Enter the Arena

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I don’t care to link to any of the folks who are clasping at the Honduras game as proof that Bruce Arena is an elite coach and the USMNT is now back on track. I’m not sure the USMNT was ever that far off track – the opening schedule was brutal and the loss of Clint Dempsey was huge. Still, I’m no Jurgen apologist. I thought he should have been let go immediately after the 2014 World Cup. If anything, Arena’s nice opening step points to Sunil Gulati running off Jurgen at an ideal juncture: he gave Arena months to get to know the player pool and game plan.

Still, there’s one big problem: will Sunil finally grow up and not extend Bruce’s contract after we qualify for Russia 2018?

Gulati’s approach to coaches is as predictable as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. If you coach the USMNT and the team qualifies for the World Cup, you will get an extension. Bruce Arena got two full World Cup cycles in 1999 and 2003. Bob Bradley got an extension after the 2010 World Cup, but was later dismissed after a poor Gold Cup. JK got an extension, announced just before the start of the 2014 World Cup, but got let go after a rocky start to qualifiers.

Do you see a pattern?

It’s a problem. And that’s on Sunil. Basically, four years is a very very long time for any one person to manage a team. Many top coaches like Carlo Ancelotti believe that three years is the maximum a coach can manage one group of players and get the best out of them. Why? Sometimes, you are a victim of your own success: you do things a certain way with certain players, and then your Starting XI writes itself to the detriment of giving youngsters a fair crack.

Other times, human nature nips you in the bud. Players get used to your management approach – low key or hairdryer – and they let the foot off the gas a bit. They game the system. They don’t strive to impress you as much in training. Folks feel comfortable.

Which is why the US needs to stop keeping coaches beyond a four-year-cycle. I know that Oscar Tabarez has done good things at Uruguay and Sir Alex Ferguson ruled the roost for decades at United, but these are the big exceptions that ultimately prove the rule. Thus, I’m not overly excited about being Honduras – I’m worried about 2018. And Sunil needs to stand firm and refuse to comment on a coach’s contract in the lead up to Russia, and then afterwards politely give him the pink slip behind closed doors. Being a boss means firing people at the right time and in the right way. Not the sorta right time.

That being said, I don’t want to knock Arena’s bonafides. Bruce is a pragmatist, he’ll get us qualified, and, if we get a decent draw and some luck, we could advance to the Round-of-16. Still, I can’t shake the worry that, ala 2006, Arena carries some risk. At that World Cup, Arena relied on “his guys” and stuck to much older players in qualifiers and the tournament. The result was that our aging midfield could not keep up with the opposition. We got burned for speed. Regardless of our opponents in Russia, if our median age for the Starting XI in Russia 2018 is 31 or 32, I don’t like our chances to make a decent run.

In a sense, the U.S., like England in 2004 (and 2006), has turned to a laid back coach who will lighten the locker room atmosphere and, unlike Jurgen, at least take the opposition very seriously in qualifying. This can be good. More importantly, being a leader means getting “buy-in” from the fans and players – there are doubts that Klinnsmann’s PR approach, often coming off as condescending, did this. Still, recall that Bruce also calls out players in public and cracks sarcastic jokes at the press…but his Brooklyn accent softens the blow. At least for some.

Thus, a large group of U.S. fans got what they wanted: a comfortable, safe pick. Also, it’s undoubtedly true that Bruce knows MLS and will likely give young MLS guys a fairer shake than Klinsmann. But does that represent a step forward for the program and US soccer as a whole? I have my reservations. Then again, in my own wildest dreams, Christian Pulisic is so good within a year that it doesn’t matter who’s patrolling the sidelines.

But no one knows what dreams may come…

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