By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 16, 2017) US Soccer Players - Sunday’s 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Mexico at Estadio Azteca is a great result by any measure, regardless of the circumstances or personnel involved. While there’s ample work still ahead, the USMNT can now consider itself to be back on course for Russia 2018 after last fall’s queasy wobbles. Some concerns die off more slowly, however.
The strange symmetry between Bruce Arena’s latest face off with El Tri and recent previous meetings under his predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann was a leading topic of both post-game analysis and fan chatter. For better or worse, the feverish tone of some of these discussions suggests that the US is nowhere near having patched up the differences that had segments of the fan base at one anothers’ throats towards the end of Klinsmann’s tenure.
A quick rundown of the facts here. Sunday was Arena’s first positive result at Mexico in World Cup qualifying. Klinsmann earned the same result at this stage of the previous cycle, with a 0-0 draw in 2013. The US has never won a qualifier at Azteca. Prior to these last two trips, they've only ever gotten one other positive result in qualifiers at the venue. That was a 0-0 draw under Steve Sampson in 1997. Klinsmann also oversaw the one and only USMNT win at Azteca, a 1-0 friendly victory in 2012. Both coaches dared to roll out relatively unfamiliar 3-4-3 formations in big games vs. El Tri. Klinsmann in November’s home qualifier in Columbus and Arena in Mexico City on Sunday.
The USMNT is 2-0-2 in qualifiers, and 3-0-4 overall, since Arena took over. That includes some decidedly uneven friendly performances and some determined displays in the crucible that is the CONCACAF Hexagonal round. The high point was surely the 6-0 devastation of Honduras in March. Friendly draws vs Serbia and Venezuela were wobbly outings, but mean relatively little in the big picture. Under the pragmatic new boss, the US hasn't looked good at times in terms of ball possession, but rarely in the wider, less-easily-quantifiable metric of competitiveness.
Some suggest that the domestic soccer media have been overly congratulatory of Arena’s work, in Mexico in particular, given that he made a similar tactical decision to Klinsmann. This line of thinking generally relates to the idea that the press always had it out for Klinsmann. Apparently, that was because he was a self-avowed disrupter of the status quo,. He occasionally said things that appeared to belittle their understanding of the game.
The contrast between the two coaches is obvious. Klinsmann was a World Cup-winning icon during his playing days. He remains a fitness buff who appears to have aged only modestly since retiring as a player. He's a world soccer celebrity. Klinsmann habitually spoke of bold, ambitious goals for his team, of playing flowing soccer and pushing his players into the world’s biggest clubs and leagues. He did not hesitate to pay tribute to the world game’s leading minds. He rarely missed an opportunity to humble his players, often reminding them and the American soccer community of just how far behind the global elite we are.
Arena walks and talks a very different game. Though his home address is a trendy Southern California beachside community just up the coast from Klinsmann’s, he proudly bears Long Island roots in his voice and his carriage. From his clothing to his physique, he’s on the back side of middle age, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. He’s never coached abroad, nor was a great player in his day. He loves to poke fun at the game’s lofty tactical vocabulary and most anyone who asks him to use it. He told the Wall Street Journal he can learn more from Bill Belichick than Pep Guardiola. Among players, he’s known for being plain-spoken in public but encouraging, even inspirational, in private.
As a result, they’ve become tokens, proxies in a wider ideological conflict within the US game. Do all those differences really reveal themselves on the field of play? That’s definitely up for debate. Over the years, both coaches have overseen big victories against top opponents, and glittering displays of slick soccer. Both also presided over decidedly less awe-inspiring performances. Neither hesitate to depart from their public personas in search of a result. Some of Klinsmann’s biggest victories came from the traditional American values of “run fast, try hard,” and the supposedly workmanlike Arena has flashed cunning tactical wrinkles in big moments.
In general, their US teams shared a trait. Proactive against inferior opposition. and reactive against the better ones. US Soccer as a whole would like to overcome this limitation. Klinsmann represented the apex of those ambitions. So many of those who prefer his worldview greeted his dismissal as a step back, a regression. Conversely, those who tired of Klinsmann's grand talk prefer a coach closer to their own outlook.
Those pushing for a coaching change long before US Soccer made the decision can now point to results and the Federation's budget. Courtesy of US Soccer's own filings listing a $6.2 million payout marked “MNT coaching staff changes” for the 2015-16 fiscal year, we know how much a coaching change cost the Fed. That probably underscores why that change didn't happen earlier. Putting a World Cup trip in doubt amid diminishing performance returns and hefty salary expenditures was the final straw in the Klinsmann experiment.
All this misses the point, however. Klinsmann’s appointment was the natural progression from the lessons of the Arena years and the Bob Bradley era that followed it. Every coach involved was building on the experiences of their predecessors, whether they chose to admit it or not. The same can probably said of every big managerial job in the sport. Klinsmann was the right choice for that moment in the program’s history, and so is Arena today. US Soccer will hope that they can say the same about the next one they pick for the hot seat.
Yes, it would probably be more efficient if every new coach committed to continuing and enhancing the good work of the last guy in charge. The rising visibility of the job has added a political element that may complicate that part, though. It may be impossible to reconcile those two philosophical factions of our soccer community. The leader who can do so might just be the change that we really need.
More from Charles Boehm: