PHILADELPHIA — It was a loss that was almost impossible to believe but which, in hindsight, Bruce Arena might have seen coming. And at least one of his players may have anticipated it as well, according to an anecdote shared Friday by the former manager. Following the October World Cup qualifying disaster that continues to reverberate through American soccer, that player told Arena, “This was a culture you couldn’t change in a short period of time.”
Perhaps. But that broken culture, to whatever extent it existed, had been papered over sufficiently to get the USA to within one point of a 2018 World Cup berth. All the Americans needed was a draw against a shorthanded and eliminated Trinidad & Tobago side in the finale of last year’s Hexagonal.
The USA had lost its first two games of CONCACAF’s final qualifying stage, resulting in the dismissal of coach Jurgen Klinsmann. It then went 10-1-6 under Arena. That run included a Gold Cup title and a 3-1-3 mark in qualifying. Only Trinidad remained, and Arena acknowledged during a Q&A here at the United Soccer Coaches Convention that, “There are a lot of excuses, but at the end of the day you find a way to get off that field with a point.”
But the USA “laid an egg” in a 2-1 loss, and in his most candid and constructive comments since that October catastrophe, Arena accepted some of the blame in addition to casting a wide, deep net as he ran through the potential explanations. He included Klinsmann, the attitude and talent level of certain U.S. players, their performance on the day, and even the federation’s social media choices when discussing the reasons for the most significant failure in American soccer history.
The most pressing problem, he said, was one of chemistry.
“I never felt real comfortable with the team along the way,” Arena said. “We had eight [qualifiers] to get it right and had a very small margin of error.”
He said last July’s Gold Cup, which concluded with a dramatic 2-1 win over Jamaica, was when he felt best about his team. But that was a squad absent the vast majority of Arena’s European players. Their September re-introduction, plus injuries to the likes of John Brooks, Jordan Morris and Sebastian Lletget, among others, injected too much volatility into the player pool, Arena claimed.
“It wasn’t the same team with the right chemistry. It just didn’t seem like everyone was on the same page with the right mentality and the same understanding of what everything was about,” Arena said Friday. “The chemistry of the group wasn’t right. It wasn’t the character you see out of a U.S. team. And the second part, realistically, was that we didn’t have the most talented players and when we had injuries, it hurt us.”
He said that only one player who appeared in Trinidad, Christian Pulisic, would’ve been a shoo-in starter on the 2002 USA squad that advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals.
“You think over 15 years it would look different. So what’s going on?” Arena asked, adding that superior sides representing Mexico and Costa Rica left the less-talented Americans battling for CONCACAF’s third and final automatic World Cup berth. But it was a berth they were on the verge of claiming after a 4-0 demolition of visiting Panama in the ninth game of the Hex. In the end, the ease of that win may have been a curse in disguise.
Arena had been shuffling his lineups during previous qualifying windows, planning ahead for both contests and introducing fresh players for the second (road) game who were focused on performing in a particular venue against a particular opponent. The USA earned draws in Mexico, Panama and Honduras as a result. But that tactic was abandoned in Trinidad.
“Everyone checks out fine physically and everything else. So do you make a change to that team? We considered possible changes,” Arena said. “Perhaps [Brad] Guzan in goal. [Tim] Howard checks out fine, wants to play, ready to go. Perhaps [Geoff] Cameron in the back. Our defenders are ready, want to go. Perhaps [Alejandro] Bedoya in the midfield … Perhaps [Clint] Dempsey can come in. We always think Dempsey at this point in his career is better coming in as a reserve. So we stick with the same team and reward the team that won 4-0.”
It was a fatal mistake. The U.S. looked slow and listless on the wet, heavy Ato Boldon Stadium turf. Omar Gonzalez—playing instead of the benched Cameron—scored an own goal, and Howard couldn’t get to Alvin Jones’s 37th-minute blast. Bedoya would’ve been a smart addition. The USA hadn’t played a road qualifier without a second holding/box-to-box midfielder in at least five years. But it did so against T&T and, predictably, the Americans lacked structure, rhythm and options.
The errors didn’t end there.
“Behind the scenes there were mistakes on our part, probably,” Arena admitted. “Our social media, our communications department, sent out everything humiliating the Trinidad federation on the training facility, which was the game field for that day. It got them all fired up and when we kicked off on that day, it was a battle.”
Pulisic’s second-half goal offered a lifeline, but the introduction of Dempsey and Benny Feilhaber wasn’t enough.
“You’ll coach many years. Some days it works—hopefully more times than not it works—and some days it doesn’t. And I can’t explain why it didn’t work. We had a number of guys that had bad games on the day—the same team that had a remarkable performance four days earlier. I can’t explain it,” Arena said. “I will never listen to anyone the day after the game with all the answers. You got some answers for me the day before the game? During the game? I’m listening. Everyone the day after, you’re a bunch of phonies. I don’t want to hear about it the day after. We’re all the best coaches the day after.”
But there were some potential problems Arena noticed well before the Gonzalez own goal or tweets about the puddles.
“If you have a team of quality with the right chemistry, you battle through that game and get a point,” he said. “That to me was the most disappointing thing. I saw that in the beginning of the Hex in the games against Mexico and Costa Rica, and it came back in the end.”
The team was flawed, Arena said, and he was having enough trouble forging that chemistry with what he had. There certainly wasn’t time to add too much new blood.
“The team we had not the field against Trinidad at the end, [compared] to a team that would’ve been on the field at the opening game of the 2018 World Cup, there’d be as many as seven changes. … We knew we had to get better, but we had to somehow manage to get through 2017 and qualify and try to make our team better for a World Cup. I would say we weren’t going to be in a great position to get out of group play in a World Cup, but that all depends on the draw as well. There was a mountain to climb. We got most of the way up there but then slid down at the end.”
The locker room was decent, Arena claimed, but “there were a couple of bad eggs like you have on every team. We were well aware of it.” Team leaders like Howard, Michael Bradley and Dempsey set the right examples and Arena stressed, “I do not question their character at all.” Others, however, didn’t rise to the occasion.
“We understood the magnitude of the game. Trinidad played us very well when we played them in Denver. They played very well against Mexico in the previous game. And I told them we’re going to find a team that’s going to play their best game against us, and we’ve got to be ready to play,” Arena said. “I just think a lot of pressure built up on some players, especially when we conceded the first goal. … Some people cracked.”
In the end, there were mistakes made top to bottom, from the U.S. Soccer authorities who enabled and extended Klinsmann, to Arena and his players and, if you believe the latter, plenty of people on the talent development side and elsewhere. It was a collective failure. But it almost wasn’t. And for that, Arena said he’ll shoulder the blame.
“I accept that responsibility. That’s why I resigned so quickly. I accepted my responsibility. That’s the way it goes. I don’t feel good about it, but that’s life. I’m not embarrassed by it because I think we as a coaching staff, and as a team and an organization, we really put in everything we had. We were in a difficult position to get our team to qualify. We fell short.
“Maybe we’ll learn something from it. There’s a lot to learn. There’s still a a lot for us to learn to get our act together to make the sport better in our country.”