New England Revolution head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena knows a thing or two about managing big personalities.
So when he joined this week’s episode of The Call Up, co-host Jillian Sakovits inquired about the controversy surrounding US men’s national team midfielder Weston McKennie. The Juventus star reportedly violated team protocols around the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to his suspension from last weekend’s 1-1 draw against Canada and eventual dismissal from camp.
Arena, who led the USMNT at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups as well as the latter half of 2018’s cycle, stressed that straightforward honesty is necessary between head coach Gregg Berhalter and McKennie. He also hopes a long-term role awaits the 23-year-old FC Dallas academy product.
“You have to sit him down and talk to him and probably talk his language a little bit and make sure you have an understanding,” Arena, a five-time MLS Cup winner, said. “No player is bigger than the team at the end of the day. He should realize the opportunities that he has that lie ahead. He’s not in a perfect situation now at Juventus, I know, with the change with the manager. He’s moving down the ladder as opposed to up.
“So he’s got to do a little growing up and it’s all part of the process. I’ve seen that with many players at his age and it takes a little time. Sometimes they get a taste of success early and it goes to their heads a little bit. So he needs to be sat down a little bit and given the riot act. And hopefully he’ll respond in the right way and be a good player for the US for years to come.”
Arena also addressed the USMNT’s opening Octagonal slate, speaking before their Wednesday night match at Honduras that’ll close out the first three-match window (10:30 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo, Telemundo). They’ve only taken two of six possible points, with the Canada home draw following a 0-0 road tie at El Salvador.
While the temperature has certainly ratcheted up across the USMNT fan base, Arena doesn’t quite view things as being a four-alarm fire.
“I think the one advantage the US has coming out of these two games is they’re not playing in a Hex anymore,” Arena said. “They’re playing with eight countries, so there’s a lot more games. They have 12 games remaining, so there’s plenty of time for them to recover from not getting – they would have preferred at least four points, I think, after two games. But they’ll be okay.
“They have to go to Honduras and get a point, in my opinion, and even if they don’t, they’re still okay. There’s a lot of games remaining and after the Honduras game there’ll be plenty of home games and games that they can win at home. They’ll be okay, but they have to play better.”
The disappointment follows a summer where the USMNT won two Concacaf titles, beating arch-rival Mexico in the Nations League and Gold Cup championship matches. But Arena isn’t reading too much into those triumphs, instead highlighting how road WCQ tests – ranging from the intensity to environment – are a different beast this young squad hasn’t quite experienced.
“I think the Gold Cup leaves you with a false impression about where the US team stood because the competition wasn’t that good and they haven’t played any games on the road,” Arena said. “I don’t have the schedule in front of me, but I imagine over the last 10 to 15 games, they’ve probably played 80, 90 percent of those games at home. They need to get used to the grind and playing in Concacaf World Cup Qualifying on the road in difficult conditions. They have to learn to play against teams that are a little bit better and a little bit more experienced. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
Youth isn’t an excuse, though, in Arena’s eyes. There’s plenty of talent at Berhalter's disposal to get results and qualify for Qatar 2022, securing one of the region’s three automatic bids and avoiding another failure like not reaching Russia 2018.
“The US team is young, but young doesn’t mean anything,” Arena said. “This is senior competition. You can be 16 years old or you can be 36 years old, nobody really cares. They’ve got to do a little bit of growing up. Gregg is still a little bit inexperienced as an international coach, so it’s going to take a little time. I do believe each and every game as we move forward towards the end of 2021, the team’s going to get better. And hopefully we’ll see a better performance against Honduras on Wednesday.”
For more from Arena, check out the latest The Call Up episode here.