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Bruce Arena’s last USMNT game was a rugged turning point in U.S. soccer

Written by Will Parchman


It’s been more than 10 years now since Bruce Arena prowled a sideline in U.S. Soccer gear. Now in his second stint and third cycle, Arena insists those 10 years provided a looking glass into his past successes and failures with the national team.

To wit.

“I think 10 years later, I’m a better man for this job than I was in 1998, in 2002 and ultimately 2006,” Arena said in an introductory teleconference on Tuesday. “I’m hopeful that the experiences that I have are going to benefit the program. You know, one of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously. And the game has slowed down a bit, where I can see as a coach and from my position how things are happening on the field.”

What he means exactly will be up for posterity to decide once he opts to make those decisions. For now, Arena is off to Europe to circle the wagons with the vets ensconced in clubs there. One assumes he’ll attempt to mend fences where Jurgen Klinsmann’s prosaic personality broke them down, gather intel about a player pool he’s watched but never accessed himself, and begin crafting a team. His team.

All this is standard procedure, of course, and Arena has already done it once. One assumes it won’t take long, and he has a moderate amount of time on his hands. One January camp and we’ll have a much deeper grasp of his plan. Or at least the first fruits of it.

But it’s worth going back, all the way back, to the last time Arena pulled on a national team shirt, filled out a team sheet and rolled a ball out for a competitive match. Because it was a day that defined the following decade in U.S. Soccer, and not necessarily for the better. While little of that is Arena’s fault himself, it does tell you just how far divorced we are from the last time Arena had to pick through a national team pool to cull his XI.

The 2006 World Cup was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disappointment for the U.S. The decision to make Arena the coach for the second leg wasn’t even a question, such was the triumph of 2002, and he had the benefit of nearly the entire important section of his player pool from that World Cup back for the second cycle. So the fact that 2006 went as it did – a 3-0 loss to the Czechs, that insane 1-1 draw against Italy and the 2-1 loss to Ghana – was something of a shock. Arena was more or less done after that tournament regardless, but even if he’d wanted to stay, he would not have been afforded the opportunity.

After the first two games, the U.S. had a shot – a slim one – at advancement. Here was Arena’s lineup, which ultimately turned out to be his last in a national team shirt.

USA: 18-Kasey Keller; 6-Steve Cherundolo (9-Eddie Johnson, 61), 13-Jimmy Conrad, 22-Oguchi Onyewu, 3-Carlos Bocanegra; 10-Claudio Reyna (14-Ben Olsen, 40), 8-Clint Dempsey, 21-Landon Donovan, 17-DaMarcus Beasley, 7-Eddie Lewis (15-Bobby Convey, 74); 20-Brian McBride

A lot can change in 10 years, eh?

Arena was forced to improvise with this XI. Pablo Mastroeni, the only true defensive midfielder on the roster, missed the Ghana game on cards. Arena trotted out a 4-5-1 that looked like a 4-1-4-1 with Reyna operating between the defensive line and a nebulous central midfield that included Landon Donovan and a roving Clint Dempsey. It was a final attacking gasp from Arena, and it backfired.

Not long after this group played out its last World Cup game, Arena disappeared into club soccer and spent the next 10 years away from the national team. Until Tuesday.

As far as that lineup as a whole, not a ton changed between Germany 2006 and the team Bob Bradley rolled out in South Africa in 2010. Of course there were differences, but the major pillars – Dempsey, Donovan, Boca, Dolo, Beasley, Onyewu – those names were there. Bradley and Arena always did see the world similarly, anyway.

But the one change that mattered above all the others was Claudio Reyna. The Ghana game wasn’t just Arena’s final gasp with U.S. Soccer until just recently. It was also Reyna’s swan song in a national team shirt, and the U.S. has still not replaced him.

Reyna is rarely mentioned as a true pick in that lofty conversation involving The Best American Player Ever. These days, it is invariably between Donovan and Dempsey, and depending on how much of Dempsey’s chicanery you can handle it tends to fall on Donovan’s shoulders. More often than not, anyway. Some codger might pipe up with Reyna from the back – from that era you’d hear Tab Ramos just as often, if not more – but few really listen.

Reyna might not have changed as many games with goals and assists as Dempsey or Donovan (or Ramos), but he influenced more national team games with his singular style of play than any American player in history. I have absolutely no compunction about throwing that statement into the public record. He was so influential that he carved out an entire national team style around his skill set – calm, measured, tempo-driven and utterly unflappable. Reyna is the best ball control center midfielder in American history, and every national team he played on followed his lead.

The U.S. has produced few No. 10s, but the argument that it needs Reynas far more than it needs Ozils is well met. The closest (read: only) thing in the system right now is Gedion Zelalem, but the senior team hasn’t had anything approaching the driving kick drum of Reyna’s beat since he left the team under the cloud of that Ghana game in 2006. And it was in a position without support he was forced to fill because he is Claudio Reyna.

When Reyna retired from the international game, he left the USMNT in a precarious place. At the time, Sunil Gulati had already marked Klinsmann down as Arena’s handpicked successor, and when it became obvious he could not have him, Bob Bradley was his next best choice. But the unsuccessful chase tugged at Gulati, and the Klinsmann Ax hung over Bradley’s head for the next five years. Whatever Bradley did, everyone knew Klinsmann had the job whenever Gulati could come up with a justification after 2010.

In that way, it’s not difficult to trace a direct line from Arena’s final game in 2006 to his next 10 years later.

What Bradley would have done with Reyna is largely a moot point (probably exactly what Arena did), but without him Bradley got pragmatic. The U.S. became a razor-sharp transition team, less concerned with controlling the game as a whole and more concerned with dominating specific game states and being unfailingly consistent defensively. It worked in its way, but it also fundamentally changed how the U.S. approached games. Most simply assume the U.S. took on Bradley’s temperament full stop. Some of that is true. But it’s just as true that they became the best team they could without Reyna slowing down frantic moments and preventing the machine from overloading itself on counters and breaks.

As for Klinsmann’s turn without a Reyna, there was no real organized tactical ethic running through the length of his tenure anyway. It’s impossible to be sure Klinsmann would’ve even used Reyna as a tone-setting No. 8 given the way he’s deployed central midfielders like Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. But in the absence of one from 2011-2016, the U.S. shoehorned No. 6s into No. 8s and No. 7s into No. 10s and No. 8s into No. 6s and in one bizarre instance a No. 6 into a No. 4.

There is no fix to this now, unless Arena has designs on giving Zelalem the first team time Klinsmann could not bring himself to. Arena is a win-now pragmatist, and he didn’t exactly mine the Galaxy’s trove of youth players for first team minutes, but he’s also less prone to tactical grudges and more willing to invite rabble-rousers into his camp than Klinsmann. If that means putting up with a little Feilhaber chicanery during a camp to reap the benefits of his distribution in a major tournament, it’s not hard to see which split in the fork Arena will take.

But it’s also impossible to ignore both how much has changed since Arena last coached a national team game and how much is simultaneously the same. The U.S. is still chasing the ghosts of 2002, still trying to find stability, still looking for its next Reyna.

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