By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 23, 2017) US Soccer Players – US Soccer brought Bruce Arena back into the USMNT fold in place of Jurgen Klinsmann last fall for one reason above all. The 65-year-old carries deep experience of the treacherous path to World Cup qualification. He experienced it twice before at the turn of the century. That made him the safest bet for steering the wobbly 2018 campaign back onto course.
He got that experience the hard way. Most fans’ memories of Arena’s first cycle in charge revolve around the stunning, exhilarating quarterfinal run at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. That delirious adventure – whose matches unfolded in the predawn hours on United States time, turning USMNT fans into bleary-eyed nightowls – has probably clouded our collective hindsight of just what a rough slog it was to get there in the first place.
CONCACAF’s World Cup qualification process was essentially the same back then as it is today. The US entered at the semifinal stage, drawn into a four-team group with Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Barbados, from which the top two finishers would advance to the final, “Hexagonal” round.
You thought the semifinal-stage wobble that left the Yanks in a must-win situation at home vs. Guatemala last year was stressful? Things got even darker back in the summer of 2000, starting with a visit to Guatemala. Los Chapines took the usual CONCACAF gamesmanship to a whole other level for this one, not only scheduling the game at midday in tropical heat, but also moving it some 100 miles west of Guatemala City to the lower elevation and stifling heat of Mazatenango.
Ante Razov banged home the opening goal for the visitors, who were precious minutes away from banking a huge road win only for Carlos Ruiz to poke home an 88th-minute equalizer. It got worse on the trip to Costa Rica a week later.
A canny poacher’s goal from Earnie Stewart stunned a euphoric Ticos crowd and drew the US all even at 1-1 with some 25 minutes to play. In second-half injury time, however, Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast whistled Gregg Berhalter for a handball in the US penalty box. Despite replays showing that Berhalter had headed, not handled, the short-range cross, Ticos striker Hernan Medford rifled home the winner from the spot. That eft the US in last place in Group 3 with four games to go.
“This was disgraceful,” Arena said postgame. “I told the ref he cheated us, and I’d like to see him walk in this locker room and explain this officiating to these players.”
Captain Claudio Reyna was incensed too, bitterly and repeatedly confronting Prendergast after his final whistle. Reyna was later suspended for two qualifiers, and Arena for three. The Yanks found their backs against the wall even after a 7-0 rout of Barbados at the old Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts.
“After the first two games we realized two things: anything can happen, and nothing is safe until the final whistle,” Arena later recalled. “These were important lessons to be learned.”
The obstinate Guatemalans were narrowly dispatched 1-0 at RFK Stadium on Labor Day Weekend. When a shorthanded US side was held to a 0-0 draw by Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio a month later, it put Arena & Co. in a decent but delicate spot. Beat Barbados down in Bridgetown in November and advance to the Hex. Anything else left them at the mercy of the Guatemala vs Costa Rica match unfolding at the same time.
Barbados and their rutted pitch made it much tougher than expected. The game was scoreless at the half, and USMNT supporters were left aghast when goalkeeper Tony Meola was called upon to make a clutch save just after halftime. Eventually Stewart, Razov, Clint Mathis, and Cobi Jones racked up four goals down the stretch to make a sweaty occasion look a lot more assured than it really was.
“The best that can be said of the United States World Cup qualifying performance against Barbados this afternoon – and throughout its CONCACAF semifinal group – is, ‘All’s well that end’s well,’” wrote the Soccer Times’ famously gruff columnist Robert Wagman.
“After struggling for two-thirds of the match before defeating Barbados 4-0 at National Stadium, the Americans’ should feel fortunate to advance to the six-team final round robin. … Through the first 63 or so minutes, the US was not so much disorganized, as it was dysfunctional. The first half might have been the worst World Cup qualifying soccer played by a US team in the last decade.”
The road to Korea/Japan wasn’t particularly straightforward in the Hexagonal, either. Sparked by their 2-0 “Guerra Fria” win over Mexico in frigid Columbus in February, the Yanks reeled off three straight wins to start the final round of CONCACAF qualification. Then a creditable draw was earned at Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago were vanquished at Foxboro. Smooth sailing from here, right?
Not so much. A frustrating 1-0 loss to Mexico at Estadio Azteca on July 1, 2001 slowed that momentum, and ran the Norteamericanos’ all-time record at El Tri’s imposing fortress to 0-10-1 at that time. The dog days of summer would get still more uncomfortable two months later when Honduras visited RFK. US Soccer took steps to reserve the lower bowl of the familiar old venue for USMNT fans. With a huge Honduran expatriate community in the DC region, it didn’t work out as planned.
A loud, dominantly pro-Catrachos crowd packed into RFK. And when Stewart – who would still score twice on the day – saw a penalty kick saved just before halftime, the stage was set for a stunning 3-2 Honduras win. That broke the USMNT’s 19-game, 16-year unbeaten streak in home qualifiers.
“Besides the way we blew a lead, I think we played in such a bad environment for a home game that it hurt us,” said Arena, who would hammer home the importance of preventing such a fiasco from happening again in a match with so much on the line.
The Yanks’ Costa Rican hoodoo continued with a 2-0 setback on their visit to Estadio Saprissa a few days later. That left the US on a three-game losing streak and in fourth place with two games left.
“I think that three-game stretch was an example of how a team can self-destruct,” Arena said.
This was back before the Hex’s fourth-place finisher could seek a back door into the main event via an intercontinental playoff. Only the top three reached the World Cup. Costa Rica had already booked qualification. Honduras, Mexico, and the US would scrap for the final two berths.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 would further complicate matters ahead of the October 7 meeting with the Reggae Boyz. The US found inspiration in an emotional moment, however, earning a hard-earned 2-1 victory. Though Trinidad & Tobago held the Yanks to a scoreless draw in the Caribbean on the last day of qualifying, the Soca Warriors had already done them an enormous favor by upsetting Honduras 1-0 in San Pedro Sula via a Stern John strike.
So Mexico and the US slipped in with 17 points each, three ahead of the Hondurans. Once the Yanks were on site in South Korea, the CONCACAF grind was left behind – though as Arena noted, the lessons of qualifying served them well on their quarterfinal run.
The USMNT boss has a different sort of motivational task in the current cycle. It may well require a more aggressive approach to overcome the twin losses of last November. One thing is certain: He surely won’t lack for knowledge on the hurdles and pitfalls that lie ahead.
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