When Bruce Arena took the U.S. men’s national team helm for the first time, Christian Pulisic was 38 days old. In Arena’s second U.S. tour, Pulisic is the program’s prized young marvel.
When Arena left D.C. United in the fall of 1998 after three glowing seasons, MLS featured 12 teams, an uncertain future and a limited player pool for international matches. Next year, the circuit will grow to 22 clubs, on solid financial ground and yielding a bounty of candidates for selection.
The U.S. Soccer Federation was a financial mess; today, it’s able to provide every resource necessary.
Eighteen years ago, when Arena wanted to contact national team players in Europe, he had to time phone calls just right. Now, there’s email, Skype and texting. Watching those exports play required satellite dishes and painstaking video-editing. Now, every match from the vital leagues is available on his TV, laptop or smartphone.
The soccer world, and the technology that fuses it, has undergone massive change since Arena enjoyed the longest tenure and most victories by a men’s coach in U.S. history — an almost-eight-year run covering two World Cups, highlighted by a quarterfinal dash in 2002. But despite shifts here and abroad, Arena said, the core of the sport and what is needed to cultivate success, have not changed.
“It’s still kind of the same job,” he said last week, days after accepting the call to bail out a U.S. squad in jeopardy of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Arena, 65, will stay with the core beliefs that earned unprecedented accomplishment across three platforms (college, pro and international) over a 40-year career.
“You’ve got to get the best players out there in the right spots,” the 2010 National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee said. “You’ve got to build team spirit. You’ve got to have a goal that, for the most part, everyone is supporting. It’s no different in business. That’s why businesses bring coaches in to speak — because they know how to build teams and successful teams.”
The 10-year gap between national team stints — he was fired after a poor showing at the 2006 World Cup — should not suggest time has passed him by. Arena has been very much engaged in the sport, winning three MLS Cup titles with the Los Angeles Galaxy to raise his league championship haul to a record five.
Has soccer changed over that decade?
“The sport is faster,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the players are better.”
Managing players has become an enhanced focus.
“That’s the easy part — how you get the 11 on the field. The difficult part is how you deal with those 11 off the field,” Arena said. “You see that every day in sports in our country. That’s very challenging.”
Are players higher-maintenance these days?
“Yeah, probably, but they were fussy in the ’90s, too. There is a little bit more baggage today.”
While he is now well-connected in a rapidly changing world, he does not value analytics — the new wave of statistics used by growing numbers of sports organizations to select players, formulate game plans and assess fitness levels.
“I don’t think soccer is an analytic sport,” Arena said. “Baseball clearly is, football can be, basketball a little more. Soccer is a hard one.”
He cited the second leg of MLS’s Western Conference finals: “Seattle beat Colorado. Colorado had 15 shots. Seattle had, I think, one on goal and won the game. What do you want to do with all of those statistics?”
Another example: An unidentified MLS figure “did a statistical analysis of their team and how they were on top in all of these categories. Their team didn’t make the playoffs.”
Rather, Arena values performance, chemistry and will. He also sees an enriched landscape for emerging talent, which, in turn, will bolster both the national team and sport at large.
“Today’s the best time to be a young player in the United States,” he said. “Our [MLS] academy programs are growing, the visibility of our sport is growing, the resources to be a good player and learn in growing. You would like to believe, over time, we’re going to develop some great players.”
Given the tight timetable to prepare for two World Cup qualifiers in late March, Arena plans to rely on the core group — young and old — that faltered under fired coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Asked whether any undiscovered players could help right away, he said: “If there are, please give me that list.”
He will, though, take a hard look at his MLS candidates — some relatively new to the senior national team set-up — during a winter camp next month in Carson, Calif. Most players affiliated with European and Mexican clubs aren’t available until the week of the qualifiers against Honduras at home and Panama away.
Transatlantic trips, phone calls and game viewing will have to do for now.
“It’s a short period of time,” Arena said. “We’ve got to get things going. It’s important that we are communicating and they know what I am about and I know what they are about.”