With USMNT World Cup qualifying campaign back on track, Bruce Arena keeps intensity high

Arena had reason to smile after leading the U.S. to four points from two World Cup qualifiers in March. (Reuters)
Arena had reason to smile after leading the U.S. to four points from two World Cup qualifiers in March. (Reuters)

The crisis appears to be over. The United States men’s national team has some points in World Cup qualifying after an emphatic 6-0 home win over Honduras and a credible 1-1 tie in Panama late last month, after losing its first two games back in November.

Bruce Arena has supplanted the fired Jurgen Klinsmann and brought back confidence and stability. And along the way, the four points lifted the Americans from sixth and last place in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying to fourth with six games remaining. Rise just one more spot by the end of the road and the Yanks are guaranteed an eighth straight World Cup berth. Stay put in fourth and a playoff with the fifth-placed team in Asia awaits.

Either way, things have improved. But as the national team staff pivots toward the next set of qualifiers – Trinidad and Tobago in Commerce City, Colo. on June 8 and Mexico in Mexico City on June 11 – it remains acutely aware of how perilous things remain, even if the immediate pressure is off.

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“There’s no loss of urgency,” Arena said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “We’re far from out of the woods here. We have, again, very little margin for error. So there’s a lot of urgency in these two games. I am making that clear.

“Perhaps we’re not in as much trouble as we were the last time, but I don’t feel good about sitting with four points after four games,” Arena added. “I think we have a lot of work to do. We’re not complacent.”

The approach from the March camp to the June one won’t be much different. If the actual crisis has passed, Arena and his staff remain in something resembling crisis mode. After all, a lone point separates his team from last-place Trinidad and Tobago. Fifth-place Honduras, meanwhile, lags only on goal difference. Another loss could dump the Americans back out of the qualifying spots. Conversely, a single win could lift them to second place. Things are tight.

Previous U.S. qualifying campaigns were a great deal more straightforward. The Americans won the CONCACAF region for the 2014, 2010 and 2006 cycles, and they secured places at those World Cups with at least a game to spare. But the woeful start made such a scenario unlikely, raising the stakes of every game.

“We’re doing the same preparation as for the last camp,” Arena said.

And while he has more information, with his first two competitive games back in charge after a decade out of the job, the whole equation remains complex. “We have a little bit more knowledge of players this time around,” Arena said. “But it’s complicated, when you piece together two games in a short period of time – altitude, yellow cards, all of those things – we have got to be very good in our planning.”

Arena pointed out that, in a sense, he’s still never assembled a complete team, as the March roster was ravaged by injuries and suspensions – and goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s paternity leave. “We named a roster of 24 players for the last qualifier, and at some point either before they reported or after the first game, we lost nine of those players,” he said. “That’s like 40 percent of your roster. That’s radical.”

That means the manager is still, in a sense, flying blind, potentially calling up more than half a dozen players he’s never worked with before. So, as in March, he can’t afford to be adventurous. “The general principle we’re working on is not make too many changes,” Arena said. “We can’t afford to do that. We’re not going to be experimenting a whole lot. We have to get results in these two games.”

U.S. Soccer is doing everything it possibly can to help. To prepare for the crucial game in Mexico City at the dreaded Estadio Azteca, where the Americans have taken all of two competitive points in 13 attempts – 11 losses and two ties, in 1997 and 2013 – the T&T game was assigned to a high-altitude stadium as well, outside of Denver. That allows the U.S. to stay at altitude for the entirety of camp, including 10 days of training wedged around a friendly with Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, rather than make a series of adjustments.

“We think we have a better chance in both venues, of being acclimatized, if we have two weeks of training,” Arena said. “We want to have our best chance to leave Mexico City, and Denver, with some points.”

In this regard, as in many, the 65-year-old Arena benefits from his vast experience, having previously managed the national team from 1998 through 2006. He’s battled the thin air of Mexico City before, made worse by the summer heat and smog.

“I’ve had experience with this in the past, failed miserably,” Arena said with his trademark candor. “We trained at altitude many years ago, to get ready for Mexico City, in Colorado Springs – which is almost identical in altitude. Except it was in [March]. We were training in winter conditions in Colorado, and when we stepped onto the field in Mexico City, it was about 85 degrees.”

That was a lesson learned. There were more in March. And they will be put to use in June.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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