Bruce Arena’s most celebrated achievement outside select areas of Southern California or central Virginia is managing the U.S. national team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. His famous round-of-16 victory over Mexico remains the only knockout-stage success the American men have enjoyed at the senior level. The images and memories from that day in South Korea—from Landon Donovan’s header to Rafa Márquez’s headbutt—are lasting. “Dos a cero” took root in CONCACAF lore, and American soccer took another giant step on its journey toward viability and credibility.
What many don’t remember is that the journey could’ve ended much earlier. Arena’s team was close to crisis in the summer of 2001. It lost a third consecutive qualifier in Costa Rica and with just two matches remaining in the Hexagonal, the USA was 4-3-1 and in a third-place tie with El Tri (and trailing on goal difference). Only the top three finishers would qualify.
Honduras stumbled, losing at home to Trinidad & Tobago. The USA survived and advanced, and its flirtation with disaster soon became a footnote. And in that footnote lies the crux of World Cup qualifying—it doesn’t matter how you get in. There are no gold medals in the Hex, and there’s no reward for finishing higher once the World Cup kicks off.
Just get in.
Arena is a pragmatist. Just getting in does the job. And after taking over the national team in November, going 2-0-2 in four qualifiers and tying Mexico at the Estadio Azteca on Sunday evening, he’s on the verge of salvaging another qualifying campaign. The USA won’t finish first in the Hexagonal this year. It now stands 2-2-2—a solid six points behind first-place Mexico with four games left. But that doesn’t really matter. Qualifying is a binary. And as the Hex passes its midpoint—with both games against Mexico and their quadrennial defeat in Costa Rica in the rear-view mirror—the Americans finally look like a team bound for Russia.
There’s still work to do, and last November’s home defeat to Mexico leaves the USA with a margin for error that’s still smaller than normal. But the national team’s trajectory, momentum and remaining schedule suggests this World Cup crisis has passed. The Americans are in position to qualify. Jurgen Klinsmann’s November dismissal—and much of his tenure in general—are sliding quickly down the page. The lasting history of the 2018 cycle has yet to be written.
Subtract the three points lost in the once-impenetrable stronghold of Columbus from the USA’s final total in each of the past three Hexagonals, and it still qualifies with room to spare. The Americans host Costa Rica and Panama in September and October, respectively, and are still scheduled to visit Honduras and Trinidad. None of those matches is a gimme, but history suggests the USA has reason to be confident.
It’s 6-0-1 against Los Ticos in home qualifiers since the heartbreaker in 1985, and 3-0-0 when hosting Panama. Trips to Honduras haven’t been nearly as perilous as those to Costa Rica or Mexico, and Trinidad likely won’t have anything to play for in the October 10 finale. Panama, which is 1-1-3 and in fourth place (two points behind the Americans) heading into Tuesday’s showdown with Honduras, also still has to go to the Azteca. The USA is in decent shape to earn one of CONCACAF’s three automatic bids, thus avoiding fourth place and a taxing playoff against an Asian side.
More significant than the schedule, however, is the national team’s direction. Since Arena took over, the USA is 3-0-4 and has yielded only three goals (one from open play).
Klinsmann thought that strength, skill and stamina were forged in the “cold water.” If you’re uncertain or uncomfortable, it's a good thing. It forces you to work quicker and harder. That’s how you make up lost ground and chase down your betters. It’s how you grow.
More than a decade after his dismissal following the 2006 World Cup, an older and wiser Arena has a different approach. He establishes camp schedules and game plans well in advance. Klinsmann often altered them abruptly in order to keep players and staff on their toes. Arena seeks continuity and chemistry in the player pool and prefers to deploy his charges in their customary positions. Klinsmann preferred men who could adjust immediately to any teammate or role, to any tactical or technical situation, and to any scenario or game state. Arena puts players in more routine spots and asks them to play the game that suits them.
One could make an ironic case that it’s Arena who is proactive and Klinsmann who was reactive. By adhering to specific plans and positions in training and by removing much of the volatility and guesswork from the national team experience, Arena is building a team that's more likely able to impose itself on an opponent–or in the case of Sunday’s draw, play the game it planned to play. Klinsmann’s teams were left guessing far too frequently.
Would Klinsmann eventually have forged a culture that led to future World Cup success? Perhaps, but five years clearly wasn’t enough and after losing in Costa Rica, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati couldn’t take any more chances. The Americans were adrift. They needed structure, focus and purpose, and Arena has helped provide it.
Two quotes from this past World Cup qualifying weekend are indicative of the boost in morale and chemistry that's resulted. Prior to Thursday’s 2-0 win over Trinidad in Commerce City, Colorado, goalkeeper Tim Howard said this when asked about the depth that would be required to negotiate two games in four days:
“There’s less experimentation [under Arena],” Howard said. “You look at these guys walking around, every single guy contributes. They have a purpose here. Any of them can step on the field and we feel like we’re not really going to lose too much. In fact, in a lot of positions we gain with the fresh legs. This is a very, very balanced squad top to bottom.”
Everyone belongs and has earned a spot. Each player is trusted by his teammates to do the job.
Following Sunday’s tie in Mexico City, defender Omar Gonzalez said this about the 3-4-3/5-4-1 the USA—which typically plays four in the back—used to hold El Tri to just one shot on target.
“Last time we did this in Columbus [in November], it was a ‘maybe’ that we were going to play 3-5-2,” he said. “We didn’t know until a couple of days before the game, and then it was just thrown out there. Now we had two weeks to really prepare. One team was preparing to play against Trinidad in a 4-4-2 and another was preparing [for Mexico]. So we’ve been playing this now for a few weeks, and that’s the reason why there was a lot better understanding tonight and why it worked for us.”
Klinsmann’s ideal players could adjust on the fly. If he felt three in the back was the way to go, as he did without much training or warning against Mexico in Columbus, they’d be ready. Such shifts weren’t uncommon. He changed his tactics during the days approaching the Confederations Cup playoff against El Tri in the fall of 2015. He announced surprising starting lineups that differed from combinations used in training just hours before previous qualifiers. Maybe that worked in Germany. Over time, it didn’t work for the USA.
National team players now know they’ll play how they practiced. They know they’ll arrive in camp with a schedule and a plan in place. They can be confident they’ll play their best position and that they won’t be overtrained (Arena’s decision to rest Howard against Mexico while fielding seven new starters is an indication the manager believes players have physical limits). They’ll prepare for the game and opponent in front of them and play to get a result.
Maybe that’s not the formula for winning a World Cup someday. But it is a formula for qualifying for the next one. That’s what was needed this year, and that’s where the USA appears to be headed.