PHILADELPHIA — More than three months since the U.S. national soccer team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena on Friday reflected on a campaign that he oversaw last year and ultimately faltered at a little stadium in a small town on a Caribbean island.
Speaking at a forum at the United Soccer Coaches convention, Arena detailed some of the issues that led to the 2-1 defeat to last-place Trinidad and Tobago and marked the end of seven consecutive appearances by the U.S. program at the sport’s biggest competition.
A draw would’ve clinched a berth in this summer’s tournament in Russia. Instead, “we laid an egg,” said Arena, who, subsequently resigned his head coaching position.
The Americans had recovered from defeats in the first two World Cup qualifiers under Arena’s predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann, and appeared poised to clinch CONCACAF’s third automatic berth.
“In a lot of ways, our team did a remarkable job coming back and positioning themselves to qualify,” Arena said. “In all honesty, Mexico and Costa Rica were better teams . . . but we should’ve been the third one. I accept that responsibility. That’s why I resigned so quickly.
“That’s the way it goes. I don’t feel good about it, but that’s life. I’m not embarrassed by it because as a coaching staff and as a team and an organization, we really gave everything we had.”
Despite challenges in Trinidad, “you find a way to get off that field with a point. If you have a team of quality and the right chemistry, you battle through that game and get a point. I couldn’t care less what it looks like.”
An early own goal and a shot from great distance left the Americans with a two-goal deficit at halftime.
“I felt if we went into halftime at 1-0, we had a chance to come back and get our point,” Arena said. “We read them the riot act at halftime. We told our guys they had to go out and battle, find a way to create chances. We get the early goal [by Christian Pulisic]. We feel if we get another goal, we get the point, we get the hell out of here. We’re going to World Cup. It never came.
“I can’t explain why it didn’t work. We had some guys who had bad games. It was the same team that had a remarkable performance four days earlier. I can’t explain it.”
Four days earlier, the United States pounded Panama, 4-0, in Orlando. But instead of injecting the lineup against Trinidad and Tobago with fresh players, as he had done in the away leg of the previous sets of matches, Arena made no changes. He said he considered it, but in the wake of the convincing victory and a clean bill of health, he decided to stay with the same group and tactics.
The Americans were flat at the beginning and fell behind, heightening the pressure on the players.
“Top players respond to big games,” Arena said of athletes in all sports. “Players that lack some quality, the pressure gets to them. A lot of [U.S.] players must have felt the pressure. One thing I pride myself on is I get teams ready to play. We understood the magnitude of the game. Trinidad played us very well in Denver [in the summer]. They played very well against Mexico in their previous game.
“I told [the players] we’ve got to be ready. I think our players understood that. A lot of pressure built up, especially after we conceded the first goal. We seemed to get ourselves settled in after that and conceded another goal, and some people cracked.”
Arena also said the U.S. Soccer Federation unintentionally motivated the host team by posting photos and video of standing water on and around the stadium field the day before the match. U.S. staff was seen carrying players across the ankle-high threshold. It was, Arena said, “humiliating” to the Trinidadians.
Asked if his players had taken enough pride in representing the country and qualifying for the World Cup, Arena said: “We had good citizens. We had a couple of bad eggs, as you have on every team. We were well aware and the players were aware” of who they were.
Arena offered high praise for the commitment put forth by players such as Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. “I can say [good things] about a lot of guys. I don’t question their character at all.”
He did say, however, there was one veteran “we could never get through to.” He didn’t identify him, but multiple sources said it was defender Geoff Cameron, who didn’t end up playing in the last two matches after starting four of the previous six qualifiers and entering one as a sub.
After the T&T disaster, he said one player told him, “This was a culture you couldn’t change is a short period of time.”
In general, during his 10-month stint, Arena said “there were a lot of things on that team that I didn’t feel right [about].”
Later, Arena also said, “I never felt really comfortable with the team. We won the Gold Cup [last summer with many secondary players] — the only time we had that team together for 30 days. When we mixed [regulars] back in September, it wasn’t the same team or the right chemistry. It didn’t seem like everything was on the same page and had the same mentalities and the same understanding of what everything was about.”
The United States lost at home to Costa Rica, “and we’re in trouble now.” Four days later, a late equalizer by Bobby Wood at Honduras kept the Americans in good position to qualify.
“We go down to Honduras and have to scramble. It has nothing to do with soccer; it’s survival of the fitness in those games. . . . We’re now six games into qualifying [since Arena was hired]. We made up a lot of ground and it’s down to the last two games.”
After the demolition of Panama, the Americans were primed to clinch in Trinidad with a victory or draw. And then came the most painful defeat in recent U.S. history, probably ever.
Arena had figured he could get through the qualifying stage with the established group. “We didn’t have time to experiment. We had eight games to get it right and had a very small margin of error.”
He then planned to begin rebuilding the roster ahead of the World Cup. Of the 11 starters in Trinidad, maybe four would’ve been on the field for the World Cup opener eight months later, Arena said.
“We knew we had to get better, but we somehow had to get through 2017 and make our team better for the World Cup.”
Even so, he added, “I would say we weren’t going to be in a great position to get out of the group stage at the World Cup.”
Of the failed qualifying campaign, “It was a mountain to climb” to qualify after the two opening defeats, Arena said. “We got most of the way up there but then slid down at the end.”