FIFA ranked the United States men’s national soccer team fourth among nations in April 2006.
Having led Team USA to its historic peak, many assumed head coach Bruce Arena was at the top of his game. Yet, he’d be uncerimoniously fired within a few months, following Team USA’s early exit from the 2006 FIFA World Cup. In eight years, he had become Team USA’s all-time leader in wins and winning percentage. It’s no coincidence that Team USA has never held such a lofty position in FIFA’s monthly rankings since his departure.
Arena returned to the helm of the national team Tuesday when The U.S. Soccer Federation re-hired him as head coach in the wake of Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing. Arena’s contract expires after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a relatively short-term appointment for the most consequential soccer job in the country. Nevertheless, Arena is back on top of American soccer’s coaching heap — where he belongs (and has been for the better part of the last 25 years).
And Arena doesn’t need to take Team USA back to fourth in the world. The head coach’s job description is different now than it was in 1998 when he first arrived. He only needs to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — something he has done twice before — and sounds more than ready to meet the immediate challenge.
“Ten years later I’m better prepared for this job than I was in 1998, 2002, and ultimately 2006,” Arena said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters, per NBC Sports’ Nicholas Mendola. “… One of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer, a lot quicker.”
Arena must use his instincts and experience to restore confidence among Team USA’s players in time for the crucial World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and at Panama on March 24 and 28, 2017, respectively. Winning those games will lift USA from last place into firm contention for a spot in the World Cup with six games remaining. The challenge is simple for the safest pair of hands in the U.S. coaching pool.
Arena, an expert man-manager, started working before U.S. Soccer announced his appointment, and his saying of the right things suggest his presence will have the desired effect on Team USA.
“I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex,” Arena said.
“I haven’t spoken to (captain) Michael Bradley but I have had communication with a couple of players over the last 10 hours or so,” Arena said. “We need to build a chemistry with this team and build a common goal, work on a team concept. We have good players. We just gotta get them working together as a team.”
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said Tuesday on the same conference call that Arena was the number one candidate to replace Klinsmann. After qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Arena will work to meet similar expectations as he faced in his first stint in charge: progress from the group stage to the knockout rounds.
Regadless of what happens in Russia, Gulati now has at least 19 months to identify and recruit Arena’s successor (he must choose wisely for the sake of his own legacy).
Arena then can retire, return to MLS or even coach abroad with his hard-earned title as the best coach in American soccer history secure for the foreseeable future … just as it has been for the last decade or so.
Taking Team USA into FIFA’s stratosphere is a job for another coach.
Thumbnail photo via Paul Frederiksen/USA TODAY Sports Images