ORLANDO, Fla. – This is just a hasty, back-of-the-napkin calculation, so don’t take it as statistical gospel.
But by my approximate count, going all the way back to his University of Virginia days and including his long career in MLS and the US national team, Friday’s World Cup qualifier vs. Panama was the 1,020th high-level soccer game that Bruce Arena has head-coached.
People often toss around phrases like “I’ve done this a thousand times,” but in Arena’s case, he really has seen just about everything in his three-plus decades on the sidelines. So as the USMNT gathered in central Florida this week, their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance as fans and the media fretted and probed, the players could look to their grizzled, wisecracking leader and know that he’s been there, done that.
“He prepares his teams well for whatever situation that we’re in,” defender Matt Besler said of Arena postgame. “He did a great job of motivating us and preparing us the right way. Then at the end of the day it’s in our hands. He gives this team confidence and he has an experience about him, the way that he goes about things, because he’s been in these positions before. And that carries over to his teams.”
And when the opening whistle blew at Orlando City Stadium, all the careful planning and intense preparation clicked, unleashing a vicious storm of attacking soccer that left Panama bruised, breathless and humiliated, to the tune of a 4-0 rout.
“In all my years with the national team, this is probably the most prepared I think the team has been, in terms of the work that the coaching staff put in,” said Jozy Altidore, who scored two goals and set up a third. “It’s a huge, huge A+ to them.
“From Sunday, since the guys landed, they were showing video, pulling guys aside, making sure we were prepared for this game. They made us understand how important the game was to them. Kudos to Bruce and his team for preparing everybody.”
Details matter at this level. And though Arena makes a good show of dismissing the game’s complexities with his wry smile and smart-aleck demeanor, he’s shown time and again that he can master them, and deploy them to help his teams win.
On paper, the USMNT started in a 4-4-2 (or 4-1-3-2 if you’re being pedantic) that many – this correspondent included – were quick to depict as more of the same for a squad whose recent performances seemed to suggest they needed something much more dramatic. There was even a whiff of recklessness, perhaps overconfidence, in a setup that piled a great deal of responsibility on Michael Bradley, the sole defensive midfielder behind five attack-minded colleagues.
“I think we’ve played some of our best games like that,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “Michael is as honest and hard-working as they come. The guys who played in alongside of him were asked to do two jobs: spring the attack, get in off the shoulder, and then also protect the fullbacks. So tough job for Darlington [Nagbe] and Paul [Arriola], but they did it well tonight.”
As it turned out, the home side weren’t leaving their backsides exposed so much as baring their teeth – and their guests were quickly devoured, falling behind 2-0 before 20 minutes had elapsed.
“They smelled blood from the beginning,” Howard said of Altidore, his strike partner Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic, deployed underneath them as a classic No. 10. “Any time they picked up the ball it was either a yellow-card foul or some sort of breakaway. They clearly recognized that from the beginning. We spoke about being aggressive, not just ‘being up against them and kicking them’ aggressive, but getting the ball, playing forward, putting them on their heels. We stuck to the game plan – it was good.”
The USMNT had spoken repeatedly of the importance of scoring first in the lead-up to this game, which is easy to say. But Arena set up a starting XI that made that easy for his players to achieve, too. When Panama got up off the canvas and began to mount a response, Arena had a plan for that, too.
“Yes, it was,” he said postgame when asked if he considered his team’s tactics and shape a gamble. “We wanted to push five players forward into the attack as aggressively as we could. The way Panama plays, we could afford to do that.
“They made a change when they took [Edgar Yoel] Barcenas out [in the first half] and they went to some version of a 4-2-1-3, maybe, and put a little bit more pressure on Michael, had three players in the central part of the midfield. That’s why we brought Dax [McCarty] in, to play next to Michael, give him a little bit more help.”
While their fans were fretting, the US were building the tools for victory, secure in the knowledge that their boss had a solid plan for success in a big moment, in front of an appreciative, partisan crowd.
Turns out, he did.
“Everybody was relaxed,” Altidore said. “We knew we were coming to a place where we were going to have heavy support, as we did here tonight, and we knew we just had to make sure we were the protagonist tonight, and put them under pressure from the first minute, and we did that.”