By Patrick Salkeld, Zach Bigalke, Elizabeth Gennari, Kevin Mitchell Mercer, Justin Quinn Olmstead, and David Kilpatrick
In November 2016, US Soccer fired Jürgen Klinsmann and replaced him with Bruce Arena as the new coach of the USMNT. Arena previously coached the team from 1998 to 2006 and led it to the second best result in US soccer history: the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup.
Arena’s second stint started strong as the USMNT held a 9-0-5 unbeaten streak after it won the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup against Jamaica in July. In September, Costa Rica defeated the USMNT 2-0 followed by a 1-1 draw to Honduras. Then the USMNT trounced Panama 4-0 on October 6, 2017. Yet, just four days later, a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago tarnished Bruce Arena’s national team legacy. Combined with Panama’s 2-1 defeat of Costa Rica and Honduras’ 3-2 win over Mexico, the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
For the first time since 1986, the USMNT missed a trip to the World Cup. The US soccer community lamented the loss. The media also started to criticize US Soccer, especially Sunil Gulati and Bruce Arena. In the past, soccer writers and major outlets appeared reluctant to do so aside from the denouncing of Klinsmann. As journalist Simon Evans tweeted out after the loss, “US Soccer world incredibly touchy and defensive about criticism – but they need a serious debate on change now.” There have been calls for Sunil Gulati to resign from his position as president of US Soccer. Arena resigned on October 13, though Gulati has stated no plans to resign.
Our regular contributors and some guests who specialize in soccer research analyze Arena’s second tenure as coach of the USMNT and how missing the 2018 World Cup will affect the future of soccer in the United States.
1. To start, how did you react to the loss? Did you expect it at all?
Justin: My reaction was not really one of surprise because I had seen the warning signs. Was I sad for the US Soccer program? Not really. I was more sad for the number of fans that are heartbroken to not be watching their national team compete in Russia this summer.
Kevin: I was at Orlando City Stadium for the Panama game. The team seemed to be so together and motivated that night. Walking out of the stadium I just assumed a win away to Trinidad. It seemed that the problems from earlier in qualification had been turned around and this was a team on the rise. Quality teams often struggle with qualifying then strike a rich vein of form at the right time. I assumed we were playing out that narrative. Placed into the context of the whole qualifying cycle, maybe I should not have been as shocked as I was after the loss.
Elizabeth: I was surprised. The math was in the U.S.’s favor. The failure in New Jersey had been met with decisive action in Florida. All they needed was a draw. In hindsight, the signs were there, but on the night I was in disbelief.
Patrick: The loss surprised me, but at the same time, I saw it coming. I had hoped I might be wrong about that the USMNT would lose because I wanted to cheer for the guys in Russia. It still shocked me to witness such a historic defeat though.
David: I’m still reacting – shock, anger, frustration, maybe some sense of vindication. Think my reaction may best be characterized as prophetic outrage. So yes, in some sick way I expected that bizarre combination of events on the last night of the Hex, our Hexit you could say, as if it were somehow destined. That said, I think I’m still in denial and it won’t hit me until the group stage matches begin in Russia next June.
Zach: Perhaps it is a bit contrarian, but I wasn’t surprised in the least that the USMNT could miss out on Russia 2018. After all, two-time defending Copa América champions Chile won’t be there as well, and I think we’d all be hard-pressed to consider the Americans better than the Chileans. The specific combination of results to which David alluded, especially the phantom goal by Panama that helped level things against Costa Rica, was certainly surprising. But the USMNT has felt like a house of cards ready to tumble for some time now, and I can’t say that I’m overwhelmed by the confluence of events.
2. As we discussed last November in “Roundtable: Jürgen Klinsmann–A Retrospective” regarding Klinsmann, what is your defining memory of Bruce Arena’s second tenure?
Justin: I think the defining moment would have to be his defensive rant about Europe’s top dogs coming to play in the Hex. That moment really seemed to epitomize the arrogance of the national team and Arena.
Kevin: The March 24th game against Honduras. With a 6-0 win in Arena’s first game back, everything seemed to fall right into place as it should be. That win soothed my nerves, as I’m sure it did for most of the supporters and people within US Soccer. Maybe a hard fought 1-0 win would have reminded Arena and the players that there was still more things going wrong than right throughout this qualifying campaign. Firing Klinsmann, hiring a former coach, and getting a big win made everything feel like some kind of order had been restored, an order that would vault the United States back to the top of the CONCACAF qualifying table. That was blatant overconfidence in retrospect.
Elizabeth: His exit. There’s a great line in The Lion in Winter, when the three sons are locked in the cellar and awaiting their murder. Richard steels himself and his brother Geoffrey chides him, “You chivalric fool, as if the way one fell down mattered.” Richard responds, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.” While we are right to point to an arrogance about the USMNT as they headed into the final match of the Hex (and perhaps the qualifiers as a whole), there was also capitulation. This was not a team that showed fire in its belly, clarity in its identity, or even a strong sense of its own purpose. Those shortcomings came from the top, but Arena was quick to separate himself from the responsibilities of rebuilding—or was just eager to escape firing.
When the game was lost and the road to Russia reached a dead end, Arena could have offered consolation. He called Trinidad and Tobago’s goals “bizarre,” and admitted his team was at fault for its loss, but dismissed a reporter who mentioned that it took an American loss and victories by Panama and Honduras over the top-two sides to eliminate the U.S. For all of the anger and heartbreak that the American Outlaws felt after the defeat, Arena did not match their passion in his post-match press conference. He instead referred to elimination as “disappointing” and “a blemish,” a though describing a pimple on prom night. For all his talk of accepting responsibility, his demeanor was that of a caretaker manager, waiting to be relieved. And then, less than 24 hours later, before Taylor Twellman’s blood pressure had returned to its resting state, Arena told the Washington Post, “I have no interest in going on a four-year cycle right now.” (He’s 66, so it is understandable, but also a reason why USSF might have looked elsewhere to replace Jürgen Klinsmann.) A day later, he resigned. In his statement, Arena acknowledged, “This certainly is a major setback for the senior men’s national team program, and questions rightly should be asked about how we can improve. No doubt this process already has started and will continue so that U.S. Soccer can progress.” That will be someone else’s job, though. Arena’s statement was instead dedicated to the past; to praising the development over the program over 20 years, ironic considering its most recent failure. Perhaps it is only a chivalric fool who worries how he will fall, but sometimes chivalry is what’s needed.
Patrick: Like Elizabeth, I think the defining moment is Arena’s exit. It’s not uncommon to hear American Exceptionalist views expressed in the soccer community, but when the head coach of the USMNT espouses this ideology, it further ingrains itself into the social fabric. In his resignation statement, Arena repeated his stalwart idea that under the current (uniquely American) system of men’s soccer in the United States we are currently headed in the right direction and his belief in the “American player and the American coach.”
David: Maybe the defining moment is his resignation, the defiant statement of “fierce belief that we are heading in the right direction” as a soccer nation, which flies in the face of any sense of history or reason. But since that’s his parting shot, during his short second tenure right now what continues to stand out for me is his claim that no NASL players would earn USMNT caps in his lifetime. Not just his tenure. His lifetime. The myopic hubris of such a statement, which given his position was essentially a statement of policy, still amazes me. Why refuse to identify the best available talent? That two NASL players were on the pitch for Trinidad & Tobago (Kevin George of Jacksonville and Kareem Moses of North Carolina), and that the Cosmos had four players away that week on international duty (Andrés Flores, Irvin Herrara, Richard Menjivar with El Salvador and Dejan Jakovic with Canada), strikes me as proof of Arena’s folly.
The other defining memory is when Arena had Bob Bradley join him on the bench for the final leg of the Hex, someone he’s worked with since 1983. And his son just happened to be the player wearing the captain’s armband was born in 1987. So Arena didn’t have to look too far to find the US Men’s National Team captain, did he? Maybe if he looked a little further beyond that cozy little clique we could have come up with a better XI.
The defining image during Arena’s second tenure must be the players being piggy-back carried over the water before the Trinidad & Tobago match. That said it all about the players that are supposed to be the best of the best this program can produce.
Zach: I’m going to go in a different direction here. The defining moment of Bruce Arena’s tenure, for me, was the fact that he was brought back on in the first place. Sunil Gulati did his best to sell the move, saying when he named Arena as Klinsmann’s replacement, “I don’t view it as Bruce 2 but sort of Bruce 2.0.” At the time of the announcement, Arena stated, “We need to build the chemistry of the team and have a common goal and really work on the team concept. Individually and positionally we have good players. We just have to get them working together as a team.”
Everyone was saying all the right things, of course, but it felt like a hollow endorsement back then and in retrospect it feels even more saccharine. Chemistry and common goals were never the issue with the team, and the reality is that individually and positionally the USMNT is not very deep. Those empty platitudes foreshadowed what seemed in the moment like a desperate attempt to look backward rather than forward.
3. Now that Arena has resigned, who should replace him as the new head coach?
Justin: This is a tough question. I have always been of the mind that if the US wants to truly compete on the world stage then they need to get a European coach/staff. I thought Klinsmann was the man to do this despite his noted lack of an eye for tactics. Whoever is brought in will need to have a pedigree to gain acceptance by both the American players and fans. I have read that Sam Allardyce is interested and I would think that his record in the English Premier League and his brief stint as England Manager would help. Guus Hiddink has a reputation of bringing success to underachieving national teams as well, but at 70 years old, he may not want the responsibility.
Elizabeth: Please, anyone but Sam Allardyce. He’s a specialist in escaping relegation. His teams never inspire. In this moment, the USMNT need someone who will inspire not only the players, but the fans. I don’t think Allardyce is the person for that job.
My choice would be David Wagner. He’s a former U.S. international who successfully coached in Bundesliga II for Borussia Dortmund, won unlikely promotion to the Premier League with Huddersfield, and just today (10/21) led his team to victory against Manchester United. Watching his team play is enjoyable; his tactics are similar to those of his best friend Jürgen Klopp (which, as a Liverpool fan, makes me happy). And I defy anyone who has heard his interview with Rog Bennett for the Men in Blazers podcast or seen the Huddersfield TV documentary on NBCSN to not find his personality winning.
If I were to attempt a shot from my own half, though, I would recommend Pia Sundhage. She knows how to organize a defense, and isn’t afraid of difficult personalities (Hope Solo). She led the USWNT to two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup final, before returning to Sweden and leading them to an upset victory over the USWNT en route to a silver medal in Rio. It’s not going to happen, but it would certainly shake things up!
Kevin: I’m not sure I can give you a list of names. I can suggest a set of skills. First and foremost, any future coach of the USMNT that wants to also transform the program needs to have the skills of a politician. Klinsmann and Arena both shared a sense of arrogance, albeit from vastly different perspectives. Jürgen in wanting to change everything all at once, and Bruce for his “What me worry?” take on qualifying. The next coach needs to have the same mission to overhaul the American soccer environment, while at the same time having (and instilling) the confidence and belief in the system that players need to believe in themselves and their cause. Americans aren’t known for taking criticism well, so the deft touch of a politician-coach could be the ticket for long-term progress without an existential crisis.
David: If you’re confident in the current talent pool, Tab Ramos. If not and you want a fresh set of eyes for a new vision of what US Soccer can be, I think Eric Wynalda has proven himself an excellent head coach, but it seems he may have his sights set on another role with US Soccer. National Team head coach isn’t a day-to-day gig like club management, so maybe he’s too young for such a gig, but Frank de Boer would be an interesting candidate.
Patrick: David Wagner is my top choice for similar reasons outlined earlier by Elizabeth. Above all though, the most important reason is his experience with a competitive environment. Yes, MLS coaches experience competition, but not to the same degree because of the lack of promotion and relegation. Laurent Blanc is also rumored to be under consideration, and I’d be in favor of seeing him coach the USMNT. He most recently coached Paris-Saint Germain with a 126-31-15 record and managed Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s massive ego.
Zach: When Klinsmann was originally hired, I was advocating for Jason Kreis to step into that role instead. He was coming off success at Real Salt Lake, just over a year removed from becoming the youngest coach to win the MLS Cup. Of course, the shine has come off Kreis somewhat after a short stint at NYCFC and a less-than-impressive tenure with Orlando City FC.
Kreis is still a solid coach, though his affiliation with Klinsmann makes him unlikely to land the job. Instead, as much as I’d hate to see him leave the Portland Timbers given my MLS allegiance, I think Caleb Porter would be a phenomenal choice to take over the USMNT. Porter is a sound tactician who has a demonstrated track record of player development after seven years with the University of Akron. He has enjoyed success in Portland, with the MLS Cup win in 2015 and the Supporters Shield this season. But his time with the U-23 team will probably send Gulati turning toward Allardyce and continue the atrophy that exists within US Soccer.
I must say, though, that I’m also intrigued by the idea floated by Elizabeth of bringing in Pia Sundhage. If you really want to change the dynamic and the culture in the USMNT, this would be the surefire move to do so.
4. What problem in US Soccer (or soccer in the US overall) did the loss highlight the most for you?
Justin: I think Claudio Reyna’s recent comments on US soccer hit the nail on the head. Too many people who are involved in US soccer, from the players, to the coaches, to the sponsors, are arrogant for no reason. Are they talented? Clearly. Have they won anything? No, but this feeling of being good enough is the problem. I have seen it as a coach, and as a fan of the sport. Being the best player in a club is different from being the best on a national team. Being the best in a country is different from being the best in the world. American players seem to be content with being the one of the best in the MLS. That is simply not good enough if US Soccer is going to be competitive on the world stage. That is not good enough from a country that prides itself on its work ethic. I understand the need for the MLS to have proven stars in their squads. But if the US wants to compete on the world stage and win a World Cup, it is going to have to push its players to be better. The decision of so many players to leave their European club teams and return to the US, while good for the MLS, was a disaster for the USMNT. Others are starting to say this as well, but the MLS is not to the level of any of European leagues so good players in the MLS don’t have to push themselves to become great players. A few can maintain their high level of play, but many won’t be able to do so against lesser quality players.
Elizabeth: Our veterans seem to care more than our current squad. Where was the passion? Where was the fight? Where was the fear of failure? Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman, Claudio Reyna, Kyle Martino and others have left the locker room for the broadcast booth, but all were quick to offer their opinions, and every critique had merit. Arrogance, complacency, failure to lead, structural and developmental issues… we could tear it all down and start over. (These complaints do not apply to the WNT, by the way, and it would be interesting to discuss what works in the system for the women, but not the men.)
Kevin: This answer will echo both Elizabeth and Justin. The worst thing you can do is believe your own hype, and US Soccer’s assumed qualification for every World Cup is that hype. An established league, another generation of players in Europe, and the overall assumed weakness of CONCACAF places both supporters and players in a bubble of arrogance that seemed to only be breached by that loss to Trinidad.
The domestic game is too stratified at the moment. The gap between MLS and USL/NASL is too wide to bring enough players through the ranks. There are the success stories, but by and large we aren’t developing young players in MLS affiliate clubs that are talented enough to challenge established players. The only way to create depth in MLS ends up being to buy middling foreign players, which in turn locks out young players who do develop.
David: First and foremost that talent identification and development simply isn’t good enough. I cannot believe that was the best XI one can find to represent the United States. That Trinidad & Tobago, with their limited resources, were able to humble us is an important lesson to learn. We need more coaches with better training, not only to train players using proper methods, but also to better assess talent. That links pay-to-play, with parents expected to spend often in excess of $10,000 annually to have their kids involved in the development academy scheme, with the coaching licensure scheme, which requires aspiring coaches to spend thousands to earn coaching credentials required by this exclusive system.
Patrick: We need to end this notion in US Soccer that the American way is the best way to do things. Soccer has been commercialized and Americanized in this country for far too long with too much interest and focus placed on the business aspect and making money. You can see it in the pay-to-play and coaching licensure scheme mentioned by David. The sport has evolved into an elitist and middle-class sport.
Zach: Well, first and foremost this USMNT’s absence from the 2018 World Cup–and the rehiring of Bruce Arena in the first place–highlights for me the fact that Sunil Gulati never had a coherent vision for how to move US Soccer forward. As I alluded in the opening question, the notion that Gulati could substantively change the culture all collapsed as soon as he went dipping in that retread pool to bring back Arena.
As my colleagues have discussed already, the issues of pay-for-play must be addressed to democratize access to the sport. The consumerist mentality that drives American soccer culture is one where the only relevant players seem to be those who can afford thousands of dollars on club team participation, fancy cleats, the newest uniforms, and all the other bells and whistles that are wholly unnecessary to actually play the game.
That brings up another point for me. On one hand, the lack of quality coaching across the board helped create that “missing generation.” But pay-for-play itself places an over-reliance on results-driven participation that runs counter to the developmental culture in other areas of the world. While youth soccer participation is high, there is nothing akin to sandlot baseball or the potreros of South America where youngsters are able to develop skills without the pressure of a scoreboard over their heads. Until the emphasis at younger levels is diverted toward skills development and away from wins and losses, what in other parts of the world is one of the cheapest and most easily-accessible sports ever created will continue to be cost-prohibitive and developmentally stunting.
5. What must US Soccer do to grow the sport and build sustained success in this country?
Justin: US Soccer needs to learn from the rest of the world and create a development system that is not pay to play and that is geared to developing talent. There are many ways to do this but it will require creative thinking because the US is unlike any major soccer power in the world. The us has clubs, high school teams, small college through Division 1, programs that will need to be mollified and convinced that they are part of the plan. I believe Klinsmann attempted to do this and was met with resistance. Maybe the loss to Trinidad & Tobago and missing out on the World Cup will give people pause. Maybe it will break the cycle of arrogance within US Soccer.
Elizabeth: Is it cynical to say wait for the failure of American football? Soccer has to find a way to compete against football, baseball, and basketball, which requires greater visibility and financial opportunities (collegiate and professional). In that regard, it was probably a poor decision to turn down a $4 billion media deal because it required promotion and relegation. At this point, the entire developmental structure has to be examined. Pay-to-play needs addressing, but US Soccer needs new leadership. The organization needs someone who not only understands the sport, but the business – it needs someone who can create a cohesive identity and plan of action, and has the ability to implement it.
Kevin: I’m in agreement with what my colleagues have already mentioned. Additionally, MLS needs to figure out how it will be part of the solution. I understand how the history of the NASL has acted like a Dickensian ghost in every action MLS takes, I think it is time to take some of the restrictions off the league (single-entity and erase the existing salary caps for a beginning) at the sametime invest in youth programs and a reserve league that will adequately prepare players to compete for for first team spots. This in turn will add competition for established players and push retirement league players off of MLS rosters. With time, in theory, it should also increase the national team player pool.
David: We need to embrace the simplicity of the game as key to its charm. What can we do to reduce costs and expand access? Fields are hard to come by in urban settings. Fields are often expensive in suburban settings. But fields are in plentiful supply in rural settings. Yet kids in those impoverished areas of the country are dreadfully marginalized by the current system. Scholastic soccer is often the only affordable option for urban and suburban kids, but that experience – far more community based than nearly any development academy – is disparaged and dismissed by too many. Does anyone look for players there anymore? And what about other levels of college soccer than D1? The day after the loss, I posted this slightly hyperbolic statement on social media:
USMNT only considers MLS.
MLS only considers D1.
D1 only considers academy.
Academies cost parents $1000s.
Wonder what’s wrong? A lot of this comes down to laziness. “The best players are here; no need to look elsewhere” isn’t a defensible opinion anymore. We need more kids playing with more adults coaching.
I think coaching education should become rooted in academe and we should strengthen rather than ignore scholastic and collegiate soccer while we strengthen community-based grassroots soccer programs, not just ostensibly elite, costly “academies” as the place where we identify and develop talent.
We are not going in the right direction. It begins with acknowledging that reality.
Patrick: Like I said earlier, Americanization is the biggest issue. We treat soccer as just another US sport like American football or baseball. US Soccer needs both a leadership and structural overhaul. Too much infighting between the leagues distracts from the bigger aspects of soccer: competition between the teams, more support for the lower leagues to bridge the gap, and the need to development younger players over signing international stars to increase attendance or cheap foreign players. While it will inevitably take a decade if not more, MLS, USL, and NASL need to be permanently situated into divisions with teams fluidly moving between them and lower leagues in an open system with the necessary precautions to help teams financially when they face relegation. At the same time, US Soccer needs to also promote the lower leagues (NPSL, UPSL, PDL, etc.) to help solidify the fractured pyramid structure, which includes more marketing for the US Open Cup.
It is not the leagues’ job to develop players for the national team, which is a major misconception, but it is the teams’ jobs to develop players to improve the team’s overall level of skill and increase their sporting merit to win trophies, which will then help improve the national team pool indirectly. If teams develop more US players who might potentially play for the national team, local fans might be more enticed to see their young hometown stars. Rather than develop more US players, MLS chooses to bring in international stars and cheap foreign players. As an example, the Colorado Rapids shafted Zac MacMath when it signed Tim Howard to a Designated Player contract to increase its attendance with a star national team player. Where it has failed to adequately develop US players, it has successfully helped the other CONCACAF teams strengthen their skill levels as more of their players compete in MLS. I might come across as anti-MLS, but that is only because I disagree with the league’s structure and business model. I follow the LA Galaxy and watch games both when my schedule allows and dependent on broadcast availability. Soccer in the US has developed over the last twenty some years with the help of MLS and other factors, but we need to move on from single-entity, the closed system, and improve upon the progress made thus far with structural changes. To put it simply, we need to give more opportunities across the board (to amateur, youth, and professional players and clubs).
Zach: I already discussed my feelings about how American soccer at the youth level needs to get away from results-based team construction and more toward skills-based development. I also think that we need to get away from overemphasizing MLS in the equation of professional soccer. If more kids growing up had local professional clubs–especially ones that offer both men’s and women’s teams–to aspire toward, it would inspire more skills development at pivotal periods of physical development.
The best thing that could possibly happen, in my mind, would be a shift toward the concepts of “open soccer” we’ve seen in recent years with the creation of teams like Kingston Stockade FC. Embracing a multi-tiered league system with promotion and relegation would do wonders for player development, as clubs would be forced to put a greater emphasis on mining hidden reserves of talent and developing deep rosters rather than relying on importing brand names to sell tickets.
About the Contributors
Kevin Mitchell Mercer is an adjunct professor in history at the University of Central Florida and a columnist for SBNation’s Orlando City blog “The Mane Land.” He also writes about soccer history at The Soccer Scholar.
Elizabeth O’Connell Gennari is an adjunct in American Studies at Rowan University. She earned her Ph.D. at Stony Brook University in History, studying twentieth century U.S. popular culture, with an emphasis on sports, media, and gender. She is currently working on projects related to global sport and media.
David Kilpatrick is associate professor at Mercy College, where he teaches courses in English, philosophy and sport management, and the Club Historian of the New York Cosmos.
Patrick Salkeld is an adjunct in History at the University of Central Oklahoma where he received his M.A. in History in 2017. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community, race, and gender. He is currently revising his thesis for potential publication.
Justin Quinn Olmstead is currently Assistant Professor of History and Director of History Education at the University of Central Oklahoma. He presents at national and international conferences on the First World War and Diplomacy, including an invited lecture at The National Archives of the UK and has acted as content consultant for several books on the subject. His edited book Reconsidering Peace and Patriotism during the First World War was published by Palgrave/Macmillan in the spring 2017. His second book, The United States Entry into the First World War: The Role of British and German Diplomacy is under contract with Boydell and Brewer in the UK with an expected publication date of 2018. Dr. Olmstead is currently researching the impact of private maritime insurance companies on British policy during the First World War. Other projects include British policy towards the Middle East, and the relationship between Churchill and Eisenhower. Dr. Olmstead gained his Ph.D. from the University of Sheffield, England. He has played soccer for forty years, including in college, and coached high school soccer for eleven years.
Zach Bigalke recently completed his M.A. in History at the University of Oregon in 2017, with a focus on the impact of immigration on the development of sport, culture, and national identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing about various football codes, he is a regular contributor at Sport in American History as well as a college football journalist for Saturday Blitz. Reach out on Twitter at @zbigalke.