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All Hail Bruce Arena!

June 11th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

This is about United States versus Mexico soccer. World Cup qualifying soccer at that …

But this is now, not 2005 — as it is in the parts of the 12-year-old series I have been republishing on this blog in recent days.

The U.S. national soccer team got a very nice result today, in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, altitude 7,300 feet, where not many teams escape defeat.

Michael Bradley scored a memorable “chipped/lobbed” goal over the head of Mexico’s goalkeeper in the sixth minute of the match, and the Americans were able to escape with a 1-1 draw — and a precious point — putting them that much closer to the 2018 World Cup.

And making progress toward Russia 2018 is where Bruce Arena comes in.

You may recall that the U.S. took zero points from the first two matches of this final round of Concacaf qualifying — a 2-0 loss at home to Mexico, a 4-0 rout at Costa Rica.

And the U.S. Soccer Federation was looking at the thoroughly embarrassing possibility of not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. An outcome that very possibly could cost federation president Sunil Gulati his job.

That, of course, was when Jurgen Klinsmann was the U.S. coach. No one says “home to Mexico, away to Costa Rica” is an easy pair of games, but zero points? Outscored 6-1?

Exit Jurgen Klinsmann.

Enter Bruce Arena.

U.S. soccer fans know Bruce Arena well. LA Galaxy fans know him very well.

Arena is an often cantankerous guy, heading into “grumpy old man” territory, at age 65. But the man can coach. In particular, he can coach Americans.

He led the national team during an eight-year span that coincided with the successful 2002 World Cup (reaching the quarterfinals) and the 2006 World Cup (where the U.S. went out at the group stage).

Before that, he coached in Major League Soccer with DC United, and after he coached the Galaxy. He won championships at both clubs — two at DC, three in Los Angeles.

So, he was given control of the U.S. team in November and asked to revive it — gaining, in eight hexagonal matches, more points than three other Concacaf nations would gain in 10 — assuring a top-three, direct-qualification performance.

So far, so good.

A home victory of 6-0 over Honduras; a 1-1 draw at Panama; a 2-0 home victory over Trinidad & Tobago; the 1-1 draw at Mexico City tonight.

That is eight points in four matches, putting the Americans in the upper half of the standings and, apparently, in decent shape.

What has Arena done to change things?

For one, Bruce Arena believes in the competence of the American-bred and based soccer player — something Klinsmann never, ever conceded.

Look at the first 11 from the six matches played so far:

–Klinsmann played four German-Americans (Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson) in the home game versus Mexico, with a fifth German-American (Julian Green) on the bench, along with an Icelandic-American (Aron Johannson).

–In the disaster in Costa Rica, Klinsmann had the same six in uniform, and the same four starting. In neither match did Darlington Nagbe or Jorge Villafana play.

–In the four matches since under Arena, Nagbe and Villafana have appeared in every match and started three times each. Timmy Chandler has disappeared. Fabian Johnson has appeared once. Brooks has been in and out with injuries. And Julian Green and Johansson have not suited up.

–Klinsmann made clear that he had no respect for the level of play in Major League Soccer, an opinion Arena does not share. The latter will bring in some hyphenated Americans — but he doesn’t do it because he believes they are automatically superior because they are playing in Europe.

Arena also succeeded in a ploy over the past four days that saw him make seven changes to his first XI between the Trinidad game and the Mexico match, three days later. This comes from a man who has been watching the history of the matchup, and he decided he wanted fresh legs for the match in Mexico City, where altitude is a factor. The move seemed to pay off tonight.

Arena knows the American player. He knows how to motivate him, and how to create a sense of solidarity. Klinsmann did not. The answer to all his problems were to go hunting for another Germany-based guy for whom he could get a passport.

The work is not yet complete. Four matches left, and Arena’s team probably will need two victories (home to Costa Rica and Panama?) and a couple of draws (away to Trinidad and Honduras?) to be confident of finishing in the top three.

I am optimistic this will happen. Arena seems to have identified the best players, regardless of their European credentials, and is playing them.

The side has a fine leader in Michael Bradley, perhaps the most skilled attacking player since Landon Donovan in Christian Pulisic, a midfield general in Nagbe and an increasingly solid back four or five. It also has Clint Dempsey, if a late goal is needed.

If Arena pulls this off, he deserves even more praise and thanks from American fans. For now, he’s off to a fine start, and the side doesn’t need to do something amazing to punch their tickets for Russia.


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