SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena admitted something after Friday’s 2-0 home World Cup qualifying loss to Costa Rica that you never hear other soccer coaches say. Not José Mourinho. Not Pep Guardiola. And most certainly not Jurgen Klinsmann during his five years as the U.S. coach.
Arena said he had been “outcoached” by his Costa Rica counterpart, Óscar Ramírez.
And so I asked Arena about it on Monday during his candid roundtable discussion with a handful of U.S. reporters ahead of Tuesday’s big World Cup qualifier against Honduras (5:30 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports, Universo). Did he really believe he was outcoached? What does that mean anyway? And for that matter, was he just saying it to take some heat off his players after a bad loss?
“I do that so you guys don’t have to try to be creative and actually try to figure out what happened in the game,” Arena deadpanned. “So that allows you to get out of the thing easy and you don’t start dealing with the players and being critical. What are they [U.S. Soccer] going to do? Fire me? If they fire me, they fire me. It’s over with. What are you going to do?”
Did Arena really think he was outcoached? “To be honest with you, I didn’t really necessarily mean that,” he said. “I just said that so you don’t have to spend any time critiquing anyone else.” When someone pointed out that he said something similar in Nashville after a Gold Cup game, Arena cracked: “It worked again for you dopes! You’re back again, aren’t you? … I think too often coaches get too much credit and too much blame. The game is really the players are playing the game. You’re preparing them to play, but I think it goes way too far. I giggle most of the time, to be honest with you. I know coaches, and we always laugh about it when the game is decided by the coach. Of all games, a soccer game is decided by the coach?”
When I told Arena, an old ACC basketball fan, that another coach who has said he’s been “outcoached” is North Carolina’s Roy Williams—and that he, too, says that to take pressure off his players after a loss—Arena nodded. “That’s true. But basketball is different. You can call timeouts, make [more] substitutions. But once the game starts [in soccer], the coaching factor is a lot different in our sport than basketball or football. You have less control [once the game starts] than you do in the preparation of the team and setting a tone. Coaching is a factor, believe me, but when the game starts the players are much more influential than the coaches.”
For a guy who just lost a big game on Friday, Arena was in good spirits ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Honduras. It was a revealing enough group interview that it was best to give you the whole back-and-forth, lightly edited for clarity:
On how Arena is feeling about the game Tuesday: “We’ll be fine. I think we’ll get a result here.”
On the difficulty of going on the road in CONCACAF and whether it’s different now than it was when Arena was the U.S. coach from 1998 to 2006: “I think we travel better, we prepare better, we’re organized better to do it. But it’s still difficult. I think in CONCACAF the officiating is incredibly challenging and can change games. The officiating is such that the games are different than how you normally play games. And you have to make those adjustments quickly as players, as coaches. Obviously, the field we’re playing on tomorrow, nobody plays on fields like that. So that’s a bit challenging.”
On the field itself: “The grass isn’t cut. It’s a bit different, for sure. It’s a little spongy too. Who knows what they’ll do in the next 24 hours? The game will be slow.”
On the fouls being endured by Christian Pulisic and whether Arena thinks Pulisic should try getting rid of the ball more quickly because of them: “It has nothing to do with getting rid of the ball quicker. He’s getting fouled because he’s on the ball trying to get forward and be aggressive and create something. What would be the point of getting rid of the ball? Say ‘don’t touch the ball’ and he won’t get fouled? That’s the job of the referee [to protect players].”
On whether Pulisic being hacked comes with the territory of being a talented, creative player: “If you look at it for the people who were alive, don’t use this player as an analogy, but remember Pelé in the 1966 World Cup? He was just brutalized. I remember the World Cup in 1982 and [Diego] Maradona getting killed. Obviously, it’s different today. The fouls Christian is dealing with are nothing like it would be in the old days, but in the modern-day game players can’t get away with those fouls. But they’ve been getting away with it. Panama was ridiculous, how bad he was fouled. There were some good shots the other day. And on the day, Costa Rica has one card?!? And we have two and we lose a player for the next game [Jozy Altidore].”
On whether the U.S. can protest the treatment toward Pulisic with CONCACAF: “You can talk, but this has been going on for 20 years, and I don’t think it’s going to change.”
On whether CONCACAF should have allowed a referee from Panama, which is competing against the U.S. for a World Cup berth, to call the game against Costa Rica on Friday: “I don’t know how you could possibly use that as a reason why he makes the calls he makes. If that’s the case, who should they choose to referee the games? I think you have to trust that the officials have integrity. Some might be incompetent, but you’d like to believe they have integrity.”
On how Pulisic has to respond to the targeting: “He can’t get frustrated by it. If he’s a little wiser about it, maybe it’ll help create some advantages for us as well.” On what he means by “wiser”: “Just not get frustrated and find the next play in the right spots of the field to draw fouls, and maybe he’ll get a penalty or a free kick that’s dangerous. That’s a little wiser.” On whether the coaches are talking to Pulisic about that: “Yeah. We’ve talked to him about it. We’ll find out tomorrow if it’s getting any better.”
On how much freedom he gives Pulisic in his positioning on the field: “He’s not tied down to where he plays. He has the freedom to move where he wants to … He can go where he wants to move.”
On whether he has to keep the U.S. players relaxed about the possibility of taking World Cup qualification down to the last game of the tournament: “I think every athlete is different. I don’t think our players will go into the game tomorrow feeling too much pressure. I think they realize the significance of the game and all that, but I don’t think they’ll be nervous where they can’t perform.”
On the 2-0 loss to Costa Rica: “The way that game should have panned out, it should have been 0-0 in the last 10 minutes, and maybe we’re playing to get the goal, or it ends up 0-0. They had no right to win that game 2-0. That’s the way that game should have unfolded if we’d played a little bit better. It’s a real fine line for it working or not. The first goal should not be a goal. And then end of the game, that was a complete mess, that one. But that’s how that game should have played out. Because they are a good team. They’re very organized and have a great goalkeeper [Keylor Navas]. So it’s 1-0 and he makes that save [on Pulisic]. It could be 1-1, and then you’re saying at least we have a point and the last 10 minutes maybe we get the second goal. So we screwed that up.”
On whether Arena has ever made a decision that really impacted the game one way or the other: “All the time. Once it starts or once it’s over. The easiest thing to ever do is have all the answers when the game’s over. That’s kind of what you guys do (laughs). That’s a great job. You have it all figured out when the game’s over. That’s great and all, but we don’t get that luxury. So you have that. Everyone’s an expert. That’s the Monday morning quarterback, that’s what that is. We don’t get those opportunities. That’s why we do what we do. But in all fairness, that’s what you do. That’s fine. That’s what your jobs are. It’s a lot harder to do it before the game and during the game than it is after.
On whether as he decides his lineup for a game, if there are any calls that are 50/50 right up until the final time to decide: “For this game, I have a fair idea about who would play. There are some exceptions. I’d say maybe two or three players there was a thought of maybe going in a different way than the team that will play tomorrow. But for the most part we knew there would be some changes. I think there’s a big difference at this time of the year for the European[-based] players. They’re not fit yet, and they’re not used to these conditions. So you’d have to think if they’re going to play in one of these two games it’s going to be the first game. Common sense would tell you that. And there are exceptions to the rule.”
On when the sweet spot is for the fitness of European-based players: “November and March are good for them. The other part is we’ve never had our team together yet this whole time. The other thing to think back on is we had players who played in June who we haven’t seen again until September, and that’s a big gap. And maybe in retrospect we don’t use them. Maybe you stick with the guys we had in the Gold Cup. Those things are hard. They’re not easy to get a real feel for where they are physically. Most of the guys couldn’t train until Tuesday or Wednesday. All those complications with that stuff, you have to think it out and sometimes you can think too much about it as well.
On whether in Arena’s opinion the U.S. is better equipped today to compete against the top teams at a World Cup than it was when he was the U.S. coach in 2002 and ’06: “I think we’re slightly better in picking the roster of 23 players. In 2006, we didn’t have any central midfielders. And one reason why John O’Brien made it on the roster was there was literally no one left. There was no one else you could possibly pick that you would think could help you. If we qualify for the World Cup, we’re going to have plenty of options, plenty of people to consider. It doesn’t mean we’ll have a better team, but we’ll have a little bit more depth in a variety of positions that will make the selection of our roster a little bit easier.”
On whether there is more quality on the U.S. roster at the high end than in the past: “The only way you find that out is when you play in the World Cup. Who’s going to be able to respond in a World Cup? In 2006, some of our key players didn’t respond. So you never know. But I’ve seen key players for France and Argentina and great countries do the same. So you don’t know. I think in 2002 if I’m not mistaken a bunch of great countries didn’t make it into the second round. They’re still around today and producing good players. The problem we have is our players don’t get much of a break if they don’t respond well in a World Cup. So they’re viewed as not being good. Which is a little unfair at times, but that’s life.”
On whether most of the attacking positions in MLS go to foreign players—and what that means for U.S. players in those positions: “Aren’t most of our players MLS players in those positions? [Helping the national team] isn’t the function of Major League Soccer. They’re trying to create a product that’ll be in demand and competitive with other leagues in the world. Their concern certainly is not the national team right now, even if you hear that. The national team product is just a byproduct of what they do. They’re not sitting around thinking how do we make this national team better? It’s how do we make our league better? They’re making their judgments based on that, I would think. You would like to believe that as the league gets better it should benefit our national team program, whether that’s accurate or not. The EPL has gotten a lot better, and I don’t think it’s helping England. The Germans could tell you it does benefit them. Maybe the Spanish will tell you the same. Every country is different.”
On how Arena would describe the relationship between the national team program and MLS over the last nine to 10 months: “Very good. The league is very cooperative. They supported us in the Gold Cup. They supported us in the games against Trinidad and Mexico when we asked to bring the guys in a little bit early, a couple days. They’ve been good. It’s not like we’re asking them for a whole lot, but they’re supportive of the national team program. And we play a lot of games in their stadiums. So you reciprocate as well.”
On whether in retrospect he’s happy with the decision to play the Costa Rica game at Red Bull Arena in the New York City area: “It was already decided. But I don’t think we should play in a venue that’s comfortable for the visiting team. I don’t think it made a difference in the game. It probably makes a difference for Costa Rica. Imagine if we were playing this game [at Honduras] in Dallas or San Diego. It would be nicer for us. Even though that’s not a good analogy because we’re playing in our country. But we don’t get any luxuries of going on the road and everything is nice and comfortable and we have a good fanbase coming out to the game and all that. And obviously our country is unique to other countries. We’re a melting pot, and all the countries in CONCACAF, many of their countrymen make it to the United States in one capacity or another and they’ll come support their team. So we have to be shrewd in the venues we select to play different countries.”
On whether October’s game against Panama being in Orlando concerns him for a similar reason: “I haven’t looked into that. Am I going to find out there’s a big Panamanian population in Orlando? I’m sure there is! (laughs) I know from living [in the NYC area] there are a lot of Costa Ricans and Salvadorans and Mexicans. I knew that would be a challenge. I don’t know what Orlando is. I would sense that Orlando is going to be very pro-America. Would I be wrong? I know there’s a city [in Florida], Panama City. Is that named after them? I’m surprised we didn’t schedule the game [in Panama City, Fla.].”
On the assumption that he won’t remain the U.S. coach after World Cup 2018 if the U.S. qualifies and whether he has thought about being in consideration to stay in the job after that World Cup if the U.S. does well: “I have no interest in thinking about that right now. I’m very content where I am right now.”
On whether performances in the game on Friday influence his decision-making for the lineup on Tuesday: “It influences some of the decisions. The guy that doesn’t play particularly well, I don’t think he’s an automatic to play the next game.”
On whether, after saying beforehand that all hell would break loose if the U.S. lost on Friday, he thought all hell had indeed broken loose: “Maybe for you guys. I still don’t have a tweet or any other s---. So I don’t know how much hell has broken loose. When you compete on a daily basis, a game doesn’t impact your life like it does for other people. You get on with the next game. You couldn’t possibly function that way.” On whether he was angry on Friday? “Sure. But it was on to the next game. We got it done with as soon as we could with the team. And we move on. We can only invest about a day in it. And by Saturday afternoon it was over with. And now we’re preparing for Honduras.”
On whether Arena’s reasoning for switching from goalkeeper Tim Howard to Brad Guzan for June’s Mexico game—that Howard has some trouble with quick recoveries due to his surgery earlier this year—no longer applies and Howard is back to 100%: “No. I think by next year he will be. He’ll have an offseason to get stronger. He’s done a remarkable job coming back in such a short period of time. But it hasn’t allowed him to be fully back to where he’s going to be. I think by next year he will be. When you have those kind of surgeries, athletes will come back with knees and all that, and they’ll play but they’re not 100%. And you see them the next year and they start to get better. That’s typical of players with ACLs. They’ll come back between six and eight months and they’ll play, and the following year they’re normal again. Tim had a really complicated surgery, and he came back well ahead of schedule. So he’ll benefit from an offseason, and he’ll be better next year.”
On whether that means Brad will start on Tuesday: “Brad Friedel is starting Tuesday.” (smirk)
On whether Arena thinks upsets are more common now in international soccer, with France being held to a tie by Luxembourg and Argentina and the Netherlands struggling in World Cup qualifying: “The game’s much more advanced. The smaller countries have gotten [better]. They have more experienced players, and the coaching is better and they know how to coach to defend and play in low-scoring games. That’s what you’re seeing. I didn’t see the France game, but I imagine France probably could have scored five goals. But teams have enough experience to hang in those games. I still say a lot of you guys missed the boat on this: The Gold Cup was a lot better than you thought. These smaller countries are much better. Martinique had a good team. I thought they were pretty impressive. Now they should try to join FIFA. They’d be even better.”
On whether the U.S. talent level is now such that it can play aggressively against a Germany or a Brazil or an Argentina—or whether Arena would set up to defend first against them: “Why worry about that at this point? I haven’t really sat down and thought about it. Germany has a better team. Germany probably has the best team in the world. You’re saying should we go out and play even with them right now? We’re trying to qualify for the World Cup, let alone decide whether we’re going to try and play on even terms with Germany. We’ll worry about that at the time when we play them in the final in Russia. We’ll worry about it then.”
On the status of Jermaine Jones with the national team: “We’ll see how he keeps moving forward and whether he’s an option in October, whether we can see where he’s at and whether he’ll be a good addition to our roster.”
On whether he’s considering Danny Williams from Huddersfield Town: “We would look at him.”
On whether the U.S. player pool is much deeper than it was a decade ago: “It is deeper. Deeper doesn’t mean it’s better, but it’s deeper. If I said it’s better now and we don’t qualify for the World Cup, you’d look at me like I’m really crazy. But if we get to the World Cup we’ll know a little bit more. That’s where you really examine where a national team is at. So that’ll give a lot of answers.”
On what has been different about Arena’s third World Cup qualifying cycle with the national team: “I think the federation is much better supported and organized. The league is much more advanced and growing, so you have probably better options there. There’s technology in all aspects of this job that is much improved and allows you to be more efficient in the things you do. And I think the sport has grown considerably in 10 years. This is a real sport in the United States now.”
On whether that technology makes his job easier: “It makes it more efficient. There’s pluses and minuses with it. I think for all athletes today in all sports, I think the social media thing is challenging. Very challenging. Sometimes it’s a real plus, other times it’s a negative. You don’t get away with anything today. Everybody knows your business. I’m not sure that’s good. It’s great for the fans. It’s great for you guys in getting your message out. I’m not sure it’s necessarily great for teams and athletes, because everybody knows what you’re doing. If you don’t know, those dopes [the athletes] manage to let everyone else know (laughs). So it never stops. And you can get yourself into a lot of trouble.”
How’s your Instagram page? “Mine’s doing great (laughs). And my Twitter. And my Facebook. I’ve never been on Facebook in my life.”
If you were honest on your Twitter, it would be great. “I would do Twitter, but [his press officers] would have to do it. I wouldn’t do it.”
That wouldn’t be good. “I don’t think it works for our president, even though he can reach millions of people rapidly. I don’t think it’s a good way to do business.”
Sunil Gulati or Donald Trump? (laughs) “I’ll leave that up to you. Are you comparing the two?”
On his reaction, after living for many years in Charlottesville, Va., to the neo-Nazi demonstrations there recently: “Some crazy stuff. Charlottesville is a very progressive community. I don’t know how that whole thing added up and how it happened, but that’s not Charlottesville at all. It’s pretty sad, actually. They’re progressive enough, actually, that they would allow the freedom of speech and probably granted that demonstration because they’re so progressive. And it turned out to be a nightmare, I guess.”
On whether he finds it odd that so many in the Mexican media are calling for the head of coach Juan Carlos Osorio even though Mexico qualified first for the World Cup from CONCACAF: “I don’t find that odd. That’s Mexico. Unfortunately, that’s par for the course in Mexico, right? That if you look at all the people before him. I don’t remember who he replaced. Herrera? Miguel Herrera is a great coach. And he’s the one who got in a fight at the Philadelphia airport [with a media member], right? Could I get out of this job by punching one of you guys? Can you promise me that would happen? (laughs) They’ve had great coaches that they get rid of. The sport is more meaningful in that country than it is here. That’s probably the explanation. And the owners of the league run the national team program, which doesn’t help.”
On whether Arena thinks today’s politics in the U.S. are having an impact on the intensity of negativity from opposing fans in CONCACAF: “I think so. You need me to tell you that? Our immigration policies are impacting people in Central America, right? There’s probably a bit of anger over that. And then your national sport gets a chance to play the U.S.? I’m sure it becomes very meaningful.”
On whether, with U.S. players like Geoff Cameron supporting President Trump publicly and players like Michael Bradley calling out Trump publicly, Arena has had to deal with any tensions within his own team: “We’ve never spoken about it. Listen, I don’t know what Cameron’s political beliefs are, but I think everyone’s pretty supportive of free speech and not being restrictive to people coming to this country. I think we’d be almost unanimous in that. I’m not around these guys all the time and listening to them talk politics. But I don’t think politics influences our national team program at all. I think we had a little bit of a discussion when we went to Mexico with the timing and all that. But I don’t think it impacts anybody. We have Christians and non-Christians and different races and languages. We have all that. It’s the beauty of our national team and our country.”
On whether a good U.S. run at the World Cup could do something to help unite a very divided America: “So you want us to win a World Cup and help bring a country together? And walk on water? What else do you want us to do? (laughs) We’ll get to that at the right time. Let’s see if we can win a couple games now to close out this year and maybe go to a World Cup and then solve all the world’s problems at that point plus win the World Cup. In what particular order do you want us to do that? I guess that is the beauty of this sport. That’s the beauty of it, that you can make some change, hopefully for the good, through sports. What J.J. Watt is doing in Houston is tremendous. It would be nice if we could do things like that as well. I’m not quite sure your example for the World Cup is something we’re going to accomplish. But if we get there, maybe we’ll try.