On Tuesday, Bruce Arena was installed as manager of the US Men’s National Team following the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann the previous day. Let’s be clear, these moves are not made without the US Soccer Federation first prioritizing qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup above EVERYTHING ELSE in the national team program and then seeing said goal being severely threatened by the team’s results in its first matches of the Hex (a 2-1 home loss to Mexico followed by a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica). For those of you who believe Arena will magically move the Yanks into a qualifying spot after the matches in March, news for you: not gonna happen. For those who see this change of course as a step backwards, news for you: it’s not nearly the disaster you are wishing it to be. For the soccer writers singing the praises of Jesse Marsch, Tab Ramos, and Oscar Pareja as Il Bruce’s successor, news for you: they lack the goods right now. Allow me to break this down logically for you.
The rest of the Hex will be a slough, but there is light at the end. The US sits on zero points after two matches, with 24 points available the rest of the way. A reasonable pathway for the US to qualify is to go 5-1-2 over the last eight matches, which is 17 points and would match their 2001 qualifying total, where they punched their ticket to the 2002 World Cup with a game to spare. Those 17 points are most likely gotten this way: win the remaining home matches (12 points); draw at Panama and Honduras (2 points); win at Trinidad and Tobago on the last day (3 points). Could they do better than that (for instance, a win at either Panama or Honduras or a draw at Mexico, which have been achieved in previous qualifying cycles)? Sure, but let’s not bank the life savings on it. Patience is vital, as this accumulation of points would put the US at four points after four matches, seven points after six, eleven points after eight, and requires winning the last two matches to reach 17.
This is a stop-gap, not a turning-back. Bringing in Arena to rescue the qualifying campaign is not an admission that the path USSF took five years ago to hire Klinsmann was bad or that the progress made under him will cease. Klinsmann was brought in at a time where the current system had reached its zenith with the tools at its disposal, and a fresh perspective was necessary in the evolution of the national team program. Much as Klinsmann’s tenure was a step on the evolutionary path, Arena’s will be as well. We will see a re-calibration of the program in the short term to insert things that have been lacking recently (such as spirit and collective will that teams without elite-level weapons rely upon to slug it out with more talented sides, along with mental acumen), all with an eye to get this team to Russia by whatever means necessary. Following the World Cup, that evolution can progress on a path best-suited for the times and be led by a manager who fits the direction the Fed wishes to go.
Different times call for different visions. National team programs evolve over time, and one point in the path requires different tools and skills than another one. Klinsmann’s vision as an outsider was necessary to “move the goalposts” of where the US existed in the soccer world (prior to him, king of CONCACAF was the pinnacle and the direction was geared to that end) and how we would go about moving closer to the top end of that world. I held after the 2014 World Cup that the US needed to take its next step in that path, and the person to lead it would need two specific qualifications: significant US National Team playing experience and professional managerial experience. Those three names mentioned in the opening (Marsch, Ramos, and Pareja) don’t meet that criteria in full (Marsch was not a critical piece of the USNT player pool, Pareja didn’t play for the US National Team, and Ramos hasn’t spent time leading a professional soccer team). Can they make up for that in some way? Sure, but in my opinion it would require being part of Arena’s team in this interim period with a succession plan in place to take over following Russia 2018. Barring that, we should consider others who meet both criteria and wouldn’t require such an internship. The names at the top of my list in that regard are Dominic Kinnear and Peter Vermes. Both have won multiple trophies in their coaching careers, both earned more than 50 caps for the US National Team in their playing careers, but I would place Kinnear ahead of Vermes based on the tactical flexibility he has exhibited during his tenure in Houston and San Jose, a trait that is key when dealing with an ever-changing player pool.
That’s my take. What’s yours?