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Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann might be polar opposites when it comes to their backgrounds, personalities and perspectives.
But what the two longtime Southern California residents will share forever is the fact that they were at the helm of the first U.S. men’s national team to miss the World Cup in 32 years.
They also have at least one other thing in common: both coaches recently opened up to Yahoo Sports about the failure.
Klinsmann, the former World Cup-winning striker who guided his native Germany to third place in 2006, steered the Americans through a group of death before losing in the Round of 16 four years ago in Brazil. He was on the sideline through the first phase of qualifying for the 2018 tournament, too, before being replaced by the Brooklyn-born Arena in November 2016 after the U.S. dropped the first two games of CONCACAF’s final, 10-match “Hexagonal” round.
He raised eyebrows last month by telling Germany’s Kicker that his U.S. squad was still well-positioned to reach Russia despite those high-profile losses to Mexico and at Costa Rica. Does he really believe that?
“One thousand percent,” Klinsmann said in an interview this week.
“A team in that phase is still in transition. Between two cycles you build a new squad for the next World Cup. The one that played the first two games would not have been the team at the end. During that transition you always have negative results.
“In 2013 we lost in Honduras in the first game,” Klinsmann continued. “That is absolutely normal, because you look at the total of the Hexagonal. You know if you lose a game unexpectedly you’re going to win a game away. I’m not looking back on it being mad at anybody – [the coaching change] was the decision of U.S. Soccer. But when people ask me today what was your feeling, I always say the feeling was that it was a transition and we would’ve qualified, no doubt about it.”
We’ll never know, of course. What’s certain is that Arena took over a team in disarray. Divisions between Klinsmann’s staff and their colleagues in the federation, combined with the German’s penchant for keeping players in a perpetual state of discomfort, had sapped morale within the group. There was precious little time to replenish it. Arena — who took the U.S. to within a hair of a World Cup semifinal in 2002, the country’s best finish since the inaugural tournament in 1930 — wouldn’t even get a chance to work with most of the program’s European and Mexican-based players until days before the next set of qualifiers, in March of 2017.
“I knew exactly what I was getting into,” Arena told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “I knew our strengths and weaknesses. Part of the reason the team was in the situation they were in was we lacked a little quality and consistency. Our whole goal was to get through the year, and then we had to go into a mode where we’re scrambling to try to make this team better in the first six months of 2018.”
By last September, it appeared that Arena had completely turned things around. Two home wins and two road ties – including a hard-fought draw at arch rival Mexico – helped the U.S. climb the Hex. In July they won the Gold Cup. In all, the Americans had nine wins, five draws and zero losses in Arena’s first 14 games back in charge.
A loss to Costa Rica in Harrison, N.J. put the pressure back on. Only a late Bobby Wood equalizer in Honduras in the next match kept the Americans’ fate at their own feet. But when the U.S. routed Panama 4-0 in early October, it became obvious that a tie at already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago would be enough to get the U.S. to an eighth consecutive World Cup.
Everybody knows what happened next.
“You could say the reason we didn’t qualify is because of me,” said Arena, who stuck with the same attacking XI rather than rotating his squad — as he had all year — in a 2-1 upset loss that, combined with two other highly unlikely results, ensured that the Americans would not be traveling to Russia this summer.
“You live with it,” Arena said. “I just want to make sure it’s understood: We didn’t qualify, and you can summarize that any way you want. But this is a good group of players, they’re really good guys, they did the best they could. We fell short over 10 games. We had no margin for error in 2017, but the guys busted their ass. I don’t condemn the players for their efforts.”
Back in California, Klinsmann watched in disbelief as events unfolded in Trinidad and elsewhere across the region.
“You were just speechless as it’s happening,” he said. “I felt bad. We were already qualified. All you needed to do was just finish it off. One point. It seemed impossible.”
How did the seemingly impossible happen to a team that had topped the Hex the previous three cycles, one of just eight nations in global soccer to survive the group stage at the last two World Cups? There’s no easy answer. It’s a bit like a plane crash: a series of small mistakes made by multiple people over a period of time, combined with some horrible luck, ultimately ended in catastrophe.
“It doesn’t really have to do with the coaching,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “Bruce gave us a game plan in that last game and we didn’t execute. We had guys not getting stuck in. We were counting on an 18-year-old [Christian Pulisic] to carry the load for us. Other guys, the veteran guys, let us down I think. As a team, we just didn’t get it done together.”
Injuries played a bigger role than many remember. Starting defenders John Brooks and Fabian Johnson weren’t available for the final two qualifiers. Emerging youngsters Sebastian Lletget and Jordan Morris were also unavailable. “Losing Jordan Morris was a killer for us,” Arena says. (His predecessor holds the Seattle Sounders forward in similarly high regard; Klinsmann said that had he seen the then-college freshman play before his pre-World Cup camp at Stanford University in May of 2014, he would have taken Morris to Brazil “because of his speed.”)
Lack of depth was another major issue.
“U.S. teams can’t go deep in quality,” Arena said. “We have 30 solid players, but you need more than one Christian Pulisic.”
Like any successful team, they also needed to be in sync, at least most of the time. From the start of Klinsmann’s second cycle, that wasn’t always the case enough as it needed to be.
“Jurgen was always challenging you,” Bedoya said. “He pushed and tested you, and maybe some people can’t handle that as well as others. I think that was a problem.
“When Bruce came in, I thought he was very straightforward with everybody, telling everybody what he expects out of them,” Bedoya continued. “But until that last qualifier, the lineup was changed from the first game to the second game. Maybe that was a bad coaching move, but I think maybe some players also weren’t being honest and saying they were 100 percent when maybe they were a little bit sore. There was a lot put into that game against Panama.”
Arena has taken the brunt of the heat for the failure from media, fans, and even his players. Veteran defender Geoff Cameron criticized his lineup decisions in a Players Tribune article and in an interview with the New York Times. The coach maintains that he didn’t believe Cameron, who had just returned from injury, was fully fit. “He’s not a bad guy—I’ll just say he didn’t handle the decision well,” Arena said of Cameron, noting there “wasn’t any big blowup” between the two.
He also defended his choices.
“We went with the guys that had the best last four months with us,” Arena said. “We win 4-0 against Panama, so we decide to play the same team against Trinidad. That’s done all the time.”
And had one or two plays gone differently across three games being played simultaneously that October night, it wouldn’t have mattered. The U.S. would be in the final stages of preparing for Russia 2018. Instead, Arena, Klinsmann and everyone else connected to U.S. Soccer are left to wonder how the national team program can move forward following the unthinkable.
“Lacking the experience of playing in a World Cup puts you far back from the ones that go,” Klinsmann said. “It’s the same for the next generation in Italy, or Holland, or Chile. It is sad for these [U.S.] guys.”
With the opening match in Russia now less than a month away, the disappointment seems fresh again.
“That’s something today that still haunts me, to think of what could have been if we’d just changed a few players,” said Bedoya, who came on as a sub against Panama but didn’t play in Trinidad. “I feel that I could have made a difference. I’m sure other guys feel the same way.”
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