It’s been more than a decade since Bruce Arena last coached the U.S. men’s national soccer team, an eight-year run that included both historic and disappointing World Cup performances.
Now he’s back, assigned with righting a 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign that lost its way under Jurgen Klinsmann and has put the United States in danger of missing the sport’s quadrennial spectacle for the first time since 1986.
The U.S. Soccer Federation on Tuesday announced that Arena, a three-time MLS Cup champion over the past eight seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, will take over the program, effective Dec. 1. The contract will run through the 2018 World Cup.
“I don’t view it as Bruce 2 but sort of Bruce 2.0,” USSF President Sunil Gulati said. “He’s got far more experience than he did when he had the national team the first go-around and has proven, and re-proven, many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he is an extraordinarily capable and successful coach.”
Arena’s hiring comes one day after the federation fired Klinsmann, whose recent on-field failure overshadowed his long-term vision for remolding American soccer. Arena was not hired to revolutionize anything; he was tapped to navigate the final round of CONCACAF’s qualifying competition — something he did successfully twice — and get the Americans to Russia two summers from now.
“I know we have a great challenge ahead,” Arena said, “but I believe we have a good pool of players to make our team successful and reach our ultimate goal of qualifying.”
At this late stage, the USSF was not comfortable hiring an MLS coach without international experience or a foreign candidate unfamiliar with the player pool, personalities and system. Arena has coached, and coached against, many of the U.S. players. His relationship with captain Michael Bradley dates to Bradley’s childhood when his father, Bob Bradley, was Arena’s assistant at D.C. United in 1996-97.
Beyond the potential embarrassment of missing the World Cup and stunting soccer’s growth here, the federation is at risk of missing out on untold millions through sponsorship deals and FIFA payouts.
With eight qualifiers left, the Americans remain very much in contention for one of the three automatic berths awarded from the six-team group. But defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica this month have raised the urgency to earn points when the schedule resumes in March against Honduras at home and Panama away.
Arena, 65, won five NCAA championships at the University of Virginia and two MLS titles in three years with United before serving his first tour with the U.S. team from 1998 to 2006.
In 2002, the Americans advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea, their deepest run in the modern era. Four years later, after the United States failed to advance out of group play at the German-hosted tournament, Gulati ousted Arena.
Arena had an unsuccessful 1 1/2 seasons with the New York Red Bulls before taking over the Galaxy, which, with star-laden rosters featuring, among others, David Beckham and Landon Donovan, raised the MLS Cup trophy in 2011, ’12 and ’14. Arena, a 2010 U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, is the only coach to win five league titles.
This year, the Galaxy finished third in the Western Conference with a 12-6-16 record, defeated Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs and lost to the Colorado Rapids in the conference semifinals.
A person with close ties to U.S. soccer said early last week that, should Klinsmann lose to Costa Rica, the federation would hire Arena. Following the defeat, the federation moved quickly. Gulati and USSF chief executive Dan Flynn met with Klinsmann in the Los Angeles area Sunday and finalized talks with Arena and his representative, Richard Motzkin, shortly thereafter.
Arena will gather the team for the first time at the annual winter camp in mid-January at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. With most foreign-based talent unavailable because of club commitments, MLS players will comprise the bulk of the roster for the multiweek camp. Two friendlies are in the works.
Arena will then have about six weeks to formulate plans for the qualifiers.
“There are no real secrets to how you build good teams: It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent,” he said. “We have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia in 2018. It’s going to take a little time, a little bit of patience and lots of hard work.”
Arena said he has grown as a coach since his first U.S. stint.
“I told Sunil yesterday, 10 years later, I am better prepared for this job than I was in 1998 and 2002 and 2006,” he said. “What I really know is how to build a team. I understand all of the qualities and circumstances that develop in making a team.”
Arena said he would consider players passed over by Klinsmann, such as Benny Feilhaber and Jonathan Bornstein, but with a tight time frame until the qualifiers, “it’s highly unlikely we’re going to bring many new players into the program. We’re at a time right now where we need to get results, and we have to have a team that is ready to go in March.”
An unfiltered speaker with New York bluntness, Arena has, at times, gotten himself into hot water with his comments.
In 1996, while in a dual role as coach of both United and the Olympic squad, he said U.S. officials were “too stupid to fix a draw.” The host Americans were placed in the same Olympic group as Argentina and Portugal and failed to advance.
In 2013, he questioned Klinsmann’s call-ups of German-American players, telling ESPN The Magazine that “players on the national team should be Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”
He backtracked last spring and again Tuesday, saying: “I embrace all players that are eligible to play. I just want to make sure their heart is in the right place when they put that U.S. jersey on and play for the crest on their shirt. It’s important to me. I have great passion for this national team, and I expect the same out of our players.”
Several U.S. players were raised in Germany to German mothers and American servicemen: World Cup starters Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and John Brooks, plus Timmy Chandler and Julian Green. Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd have also been in the mix. All but Green were born in Germany.
Gulati said he has discussed the matter with Arena.
“If you are eligible to play for the U.S. national team, you are available for selection,” Gulati said. “After that, the coach makes those decisions. But we are open to anyone, whether they were born abroad or born here.”