U.S. Soccer Coach Under Fire

Bruce Arena, coach of the U.S. national soccer team, doesn’t tolerate those he deems foolish. Which has always been a lot of folks. He likes to punctuate his responses to the press with a smirk, clearly suggesting that the questioner is, at the very least, unworthy and, quite possibly, a total idiot with no comprehension of the nuances of the game at its highest levels.

There is no discernible reason for his dismissive attitude beyond arrogance. The American press’s coverage of soccer—mine included—has always been infused with more than a little boosterism. No sportswriter chooses to report on the sport because it is a shrewd career move or because his editor is pleading for more soccer stories. It’s a labor of love, and many reporters discreetly root for the U.S. team because nothing helps the cause more than an American World Cup success.

Despite Arena’s prickly attitude toward the press, a couple things have always redeemed him in their eyes. The first is that he displays pretty much that same condescending attitude to everyone, including his bosses at U.S. Soccer; reporters tend to be forgiving of folks who piss up as well as down. The second and, of course, most important thing is his record. Arena took over a U.S. team that was in disarray after finishing 32nd out of 32 teams in the 1998 World Cup; he helped guide it to a brilliant Cup success four years later, as well as its current perch as the fifth-ranked team in the world. Nothing in sports is quite as charming as victory.

The United States now rivals Mexico as this region’s numero uno power, earning Arena the longest tenure of any of the 32 coaches in the 2006 World Cup. The assumption has been that Arena would remain in place after this tournament and take on the challenge of a third World Cup cycle.

That’s now being called into question after the U.S. team’s futile performance in its World Cup opener Monday, a 3-0 thrashing by the Czech Republic . While the U.S. went into the game as an underdog, this was still regarded as a match of rough equals. However, the two teams didn’t appear to be playing the same game, let alone belong on the same pitch. Arena now finds everything—his team preparation, his lineup, his tactics—being called into question. And nobody was impressed by his finger-pointing after the game, singling out some of his team’s biggest stars—Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Kasey Keller—for blame.

Arena’s troubles remind us that before he arrived, coaching the U.S. national team wasn’t regarded as a secure gig. Bob Gansler was widely praised for getting the U.S. to the 1990 World Cup, qualifying for the first time in 40 years with a dramatic win on the road in Trinidad and Tobago. But Gansler was dumped after a winless, just-happy-to-be-there showing in Italy. With America hosting the 1994 World Cup, it was a critical moment for American soccer, and Gansler was viewed as incapable of lifting the team to the next level. U.S. Soccer turned to Bora Milutinovic, a peripatetic Serb who had guided Mexico and then Costa Rica to new heights in the two previous Cups.

Milutinovic’s tenure was not an aesthetic triumph. His teams played a dull, stodgy defensive game, designed to attain—with a little luck—modest successes against superior teams. He embraced players with tenuous links to this country, some who qualified by parentage but couldn’t even speak English. Bora’s command of the language wasn’t all that good, either; his public appearances featured what reporters called Bora-speak, a cryptic mixture of Spanish, English and other tongues that wasn’t fan-friendly.

But Bora did one thing very well: he got results. In the ’94 World Cup, the U.S. tied Switzerland and then upset Colombia to advance to the second round. Yet Bora didn’t get a whole lot of acclaim for the surprising success. Perhaps it was because he persisted with his unattractive brand of defensive soccer. Against Brazil in the round of 16, he played for a scoreless tie and, ultimately, to take his chances in a shootout. A 1-0 loss to the eventual champion might have been viewed as a victory had the U.S. team, playing much of the game a man up, managed even one shot on goal.

When he was pushed out of his job (and went on his successful way, with gigs with Nigeria and China for the next two World Cups), it was said that Bora never really understood the American kids. He had expected them to live, breathe and eat soccer 24/7, a European philosophy that was at odds with the laid-back American approach to the game. His replacement, Steve Sampson, an assistant on Bora’s ’94 World Cup staff, was considered more simpatico. But he got caught in the crossfire of an intrasquad squabble between America’s old guard and its newbies. In a misguided attempt to solve the problem, he dumped team captain John Harkes shortly before the ’98 World Cup. But when he didn’t also remove the Harkes loyalists on the squad, Sampson only exacerbated tensions. He took a very unhappy team to France and then planted it in splendid isolation at a remote country chateau, assuring that bad feelings would fester. Turns out Sampson didn’t understand American kids all that well, either. It was three matches and out—first for the team and soon after for the coach.

Enter Arena, who had been a highly successful coach at both the college (University of Virginia) and professional level (DC United of America’s Major League Soccer). Had the flop in France not been so monumental, Arena might never have inherited the job. He was regarded as a loose cannon, an abrasive man who couldn’t be relied upon to hew to the company line. But none of that mattered after America’s stunning run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. Even the loss to Germany was seen as a triumph; German icon Franz Beckenbauer conceded that the U.S. was the better team that day.

Arena, it was said by many (including me), had found a way to transform the American soccer psyche. Our lads, long saddled with an inferiority complex, suddenly believed they could play with anyone—and proceeded to do just that. The success actually wasn’t all that sudden. Nor did it stem entirely from Arena’s coaching genius. He was the beneficiary of new initiatives aimed at developing this country’s brightest, young talents. Before that 2002 World Cup, U.S. youth teams had been making their mark under other coaches in world championships.

In the post-Cup wave of excitement, it was naturally the triumphs—the 3-2 upset of powerful Portugal in the opening match, a dominant effort against archrival Mexico in the round of 16 and the stellar performance against Germany—that we chose to dwell upon. The euphoria led us to overlook the one major glitch in that tournament, one that had echoes in this week’s loss to the Czechs. Needing only a tie against winless Poland to advance to the second round, the America team came out flat and flat-footed, losing 3-1 in a match that was more lopsided than the score indicates. It would have been the knockout punch for the U.S. team but for an unexpected gift from the host nation: South Korea scored a late goal that put Portugal out and the Americans into the second round.

This week’s fiasco wasn’t the first time the U.S. team has appeared unprepared and outclassed in a big game. Now Italy looms as the most critical of Arena’s tenure. In Korea, he found a way to rejuvenate his team and produce brilliant efforts against Mexico and Germany. Even their best efforts may not be enough on Saturday against Italy. And because of the lopsided loss to the Czechs, even an upset win followed by a second victory over Ghana might not suffice to get the U.S. through to the second round. But if the team lays another egg in the wake of Arena’s public scolding, the coach may encounter a new prevailing sentiment: that he doesn’t understand American kids that well after all.