"Study the past, if you would divine the future."-- Confucius
Bruce Arena was appointed head coach of the US men's national team in early October of 1998 and was, at the time, the most obvious choice imaginable. His D.C. United teams had set the tone in the earliest days of MLS; his University of Virginia teams had dominated the college game before that. Mixed in was a stint coaching the US Olympic team at the 1996 Atlanta games, and while that team didn't get out of the group -- they drew Portugal 1-1, thumped Tunisia 2-0 and lost a closer-than-the-scoreline-indicated 3-1 opener against Argentina -- his work with the US U-23s impressed.
Two years after those Olympic games, the US were being bounced out of France '98 with barely a whimper. Steve Sampson had unleashed a "brand new" formation (the 3-6-1) in the opener and barely registered as a speed bump in a 2-0 loss to Germany, and then followed it up in the second group game by playing a 3-5-2 with no d-mids against Iran. The US lost that game 2-1, making the listless 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia in the finale absolutely moot.
The US finished dead last in France. It was, and probably still is, the low point of the program over the last 27 years.
I don't know how much of the above you're familiar with. To me it all feels like yesterday, because there was a very vivid sensation after that summer of failure that US soccer was about to die. Attendance at MLS games had dropped after a promising inaugural season; the heroes of 1994 had aged out of the national team; and the young star that the new era of US soccer was supposed to be built around -- midfielder Claudio Reyna -- had looked like a deer in headlights on the big stage. There was no direction from the top, no confidence from the fanbase, and no real reason to have hope or expectations beyond "maybe we can hang on to a top three spot in CONCACAF." But with Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras on the upswing, and Mexico still Mexico, that looked far from certain.
Ten months later, Arena guided the USMNT to third place in the Confederations Cup. That included a 2-0 group stage win over Germany, and toe-to-toe scraps with Brazil and Mexico, and commanding, confident wins over both New Zealand and Saudi Arabia.
That also included largely the same group of guys who'd failed so miserably in France. In the late summer of 1999, before the likes of Landon Donovan or DaMarcus Beasley, or Clint Mathis or Pablo Mastroeni were on the radar, Arena took a team that had been humiliated on the world stage and almost immediately turned them into a compact, confident and resilient group that went toe-to-toe with the greatest teams in the world without fear.
There was no time for a roster overhaul, or a total reconstruction of youth development. There was only a team that needed to believe they could win games again.
You can see why Sunil Gulati, today, has turned to the past in order to preserve the USMNT's future, right?
The Good and Bad of Bruce
Time for bullet points:
• Arena's most famous win is still the 2-0 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, and the US played in a 3-5-2 that game -- which was a surprise, since he mostly hadn't used that formation over the past 12 months. But it had been a regular part of the repertoire in the first part of his first cycle, and its effectiveness on the day is unquestionable.
That said, I will wager an arm that Arena's new USMNT will play with four at the back about 95% of the time.
• He will tinker with players' positions. Sometimes that's good, as when he discovered that Tony Sanneh was an all-star right back or that Mathis could be a sort of False 9. Sometimes that's bad, as when Eddie Lewis starts at left back against the Czech Republic in the first game of the 2006 World Cup and the US gets absolutely bulldozed.
• The biggest criticism of Arena during his entire tenure as US head coach mirrored the criticism he's recently seen in LA: He's too slow to work young, dynamic players into the lineup. Eddie Pope starting for D.C. in 1996 or Donovan walking into the lineup as an 18-year-old without having ever played a professional game were outliers, not signifiers.
This became a fatal flaw in 2006 when he was too slow to integrate Clint Dempsey, and never integrated Ricardo Clark, Brian Carroll or Kyle Beckerman as back-ups for Mastroeni. So when Pablo saw red against Italy in the second group stage game that summer, Arena played Reyna out of position as a d-mid and oh god oh god I don't want to relive this but here it is:
Reyna was injured on that play, and Arena replaced him with Ben Olsen, who had converted from an all-action winger to a deep-lying midfielder in part thanks to Arena giving him minutes there with the national team. And Olsen was really, really good for the game's final hour, even though he wasn't really a d-mid. I still think the US would have won if he'd started, or if Reyna hadn't been played out of position in the first place.
• Part and parcel of the above is that Arena is slow to move on from the veterans he trusts, which is something pretty much every coach in the world struggles with.
But here's the thing: The word trust is in that sentence, and Arena's biggest strength as a manager has always been his ability to build trust both in the locker room and on the field. That is what the US is missing right now.
And the good thing about this current appointment is that it's not a two-cycle gig, so there's minimal chance of him hanging onto players past their expiration dates. There's also the fact that the US player pool as a whole is deeper, younger and better than what he had to work with last time around -- there was no Matt Miazga starting for Vitesse to push Pope out of the lineup in 2006, right? There was no Eric Lichaj to make Lewis's presence at left back a non-starter, right?
Arena will have options, and he's made good with them on short notice before (Mastroeni was a last-minute addition to the 2002 World Cup team). But if you're dying for the Gedion Zelalem era to start post haste, or for that Andrew Carleton debut with everything on the line... don't hold your breath.
• First foul, first card, first shot, first goal. Arena's teams, at their best, come out and scare you in the first 20 minutes. He's almost always had his group in position to set the tone and then control it, which is why he's been such a successful tournament coach no matter where he's been.
• Arena is thought of, first and foremost, as a defensive coach. And it's true that the US under his guidance were a better defensive team than any manager before or after him.
But he's put some absolutely beautiful attacking teams out there as well. In my estimation two of the three prettiest teams in MLS history are Arena's: 1998 United and 2014 Galaxy (the other is the 2001 Fusion).
• He called me a moron this summer:
And he's not wrong, I'm hella dumb. He's also sandbagging there -- by several insider accounts, the Galaxy were a pretty progressive team with regard to analytics under Arena.
Whether that's true or not, what matters is that he has always seemed to have an innate feel for doing the most important thing a good defensive coach can he: His teams are structured to limit the quality of the shots the opposition can take. This is why LA's expected goals against was so low this year even though they surrendered far too many shots.
They surrendered those shots because their forwards were so poor defensively, by the way. Good defense starts from the frontline, and if you look at the Galaxy's glory days, you can see that was and will be a huge part of how the US will play. Keeping the group organized and funneling opponents to the sideline will the order of the day for US strikers.
Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris are all already above-average-to-excellent defensive forwards, by the way. There's a lot to work with on this frontline.
• "Frontline" is a tricky one, but I assume it will be a two-forward set-up. Arena's best teams have almost all played some version of a 4-4-2, from the "Y" midfield of the 2014 Galaxy to the diamond of the early D.C. teams.
And yeah, you can't rule out a diamond. I don't think it's the best use of the current squad's resources, but he's had a ton of success with it before.
Still, were I to take a guess:
Arena's always stressed "partnerships," choosing players who could work together to make each other better, and then subsequently make the team better. He's also stressed consistency in lineups and clarity in purpose, which should make it easier for new additions to adjust to their roles.
That's how he took a team that was both dead last in France and dead to the world in terms of confidence, and molded it into a group that immediately played with a new lease on life.
He'll have to pull off something close to the same trick over the next few months. The new era of the USMNT is here, and it feels a lot like the good old days are here with it.