PANAMA CITY, Panama — If you wanted to get a crystal-clear idea of the differences between Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann, all you needed to do was spend half an hour at Arena’s roundtable with a few writers here on Monday ahead of the U.S.’s World Cup qualifier against Panama on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports).
Arena’s amusingly biting Brooklyn-born sarcasm was on full display, drawing laughs and shakes of the head in equal measure. And while you can be certain that Arena and his staff buckle down with the U.S. players when it comes to game preparation, the light atmosphere that Arena creates with them often gives them a freedom that was lacking under Klinsmann, whose desire to have players “outside their comfort zone” had them feeling like they were walking on eggshells much of the time.
There were moments when Arena was serious on Monday, such as when he described his approach with this U.S. team, which made an emphatic statement in Friday’s 6–0 qualifying win against Honduras—Arena’s first World Cup qualifier since he took over the team again last November.
“There’s no secret formulas to this stuff,” Arena explained. “Work together, take ownership in what you’re doing, treat them like responsible professional athletes. And you get on with your business. They want to play in a World Cup.”
But far more often, Arena was in grand one-liner mode. He has been doing this coaching thing long enough—40 years—that he understands the media game. “You may be burying me tomorrow night,” he said, if the U.S. lays an egg here, and he’s probably right. But the general tone of Monday’s press event called to mind the time in 1996 when Arena, the U.S. Olympic coach, responded to the Americans drawing Argentina in their first game by cracking that the U.S. didn’t know how to fix a draw like the rest of the world does.
There’s real truth there, and of course you laughed. But did he really just say that?!?
Here’s a selection of Arena’s best laugh lines from Monday (imagine them in “sarcasm font”):
On whether the U.S. will be thinking about when it broke Panama’s heart here four years ago with a last-second goal that put Panama out of the World Cup and saved archrival Mexico, which would have been eliminated without the U.S. goal: “We’re not smart enough to think like that. If we were smart enough, we wouldn’t have broken their hearts. Pretty stupid if you ask me. You think Mexico would have scored a goal [to save the U.S.’s World Cup] at the end of that game?”
On whether Arena wanted the U.S. players to have more fun with him as the coach:“For them to have fun? We’re bringing a clown in for lunch today to make balloons and stuff for the players.”
On why he likes Jorge Villafaña as a left back: “He’s a left back, which is one of the criteria I think you should have for selecting a left back.” (It was hard not to laugh at that one after Klinsmann famously said, “Anyone can play left back.”)
On the culture created within his team by the veteran players: “They’re just being good professionals, and it becomes contagious within the group. If you have a bunch of people who are j---offs, it tends to be what your team looks like.”
On Christian Pulisic’s rise to stardom: “Richie Williams had him in Bradenton for two years with the Under-17s. So don’t attribute all his success to Borussia Dortmund, not that they don’t deserve a lot of credit. He was grown as a player in the U.S. Don’t p--- on our system, which everyone wants to do. It’s not possible we could have a good player come out of here. There has to be a reason for it, and the reason is obviously because he went to Germany. He was going to be good wherever he went. Now maybe that has been exactly the perfect environment for him, and you could argue that. I don’t doubt that. But when he left here he was a good player.”
As for the choices he'll be making for Tuesday's game, Arena didn’t give much away. When asked what his options were for the back line with the departure of John Brooks, he said: “Options are [Tim] Ream and [Matt] Besler, and [DaMarcus] Beasley, and [Geoff] Cameron and [Graham] Zusi.” He did say there would be as many as four or five changes in the starting lineup, and he acknowledged that an away game in CONCACAF won’t look like Friday’s 6–0 win at home.
Arena also mentioned that he gave Villafaña and Sebastián Lletget their first U.S. qualifying starts at home on Friday partly because it would be easier to do that at home, giving the impression that Beasley might get the call at left back on Tuesday.
Give Arena some credit. He knows his audience, and he knows when he can dial up the sarcasm and have his audience understand it. Just a couple hours after his roundtable with U.S. writers, Arena was deliberately bland in the formal pregame press conference with Panamanian media in attendance. Sarcasm won’t work in those situations, and he knows that, and so he sounded like a guy in a hostage video.
All things considered, it was an entertaining afternoon—and a window into how Arena operates, not just with the media but with his team. And if it leads to another big World Cup qualifying victory on Tuesday, then so much the better. In the end, Arena knows more than anyone: It all comes down to results.