Bruce Arena’s failure was not an individual failure. It’s a systemic failure that shows the United States does not yet have the soccer culture tens of millions of its citizens want.
US Soccer could not be “fixed” in Arena’s 11-month stint as the men’s national team coach. The realistic hope was that he could do what he did at the 2002 World Cup – get the most out of a couple of exceptional talents, paper over the team’s weaknesses and hope for the best.
In 2002, the stars aligned. Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were fresh from their starring run at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien were healthy and in good form – at the same time. Brad Friedel and Eddie Pope were as steady as anyone at the back, and Tony Sanneh was having the best 18 months of his career. Then Portugal melted down against South Korea, and the referee missed an obvious handball by O’Brien in the grand round of 16 matchup against Mexico.
Not that it was all luck. Arena had his team well-prepared for their opener against Portugal and knocked in three first-half goals in a 3-2 win, and his tactics frustrated a talented but temperamental Mexican team to make the quarter-finals.
No stars were aligning this year. Arena took the helm while the ship was listing. The USA had lost the first two qualifiers – admittedly difficult games against front-runners Mexico and Costa Rica – and players were lost under the direction of Jurgen Klinsmann, who had five years to instill his vision for the national team … and failed.
Through seven months of 2017, it looked as if Arena was doing just enough to keep the team afloat. The USA won the Gold Cup, perhaps with a bit of good fortune but still a notable accomplishment. They earned a draw in Mexico’s fearsome Azteca. Just a week ago, a 4-0 drubbing of Panama made the team a virtual lock to qualify.
But the good luck dried up. Against Trinidad & Tobago, Omar Gonzalez shanked a clearance that found the one spot goalkeeper Tim Howard couldn’t cover in his own goal. Honduras rallied to beat Mexico with the help of a bizarre own-goal off goalkeeper Memo Ochoa’s head. Panama’s win was even less likely, rallying past Costa Rica with a phantom goal that joins Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” and the Thierry Henry handball that knocked out Ireland in the ranks of dubious World Cup refereeing lapses.
Once again, the USA simply didn’t have enough time. Not enough time on Tuesday night to find the equalizer to save the team’s World Cup campaign. Not enough time in 11 months to instill the mix of flair and grit that is necessary to win consistently in Concacaf.
So Arena, who was never intended to carry the team into another World Cup cycle, resigned on Friday. A single game or two won’t tarnish his legacy too badly, and he still stands as the USA’s most accomplished men’s coach.
On the same day, someone who has had much more time in his role – US Soccer president Sunil Gulati – calmly but emphatically rejected calls to resign immediately or to declare that he would not seek reelection in February. He didn’t officially say he was running again, but under a stern interrogation, he conceded that he has been reaching out to people to nominate him under the federation’s new election rules.
Gulati has been president since 2006 and vice president for six years before that. By many metrics, his reign has been successful – the once-underfunded federation is swimming in money, the women’s team has won two more Olympic golds and one more World Cup, strides have been made in coaching education, and the federation’s governance has been brought up to modern standards. On the other hand, US teams have been failing to qualify for tournaments – Olympics, youth international events (even on the women’s side) and now the World Cup.
But the presidency may be a more difficult job than national team coach. For one thing, it’s unpaid, a factor in keeping out viable candidates such as Julie Foudy. On the international level, the president is required to go to Fifa meetings and shake hands with a lot of dubious people. On the national level, the US Soccer board is required to expend a lot of energy on disputes between state associations and the many organizations competing for youth soccer players and dollars.
Bruce Arena couldn’t fix the U.S. national team in 11 months, and there was no reason for him to continue. Sunil Gulati has improved the US soccer culture in 12 years, but is there any reason to give him more time to take it to the next level? Or is it someone else’s turn?