Bruce Arena may be a throwback. He’s already been through two World Cup cycles as coach of the U.S. national team and from the list of 23 players he took to the 2006 tournament in Germany, there are more current managers and club executives than active players.
But the 65-year-old is no dinosaur, and he said Tuesday that he’s excited and energized by the prospect of returning to the U.S. bench. Arena, who spent the past eight seasons coaching the LA Galaxy, signed a contract Tuesday to coach the national team through the 2018 World Cup and said his years in LA working with elite players, not to mention the additional years of experience, leave him feeling confident he’s ready for the job. And he has his work cut out for him. The defeats that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job on Monday have put the U.S. in the CONCACAF Hexagonal cellar at 0-2-0. Qualifying for Russia 2018 resumes in March.
“I’ve had 10 years on the field at the club level [since leaving the U.S. in ’06] and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented players in the world, and to understand how they work and how to build a team and continue to grow on the tactical side, continue to grow on how to deal with players, learning how to plan and playing away [from home] and playing in big matches,” Arena said during a media conference call. “I think 10 years later, I’m better prepared to do this job than I was in 1998, 2002 and ultimately 2006. The experiences I’ve had will benefit the program.”
After U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn made the decision to fire Klinsmann on Sunday evening, negotiations with Arena started quickly. Gulati said they met with Arena on Monday and Flynn remained in Southern California, where Klinsmann lives, to conclude negotiations while Gulati returned to work in New York City.
“I think he’s got far more experience than he did in the first go-around,” Gulati said of Arena, who took the U.S. to the ’02 quarterfinals and won two Gold Cups before being fired following an 0-2-1 finish at the ’06 World Cup. “He’s proven and re-proven many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he’s an extremely capable and successful coach.”
Arena managed the New York Red Bulls immediately after leaving the national team, was fired at the end of the 2007 season and then joined the Galaxy the following year. He claimed three MLS Cups, two Supporters' Shields and four conference championships in L.A. He won acclaim for his ability to blend foreign stars, elite U.S. players, rank-and-file veterans and home-grown talent into cohesive units and was highly-regarded for his ability to manage a locker room. Those qualities were important to Gulati as he sought to stabilize a U.S. squad in some disarray.
“You see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously,” Arena said of his growth. “The game has slowed down a bit … I’m better at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of players and I think I’m better at building a team. And certainly this time around it’s going to be a great challenge. I’m excited about it and hopefully all of my experiences help us quickly get this team turned around and ready for qualifying.”
Arena said there will be a January camp, which, as usual, will consist primarily of players in their MLS off-seasons. He said he’s already been in touch with a couple of his future charges—he didn’t specify—and looked forward to communicating with the rest in the coming weeks.
The new coach also tried to put to rest any concern that the quality of the U.S. talent pool is lacking. He was asked specifically about Sporting Kansas City playmaker Benny Feilhaber and Querétaro defender Jonathan Bornstein and said, “We’re going to give those types of players an opportunity to get back into the national team program. How it ends up, I can’t answer at this point … I’m well aware of the qualities of those two and others and we’re going to look closely at those players as we being a domestic camp in January and ultimately select a roster for the games in March.”
He continued, “No names are off the table. But it’s highly unlikely we’re going to bring many new players into the program. We’re at a time where we need to get results … We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on the team concept. I really believe individually and positionally we have good players, and we’ve just got to get them working together as a team. There are no real secrets on how you build good teams. It takes a lot of hard work. It takes communication. It takes discipline, and it takes some talent. And I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia in 2018.”
Arena and Gulati also moved to address some relatively controversial comments the coach had made in 2013 regarding foreign-born national team players. At that time, he told ESPN that, “Players on the national team should be–and this is my own feeling–they should be Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”
Arena made it clear where he stands on Tuesday.
“I certainly don't believe that that's my attitude and as a starting point, probably one of my most favorite players in my eight years as national team coach is Earnie Stewart [who was born in the Netherlands],” he said. "I believe that anyone who has a passport in the United States is certainly eligible to play for our national team, and I embrace all the players who are eligible to play. I just want to make sure their heart is in the right place and when they put the jersey on they're playing for the crest that's on their shirt. It’s important for me. I have a great passion for this national team and I expect the same from the players.”
Gulati said Arena’s 2013 reference to progress was related to player development.
"Some of the discussions that Bruce and I have had in the past is if we have players that are primarily developed abroad, then while they are still absolutely eligible in every possible way to play for the national team, they don't reflect in the same way on the development programs that we're going through in the U.S.,” the president said.
The positions below and, perhaps, above Arena haven’t been finalized. Gulati said Arena would have the final say on the composition of his staff, meaning current assistants Andreas Herzog and Berti Vogts likely will follow Klinsmann out the door. Arena very well could bring Galaxy assistants like Pat Noonan, Kenny Arena or Matt Reis with him to the national team. He said he’d be working on putting together his staff in next couple of weeks. As far as the technical director position that Klinsmann also filled, Gulati said U.S. Soccer is “not in a rush on that,” and added that assistant coach and youth technical director Tab Ramos was already handling some of those responsibilities. It remains to be seen whether the job will be filled at all.
“The priority of the two roles that Jurgen had was certainly the national team manager. That’s where the urgency is in terms of timing,” Gulati said.
The focus now is on digging out of the qualifying hole and finding a way to get to Russia in 2018.