Ten years later, Bruce is back.
US Soccer announced on Tuesday that it has hired Bruce Arena for his second stint as the US national team head coach, bringing the 65-year-old on board from the LA Galaxy after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired on Monday.
Arena coached the USMNT from 1998-2006, leading the country to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and registering more wins than any other coach in American history before being dismissed following the 2006 World Cup. He’d been with the Galaxy since 2008, winning three MLS Cups, two Supporters’ Shields and registering the best record in MLS with LA before taking over the US job on Tuesday.
The only person to ever lead the USMNT at two World Cups, Arena will now have his shot at a third. US Soccer president Sunil Gulati told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday that Arena is signed through the 2018 World Cup. If Arena can successfully navigate the final phase of qualifying, which Klinsmann began earlier this month with losses against Mexico and Costa Rica, he’ll coach the US in Russia.
Arena and the US will begin their attempt to dig out of their Hexagonal hole in March, when they’ll host Honduras and play at Panama in a pair of World Cup qualifiers. Before then, the USMNT will have their annual January camp, which usually includes an exhibition or two and mainly consists of out-of-season MLS players.
Arena said in Tuesday’s conference call that he’s planning on having conversations and meetings with as many players as possible before the start of the January camp and that he imagines he’ll “touch base with our entire pool of players” before the March qualifiers. He said that he wants to communicate to each player in the pool exactly who he is and what his thoughts are and, importantly, develop an on-field identity to use against Honduras and Panama.
Doing that will be a tall order, especially as some important, European-based national team players won’t re-join the national team again until March. But, with a full decade of managing under his belt since his last stint with the USMNT, Arena feels he’s up for the job.
“I think 10 years later, I’m a better man for this job than I was in 1998, in 2002 and ultimately 2006,” Arena said. “I’m hopeful that the experiences that I have are going to benefit the program. You know, one of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously. And the game has slowed down a bit, where I can see as a coach and from my position how things are happening on the field.
“I’m better at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of players and I think I’m better at how you build a team. And certainly, this time around, it’s going to be a great challenge and I’m excited about it. Hopefully all my experiences help us quickly get this team turned around and ready for qualifying.”
Gulati said that the hiring process was completed in the last 48 hours. The US Soccer president and federation executives Dan Flynn and Jay Berhalter met with Arena in Los Angeles on Monday, before a contract was agreed to and signed at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday morning. Fifteen minutes later, US Soccer’s board approved the deal, the final seal need to make the hire official.
Arena said that he discussed possibilities for his coaching staff with Gulati, Flynn and Berhalter, but that he’d “take a week or two” before hiring any assistants. Longtime Arena assistant Dave Sarachan left the Galaxy last week, prompting a question from a reporter about whether or not it’d be possible for the pair to reunite with the USMNT.
In terms of what his rosters will look like, Arena said he doesn’t anticipate making “radical changes” from the last couple of groups that were called in under Klinsmann. He did note, however, that there will inevitably be some new players called in, telling reporters that everyone – including longtime Klinsmann exiles like Benny Feilhaber and Jonathan Bornstein – will have an opportunity.
“Regarding players such as Feilhaber and Bornstein that you mentioned, I think that they and others are good players and we’re going to give those types of players an opportunity to be back in the national team,” he said. “How that ends up, I can’t answer at this point. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m well aware of the qualities of those two and others and we’re going to look closely at those players as we begin the domestic camp in January and also as we select the roster for the games in March.
"No names are off the table. However, I would say that it’s highly unlikely we’re going to bring many new players into the program. We’re at a time right now where we need to get results and we have to have a team that’s ready to go in March.”
Notably, Arena addressed the controversial remarks he made in a 2013 interview with ESPN The Magazine regarding dual-national players. Arena told ESPN’s Doug McIntyre then that he thought “players on the national team should be – and this is my own feeling – they should be Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”
The US started four foreign-born dual-nationals – John Brooks, Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones – in last week’s loss at Costa Rica.
“If I made those comments, I certainly don’t believe that that’s my attitude,” Arena said. “Historically, one of my most favorite players in my eight years as a national team coach is [Dutch-born] Earnie Stewart. And I believe anyone that has a passport in the United States is certainly eligible to play for our national team and I embrace all players that are eligible to play.
"I just want to make sure their hearts [are] in the right place and when they place that US jersey on they’re playing for that crest on the shirt.”
Gulati reiterated that US Soccer is open to any American citizen representing the national team. He also reframed Arena’s initial quote as more of a comment on player development in the US than anything to do with nationalism.
“We are open to anyone, whether they’re born abroad or born here,” he said. “The discussions - and maybe that’s how some of this got interpreted - some of the discussions that Bruce and I have had in the past is if we have players primarily developed abroad, while they are still absolutely eligible in every way to play for the national team, they don’t reflect in the same way on the development programs that we’re going through in the US.
"So if we are trying to evaluate on our development programs, then pretty clearly a player like Jermaine Jones or Fabian Johnson is different than some younger players or players that have grown up here. They’re both eligible to play for us, there’s no thought pattern that one has an advantage over the other as long as they’re committed to the US national team, which Bruce has reemphasized before and again just now.”
Arena also addressed the notion of an American style of play, a common subject under Klinsmann, who regularly stated his desire to see the USMNT play an attractive, proactive style. Arena brushed that topic somewhat to the side on Tuesday, saying that he believes a team’s “style is dictated by the quality of your players” and noting that the US “isn’t far behind technically” leading soccer nations that had success at this summer’s Copa America Centenario and European Championships.
While he wasn’t certain exactly how his team will play, Arena was confident that, with time, he’ll get the USMNT turned around.
“We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on team concept,” he said. “I really believe, individually and positionally, we have good players. We just have to get them working together as a team. There are no real secrets on how you build good teams.
"It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent. And I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia in 2018, but it’s going to take a little bit of time, a little bit of patience and a lot of hard work.”