“It was a long time ago,” Bruce Arena told FIFA.com, in a trademark deadpan, about his one and only cap for the US national team. “It was against Israel, in Beer-Sheva. I think we drew, but I can’t remember for sure. What I do remember is that our coach, Gordon Bradley, who was 40 at the time, played sweeper in the second half. This gives a pretty good indication of how much has changed in the US program since 1973.”
It is pretty safe to say that Arena, now in his second stint as head coach of the Stars and Stripes, has seen it all. A goalkeeper at university level, he went on to become the most successful collegiate coach in history. He saw the fall of one professional league, drafted and released by New York Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League, and was instrumental in the rise of another, as one of Major League Soccer’s top coaches since its inaugural season in 1996. He saw the United States go from total outliers, a country with little pedigree or interest in the world’s game, to personally guiding them to within inches of a spot in the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
“Bruce has an aura,” veteran midfielder Michael Bradley said about the coach, now 65, who took up the reins again in November. “You’re never confused about what he wants from you.”
“Our next qualifier, against Honduras at home, is a must-win. It’s that simple and I’m not shy about saying it.” Arena steers clear of buzzwords like proactive and reactive and the jargon of football’s technocrats. Instead, he cuts to the heart of an issue. In this case, the deep hole his team are in at the start of the Hexagonal, the final qualifying round in CONCACAF for the 2018 World Cup Russia. A first qualifying loss to Mexico on home soil since 1972 and a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica, where the team lost their nerve, spelled the end of the Jurgen Klinsmann era.
Old coach, new faces
The last time Arena sat on the bench, he had a young Landon Donavan in the team, as well as Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel and Eddie Pope. It was one of the best USA sides ever, and they capped off their best World Cup run in modern history by beating arch-rivals Mexico in the Round of 16 and stretching runners-up Germany in the quarter-finals. Arena held the country’s top job for eight years between 1998 and 2006, the longest run in the team’s history, and he knows better than anyone the peculiar pitfalls of qualifying through CONCACAF. “You have to win at home,” he said, citing the challenges of playing on the road, but refusing to use them as an excuse. “The heat, the humidity, the travel and altitude. It’s tough, but it’s reality and we deal with it.”
When asked where he ranks USA at the moment in CONCACAF, Arena pulls no punches. He shoots straight. “I rank us sixth – dead last,” he says in the monotone drawl that hides a wry sense of humour and has its home in a Brooklyn, New York, before man-buns and ten-dollar cups of coffee. Mexico are on fire at the moment and Costa Rica are right behind them. Honduras are waking from a slow start and Panama are desperate to assert themselves in the region. Arena knows this, better than most. “We’re at the bottom. Those are the facts. Right now, we’re sixth in a pool of six competing teams."
*The road to Russia *
“But our goal isn’t to finish first or second – our goal is to get to Russia,” added the coach who never expected another chance with the national team. “With these two losses, there’s less of a margin for error. We’ve got eight games to go and we’ve got to start getting points fast.”
The first order of business is identifying the players that will make the backbone of his team. And where predecessor Klinsmann focused on overseas experience, inter-squad competition and various intangibles, Arena – of the old school – is looking for a core, a solid group. And with more than a decade of experience coaching in MLS, and five titles to his name, the majority of his squad comes from the North American top flight.
“This is a great moment for the national team,” said Arena, a man who seems genuinely happy to be back in charge and determined not to see the US miss out on a World Cup for the first time since 1986. “Our senior team will be challenged in a way they’ve never been before. This is a chance to show what we’re all about.”
Those who know Arena have a hard time believing any team he coaches will throw their hands up and surrender. Arena himself talks about guts, about what it means to wear the shirt he once wore, all those 44 years ago on a dusty pitch in Israel when no one was paying much attention. “I believe it’s important when you pull on the shirt, when that crest is over your heart, that you represent your country the right way," he said. "You need pride. That’s the first thing for us: to find that.”