Sunil Gulati fired Bruce Arena in 2006, and has come crawling back to him ten years later. Since then all Arena has managed to achieve is entering the US Soccer Hall of Fame, winning another three MLS Cups and coaching the most famous players to play in the United States since Pele and Beckenbauer. Meanwhile the handpicked successor (and Klinsmann was always Gulati's choice to replace Arena) has spent five years in charge figuratively recreating Ted Striker's mission over Macho Grande. That has to be some kind of Platonic ideal of validation. But is it the right decision?
Yeah, I think so.
If one believes that Juergen Klinsmann's primary sin was his constant and frequently-expressed disdain for American soccer, media and fans alike...well, one will enjoy Bruce Arena mightily, I expect. Arena's first tenure as US national team coach was at least as tactless as Klinsmann's, although Arena's sarcasm was and remains genuinely funny.
If one believes that Juergen Klinsmann's primary sin was his inability to god-damn beat anybody in a game that god-damned matters, then one should also enjoy Arena's return. Bar the last three games or so of his tenure, Bruce Arena consistently had the US getting good results, or great ones. It was easy to misinterpret what was happening on the field, when you saw stat lines like Mexico getting 75% of the possession or some nonsense, but losing 2-0. Bruce Arena is very, very good at letting other teams make their own mistakes. And if you believe Arena's US teams were defensive, I invite you to re-watch the Belgium game from 2014. If Arena played defensive and cynical, Klinsmann played defensive and scared. And Arena wouldn't lie about it afterwards.
If one believes that Klinsmann's failure reflects more on Sunil Gulati than Klinsmann, and that it is Sunil who should follow Juergen into retirement - then boy, do I have good news for one. You want a guy who's going to ignore Sunil Gulati? Hoo boy! Is Bruce Arena going to ignore Sunil Gulati! You want a coach who isn't going to give a half a rat's ass for Sunil Gulati's opinions? You want a guy who is going to make Sunil Gulati's input on the direction of the national team approximately 10 AU's short of minimal? Brothers and sisters, have I got a man for you!
If one believes that Bruce Arena is the wrong man to continue the transformative journey that Klinsmann began...well, one probably loses me right at the premise. Klinsmann was all donkey and no Kong from the jump. Klinsmann's success in the previous Hex was a lot more about getting Dempsey and Bradley in their primes (and the late prime of, what's his name, Galaxy player - legend, really, can't believe I've forgotten his name...oh, right, Alan Gordon). In Juergen's last game against Mexico, he was out-coached by Juan Carlos Osorio. I hope the door hit him in the ass, hard.
But I agree that Bruce Arena is not a multi-cycle, long-term talisman of revolution. He'll be 67 when the World Cup rolls around - I apologize for being ageist, but if the theory is that Arena is the coach beyond Russia, then we're looking at Bruce coaching 2022 at age 72. At least it will be winter then. But I don't see it.
I think the smart move here is to think about Bruce Arena's successor now, so whoever it is can start the 2022 cycle as soon as the 2018 cycle is over. Or, preferably, before. One of the ways to do this is to make sure Juergen Klinsmann's replacement as Technical Director is someone with, or who can develop, an absolutely encyclopedic familiarity with the US talent pool.
I don't mean laying the infrastructure to build a nationwide system that will unite all of American soccer into one smooth-running well-oiled machine, because I don't think that's possible. Or desirable, in that the attempt would screw up American soccer as much as anything else. What I mean is, we need a guy who can take what we have, limitations and all, and build a team that will continue to interest the growing fan base. The best way to do that is by winning.
What Bruce Arena did in 2002, and what he failed to do in 2006, was build a roster deep and versatile enough to cope with better teams and defeat lesser teams soundly, and he did that by knowing exactly what each player was capable of and when. Apart from Jeff Agoos. And it probably helped that Brad Friedel was Galactus in 2002 and Kasey Keller was merely Kasey Keller in 2006. Hm, maybe I should stop before I talk myself out of Bruce Arena at all.
Bruce Arena's departure also shifts the orbits of a lot of MLS planets. As of today, the Galaxy have replaced Arena the General Manager with Peter Vagenas. The Galaxy, as a mere third place team, don't deserve a heck of a lot of analysis time during MLS playoffs, but we can at least conclude that the Galaxy think they're more on the right track than not, Designated Players notwithstanding. We'll see if the coach they pick reflects that...and keep in mind Berhalter and Vanney have deep Galaxy ties, so LA is perfectly capable of staying the course while messing up other MLS teams badly.
I'm aware that at this particular moment the Crew might not try VERY hard to keep Berhalter, but that's the difference a year makes.
If it sounds like I'm minimizing the controversy over Bruce Arena's remarks about players being appropriately American...I kind of am. I didn't think Arena (or Landon Donovan or Abby Wambach, who were making similar ill-advised statements around the same time) were talking about American Citizenship, or even much about Mercenary vs. Loyalist. I thought he was referring to Country vs. Club. There are going to be guys, no matter where they are born, who are going to prioritize the team that pays their salaries over the team that could maybe bring them international fame, but could just as easily screw up their whole season or career.
Timmy Chandler is club over country. There, I said it. But there haven't been to many American players, especially abroad, who could afford to alienate their employers. Claudio Reyna was Captain America, but if he needed to stay healthy for Wolfsburg then by God that was his decision.
Rather than trying to explain that to the larger American public, Arena chose to disavow, however implausibly.
“If I made those comments, I certainly don’t believe that that’s my attitude,” Arena said earlier this week. “I embrace all players that are eligible to play. I just want to make sure their hearts are in the right place.”
Not exactly George C. Scott's speech at the beginning of "Patton," but hopefully enough to defuse the issue. Although maybe it shouldn't. Of course you made those comments, Bruce, own up.
Really, though, those comments were never going to matter much in the long run. If Bruce Arena picks players who win, then it doesn't matter where they came from. And if Bruce Arena picks players who lose, then it doesn't matter where they came from. I'm glad I could solve this complicated issue.
Oh, the MLS playoffs. I'm going to be a smarmy contrarian hot takeist, I suppose. I think Seattle beat Dallas because FCD were missing key guys, and I think Seattle beat Colorado because the Rapids were missing key guys. Since I don't know if Toronto or Montreal will go to MLS Cup without Giovinco or Drogba or Johan Venegas, Slayer of Klinsmann, I don't know if Seattle will win MLS Cup.
Okay, yes, if Toronto makes it, they will be without Venegas, and likewise Montreal will be without Giovinco. You know what, I've had enough of your attitude.
EDIT - don't tread on good grammar