Why U.S. Soccer Coach Arena Should Go

Not too long ago, I wrote a paean to the sport of soccer that produced a very warm response from old-timers who had embraced the game—at the risk of ridicule from friends and family—in the lonely years. I confessed that, at times, I was so desperate for a soccer fix that I would hail a New York cab just for some conversation on the international game.

It’s no so lonely any more. Who needs taxi drivers when I can open my computer mailbox and find an avalanche of correspondence trashing the World Cup performance by the American team and blaming the coach, Bruce Arena, for most of it? Folks wrote me criticizing the mental preparation of the team, the starting lineups, the formation the team played and the reticence to attack until the final, desperate minutes when it was already too late. These folks are as dead certain that Arena should have started Eddie Johnson, at the very least in the third game, as Red Sox fans are that Grady Little should have removed a tired Pedro Martinez in that fatal 2003 ALCS clash against the Yankees.

I think Arena has done an amazing job in his long tenure spanning two World Cup cycles. He took over a team that didn’t win a game (including a July 4 loss to Iran) and finished 32nd and dead last in the 1998 World Cup. Eight years later, Arena produced a team that didn’t win a game and will finish tied with Iran for 25th in World Cup 2006. That’s progress of a sort.

It’s hardly surprising that Arena went to the World Cup with by far the longest tenure of any of the national coaches there, the only one who had remained at the helm of his team for consecutive World Cups. After all, he orchestrated a remarkable success in the 2002 World Cup, when the U.S. team reached the quarterfinals. And while nobody who knows anything about soccer bought America’s pre-Cup standing as the world’s fifth-ranked squad (the U.S. benefited from playing some weak teams), it has emerged as a regional power to rival kingpin Mexico.

In most countries, that still might not have been enough. The passion for the sport almost everywhere else in the world assures that any stumble on the field, any gaffe off (and Arena has his share of foot-in-mouth moments), almost anything could provoke a controversy and cost the coach his job. A dismal performance against weak opponents, like that in America’s run-up to the World Cup last month—0-1, 1-0 and 2-0 to Morocco, Venezuela and Latvia, respectively—would have had folks calling for the coach’s head, even on the eve of the World Cup. Instead of being sent off as national heroes, as the American team was, the squad might have departed to a loud chorus of boos, much as the French heard in their final, lackluster warm-up game in Paris.

But not enough folks cared all that much about the nuances of our team’s performance. Most just seemed happy to learn that the U.S. was going to the World Cup and delighted to discover that the team had newfound “respect” on the international pitch. That alone was sufficient to feed parental fantasies that once attached to Little League and now to youth soccer that supplanted it. We can stand on the sidelines and dream that our sons and daughters might someday play in the World Cup.

What has apparently changed, mid-World Cup stream, is that there is a sufficient body of folks who, thanks to the success of Arena and his team, paid attention this time around. And they know just enough to conclude—quite accurately—that the American World Cup team stunk up the joint. They may rail about refs’ decisions, but they are also folks who know how to read box scores. When they discover that the United States put a grand total of four shots on net in three games—by far the worst of any team in Germany—they will have no difficulty concluding that something is truly amiss.

If they are interested enough to consider the World Cup more closely, they will also come away with new insight into the roots of our recent success. The CONCACAF region in which we play is certainly among the weakest (and, arguably, the weakest) in the world. Its four teams that qualified for the World Cup combined for a record of one win (Mexico over Iran), eight losses and three ties. And only Mexico made it to the second round, where they figure to be eliminated this weekend by Argentina.

All this would appear to add up to an equally quick departure for Arena. His contract expires in December and, before this competition, he was contemplating reupping for a third Cup cycle. That notion may have stemmed from his lack of other options. Having been a championship coach on the college level (with the University of Virginia) and in Major League Soccer (D.C. United), he would see any coaching position in the U.S. as a step back. And while American players are now courted by top European teams, no Yank can overcome the biases that still prevail against our game to land a high-level coaching position there.

That is markedly unfair, given that German coach Jurgen Klinsmann credits Arena and other American coaches for refining his approach and coaching techniques. But that’s Arena’s problem now. It’s certainly better for U.S. soccer and its fans to focus on the coach’s shortcomings than to risk the far more painful conclusion that our talent on the field doesn’t measure up to its considerable hype. Besides, you don’t need many hands to count pro coaches here that have lasted eight years in their jobs. That’s a very long time for today’s athletes to listen to one voice and to adhere to a single approach. Hopefully, Arena’s greatest contribution—a conviction bordering on faith among his players that they do belong on the same pitch with the world’s best—will survive the comeuppance in Germany and stand as his legacy.

I certainly don’t expect Arena to be grateful for all this discussion of his future let alone all the voices calling for his head. But that is a further legacy of his success. We care about our soccer team and, like the rest of the world, will not brook failure—certainly not the monumental failure in Germany that punctured our inflated expectations. So seriously, Bruce, thank you for all you’ve done to spare me those expensive taxi rides. America finally cares. And it wants you gone. Goodbye and good luck.