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It’s now or never for U.S. men’s soccer

Veterans+Tim+Howard%2C+left%2C+and+Clint+Dempsey+are+hoping+to+lead+the+U.S.+men%27s+national+team+back+from+the+brink.
Veterans Tim Howard, left, and Clint Dempsey are hoping to lead the U.S. men's national team back from the brink.

Veterans Tim Howard, left, and Clint Dempsey are hoping to lead the U.S. men's national team back from the brink.

Google image/Creative Commons license

Google image/Creative Commons license

Veterans Tim Howard, left, and Clint Dempsey are hoping to lead the U.S. men's national team back from the brink.

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With the FIFA World Cup less than two years away, this is when national teams really dig deep and focus on qualifying. The United States had hoped its final qualifying games would be a mere formality at this point, but the team–after 20 years of international success–is in real danger of missing the planet’s biggest sporting event in Russia in 2018.

Jurgen Klinsmann, the manager who guided the team out of the “group of death,” a group consisting of Portugal and the ever-so deadly Cristiano Ronaldo, Ghana, and eventual winner Germany, at the 2014 World Cup, has been fired.

Why?

Well, after back-to-back losses to their biggest competition in their qualifying group, Mexico and Costa Rica, the Americans find themselves sitting dead last. Not only that, but Klinsmann, after the two defeats, told The New York Times that he was “very comfortable” with his current situation and that people were “being disrespectful” and “ignoring the facts” about his leadership as manager, which was the last straw for many.

After letting Klinsmann go, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati went back to the future by hiring Bruce Arena, who guided the national team from 1998 to 2006.

His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach,” Gulati said in a press release issued by U.S. Soccer upon Arena’s hiring.

Google image/Creative Commons license
U.S. soccer has gone back to the future with coach Bruce Arena.

Arena’s first massive test comes today, when the United States faces Honduras in San Jose, Calif. The Americans then face Panama on March 28. Both games are must-wins if the United States has much hope of qualifying.

But does Arena actually have what it takes to rebuild the fallen empire that is the U.S. national team? The stats are encouraging: Arena is the winningest manager in U.S. men’s soccer history, with a record of 71-30-30. Plus, he has more than four decades of coaching behind him, including stints with two of Major League Soccer’s best teams, D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy, winning back-to-back MLS cups with D.C. United in 1996 and 1997, and three MLS cups in four years between 2011 and 2014 with L.A. Galaxy.

One thing Arena can do that Klinsmann didn’t is look to the United States for players. That might sound strange, but Klinsmann mostly looked to Germany for youth players with American ties, something that displeased many Americans, including former U.S. women’s national team star Abby Wambach.

Wambach, while speaking to Bill Simmons on his HBO podcast, said I love Jermaine Jones, I love watching him play, and I love Fabian Johnson, but I just think that this experiment that U.S. Soccer has given Jürgen, just isn’t one that, personally, I’m into.”

Arena, on the other hand, will almost surely look for home-grown players.

Tactically, it often seemed–according to critics–that Klinsmann had no real sense of what he wanted his players to do on the field. When he coached at Germany, he received criticism for his lack of defensive ideas, focusing primarily on offense. While in charge of Bayern Munich, wrote former captain Philipp Lahm in a memoir, the “experiment with Klinsmann was a failure. We were only working on our fitness in training. He didn’t care much for tactical stuff.” Lahm added that it “was up to the players to come together before a match and discuss how we were going to play.”

Klinsmann didn’t do himself any favors with how he dealt with both his detractors and the media. He was perceived as arrogant, constantly speaking about how he was once world class, and how he knows the ins and outs of soccer.

Arena is Klinsmann’s antithesis in this regard.

With most of the nation hoping that the team can somehow still qualify for the World Cup, the pressure on Arena will be massive, but fans have cause to be hopeful: Arena has been here, he has succeeded, and this could be the time for his ultimate triumph.

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Obligated to Truth
It’s now or never for U.S. men’s soccer