolution that “they used the debris of the old order for building up the new,” and so it might be said for this particular leader, too.
“Certainly this is not the time to experiment and bring in other players,” Arena told MLSsoccer.com. “There might be one or two players for the next four matches, and then we have the Gold Cup… and then have everybody ready for the last run starting in September. So right now the pool for the most part is fairly established.”
Arena claimed that his current US player pool numbers around 50 or 60 deep. It’s a startlingly big figure in many contexts. Yet it serves him well in terms of projecting a sense of competition, flexibility, and above all, open-mindedness. He’s not eager to alarm any of the current squad, but he does want others to feel hopeful. Hence the specific mention of names like Feilhaber, Nagbe, and Kljestan who’ve been on the periphery at some point in the recent past.
“Those are three players that are a little bit different than what we’ve seen and we certainly have to look at them in January,” Arena said, stressing the need for a more creative presence in the attacking midfield space.
In the bigger picture, it’s tempting to wonder whether Arena’s return to the job is an inward turn from the cosmopolitan Klinsmann years. The longtime LA Galaxy coach made a point to soft-pedal the German-American’s constant emphasis of hunting bigger horizons in Europe. “We want the best players on the field, the best players that give us the right balance to be successful, Arena said. “Where they’re playing their club soccer is not that important.”
It’s probably mere coincidence that, almost immediately afterward, a new batch of rumors about long-serving Americans abroad like Brad Guzan and Fabian Johnson returning Stateside cropped up. But it might make the idea of an implicit retreat from the “Klinsmann foreign policy” seem more plausible.
“We are different than any country in the world,” Arena said. “Within our own country we have different time zones, different climates, almost different languages. To think that we can copy how Holland does their business, or France, or England, I think is crazy. The solutions to our problems here are going to come from us.”
An isolationist, “America first” sort of wider philosophy for the USMNT would be an alarming development to many. Given the other pressing priorities at hand, it does seem unlikely that Arena would devote too much time or attention to anything so esoteric. The head coach’s role is influential enough that even his unstated preferences could leave a mark, however.
More than once over the years, Arena has stumbled over his words when discussing the program’s varied sources of talent at home and abroad, giving some the impression of a xenophobic nativist. To his credit, he took responsibility this week for poor past communications. At one point he even uttered the phrase “we need to embrace the media,” a sure eyebrow-raiser for anyone with a working knowledge of Arena’s version of media management. Whether he follows through on that or not, he’s known for doing his best talking behind closed doors, in close communion with his players.
At present Arena’s got one thing exactly in common with Klinsmann, though/ The next two qualifiers are enormously, overwhelmingly pivotal for everything else. Pick up four to six points from Honduras and Panama in the spring, and we’ll swallow all the steady-as-she-goes talk like honey. The alternative is unpalatable by any measure.
“We’re not in terrible shape,” Arena said. “I don’t think the task at hand is that difficult. We just have to, for lack of a better word, get our [expletive] together.”
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