CARSON, Calif. — Coaches typically aren’t fired when things are going well. There’s a low point, a crisis or a stall of some kind that forces a change. Sometimes a new regime comes in, cleans house and sets a new course toward a long-term vision. At others, the replacement doesn’t have that luxury. There’s bleeding that needs to be stopped.
Bruce Arena’s second stint as U.S. national team coach began here, south of Los Angeles, at the same complex where he managed the LA Galaxy for nine successful seasons. He moved his office a few yards down the StubHub Center hall and on Wednesday morning, ran his first U.S. practice session in a decade at a field just down the hill from the pitch where he used to train MLS champions. Field No. 5 is artificial. It rained throughout the night in Southern California, and the last thing Arena wanted was faulty footing on his first day. The national team’s situation is treacherous enough.
Two losses in the first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying, a program first, resulted in the November dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann and Arena’s subsequent (re)appointment. The U.S. is in an unprecedented situation and has been left with very little margin for error in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal. Sixteen points should be enough to send the Americans to Russia, and they’ll need to get a good start on earning them when qualifying resumes in March against Honduras in San Jose, California, and at Panama. The camp opening Wednesday, which will conclude with friendlies on Jan. 29 against Serbia and Feb. 3 versus Jamaica, represents the only opportunity Arena will have with a significant portion of his squad before naming his qualifying roster.
January camps typically have been used to help MLS players through their long off-season or to expose those on the fringe of the U.S. picture to the environment. That’s how Klinsmann saw them. He didn’t find them particularly useful for building a team designed to take the field together. Arena will do some of the same. Off-seasons are off-seasons, and his list of 31 invitees (it was 32 until goalkeeper Bill Hamid pulled out with a knee injury) includes seven uncapped players. But there’s an unusual urgency to this January camp as well, and that message was conveyed to the players at their first team meeting Tuesday night and evident Wednesday during practice. A good chunk of the work toward building a team that’s ready for qualifying will take place over the next few weeks.
“Bruce has made that very clear,” captain Michael Bradley said. “It’s finding the right balance between getting every guy going and getting into the season the right way, but obviously with the idea that we have two very, very important games in March and every guy here is aware of that. Everybody knows the situation. Everybody understands the importance.”
Arena said he recalled running January camps back when the CONCACAF Gold Cup was staged during the winter. That impacted timing and intensity. But those also were teams he’d been coaching for a while. He was well versed and comfortable with the players, patterns and partnerships that worked. He has no intention of blowing up this U.S. roster. There isn’t time, and the talent is there to reach Russia. The challenge will be in quickly getting to know the players as colleagues rather than opponents while re-establishing the chemistry and commitment that was increasingly absent as Klinsmann’s reign reached its end.
“I think this time around, with the urgency we have in March, as we get closer to the end of the month we’re going to be really pushing the group pretty hard and trying to make the right kind of evaluations necessary in order to get a look at all our players and try to evaluate who can help us in March. So this is important,” Arena said following Wednesday’s practice. “The first day went well. I was pleased with the enthusiasm of the players. We got through the first session with no injuries. It’s good to see up close and personal some of these players. I obviously know all of them, but it’s always nice to get on the field and get an opportunity to work them up close.”
Arena and his staff rotated the squad through small-sided games and fitness stations on Wednesday. Most of the team was in attendance. Missing were defender Brad Evans, who was scheduled to arrive later in the day, forward Jozy Altidore and midfielder Dax McCarty. Altidore had a previous charitable engagement and will come in on Thursday. McCarty will join the team after his wedding this weekend.
For those who were there, the understanding that improvement is required—and quickly—was tempered by the enthusiasm that accompanies a fresh start.
“I believe this camp from the start has a bit of urgency. We know where we are in qualifying,” forward Chris Wondolowski told SI.com. “But it’s also a brand-new coach, brand-new staff, a whole clean slate for all of us players and it makes it exciting. I was talking to Michael about it. It’s a new excitement, a new energy from the coaching staff, from players. Everyone has a clean slate and everyone has a chip on their shoulder. It’s an honor to get called in and we want to prove why we’re here.”
Said Bradley, “Any time you come back after period of time off, any time there’s a new coach, it gives the whole thing new energy—new life. So I think I can only speak for myself, but having said that, I can see it in everybody’s eyes that we’re excited for the next few weeks.”
Arena is a proven winner and is well regarded for his ability to build unified locker rooms and teams that rise to the occasion. And that occasion is coming soon. The confidence among his players that he’s the man for the job was evident, at least on day No. 1. If Klinsmann preached individual excellence and ambition, then Arena hopes to strengthen the common bond.
“Right from the start, he wants us to buy into the team atmosphere, the team camaraderie and to be able to play for each other and be solid front to back,” Wondolowski said. “The reason why Bruce has been so successful in the past is because he’s had teams that played for each other and worked hard for each other and that’s something he mentioned right from the start. You could see that player to player, that really resonated with us and that’s something we want to bring back and we wanted to have. That was our trademark as an American team.
“It’s not all on the past coaching staff,” he concluded. “It’s on us. But it’s nice to have fresh air but still a sense of urgency.”
Arena has known Bradley since the captain was a baby. And Bradley knows what to expect from Arena.
“Bruce is Bruce,” he said. “He’s going to create an environment every day where guys are going to compete, guys are going to enjoy themselves and there’s going to be a real team and a real spirit and feeling that we’re doing something together. But when it’s time to work and to compete, we’re going to do that. He’s going to be very clear and tell it exactly like it is, which is very important. It’s exactly what we need.”
At the same time, what they need is obvious. Just look at the record: 0-2-0. Those numbers alone ensure this isn’t your typical January camp.
“There doesn’t need to be a message sent,” goalkeeper Nick Rimando, a January veteran, told SI.com. “The players coming in, they know the situation right now. Obviously we’d like to be in a better spot and when March comes, it’s our most important games for the U.S. in a while. I think Bruce has made it known that we’re not going to come in as fit as we’re going to be, as sharp. We’re going to build on that. But also, we know where we’re at. We need to qualify and these two friendlies coming up are important to showcase how we can help this team in March.”