It’s largely safe to operate under the assumption that Bruce Arena is the austerity measure response to Jurgen Klinsmann’s wild, lavish overreach. Whatever he did well – and those things did exist – Klinsmann was largely incapable of tactical modesty and consistency. The answer to overindulgence is a period of straight-edge abstinence. And Arena is very straight edge.
By his own admission, Arena is not attempting to reinvent the American soccer wheel in his second turn as USMNT coach. There will be no talk of macro development projects between now and the 2018 World Cup, no attempts to heap 10-year initiatives onto U.S. Soccer’s youth wagon. He is here to plug holes in the senior team’s once-sinking ship and provide American soccer’s theoretical shareholders proof that their investments are sound. U.S. Soccer is fine. Nothing to worry about here.
This is probably what the federation needed most in its time of need, a steady hand at the tiller while the boat rocked with an interminable series of squalls partially engineered by Klinsmann’s own unkempt hand. But it also means we’re in something of a holding pattern as a federation until the 2018 World Cup finishes. Innovation already in progress on the grassroots level will continue much as it did before, but there will be no mandates from on high that differ from the machinery already in place. Arena’s only purpose is to win USMNT games and pilot a dinged team through an eighth consecutive World Cup. As for everything else, Arena scarcely has the time or inclination.
Arena is almost certainly done with the USMNT after next summer’s World Cup. I would not be surprised if he’s done with coaching entirely in 2018, fading into the background as an acerbic, matter-of-fact commentator with Fox or ESPN’s sideline and studio shows on MLS and USMNT broadcasts. It would be a sensical path for him, in truth. With a bit more polish, Arena could be the perpetually raised eyebrow of American soccer punditry.
When Arena does ultimately step aside though, as he must to move American soccer forward, the man who steps into his place will have the makings of one hell of an interesting cycle.
The coming senior team cycle between Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 (amazing, still, that these are our next two World Cup locations) is easily the most intriguing on a blooding-new-players scale since the cycle between the disastrous 1998 World Cup and the triumphant experience in 2002. In between those two poles, the U.S. development system cranked out a 1999 U17 team that made a historic run to the World Cup semis and a 2001 U20 team that made the knockout round. That outflow of talent was a harbinger, featuring names like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman. It provided the bedrock nucleus for a competitive USMNT over the next decade, and the team arguably faltered when it did because future cycles were unable to match its output.
What will the next cycle’s coach have to work with in comparison? The first U20 team to beat Mexico and win a CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament in history and a U17 team with possible generational talent. If this feels like 1999 all over again, there’s a reason.
The toys Arena’s successor will have to play with may not match the ultimate highs that group did more than 15 years ago. Predicting a Landon Donovan in this new cycle of senior team players is a foolhardy endeavor. But the more you talk with people in the know, the more this new wave of players without senior team caps to date seems deeper than any immediate post-World Cup camp group in memory.
There’s so much talent coming through from so many different angles that I do not envy Arena’s successor. But there is a reason I’ve been crowing for Oscar Pareja to succeed him in 2018, and it’s because the post-Russia USMNT demands off-the-wall chances given to youth players. If Christian Pulisic’s experience on the first team taught us anything, it’s that youth is perhaps more ready than we as Americans often allow, singed still as we are by memories of Freddy Adu.
We are about to witness a mighty turnover after 2018. The lingering class of ’99 will be officially buried, leaving names like Beasley and Beckerman off the register as fallbacks forever. Geoff Cameron will be 33, Bedoya 31, Besler 31, Zusi 32, Jones 36, Feilhaber 33, Dempsey 35, Howard 39. Most of these players were gradually developing into ancillary options anyway, if not by the advancement of age then by the obvious general ineffectiveness on the national team stage. The USMNT group currently in its 30’s is not entirely useless, but it needs to begin the process of truly being ushered offstage by the time the new cycle begins.
I’m not certain I can trust anyone to do that job any better than Pareja.
In any case, what the team looks like in its first camp after Russia 2018 will perhaps be the most interesting camp roster in recent memory. There are so many options, many of them depending on the specific preferences of whoever’s coach at the time. But could anyone begrudge this starting XI for the team’s first post-2018 World Cup friendly?
A 3-5-2? Becalm my heart of stone, Carlos Bilardo.
This needs not be the first lineup, but it does serve (to my mind anyway) as a potent illustration. The point is there are so many variants to Coach X’s scheme because the pool is as malleable as it’s been in recent years, and certainly in the last three World Cup cycles. He merely needs to be open enough to call in young players without much of a previous USMNT profile to do it. And even then, I kept cycle veterans likely to contribute at a high level in 2018 and beyond like Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson in the mix.
Could this look like a 4-2-3-1 with Wil Trapp getting his due, Kellyn Acosta starting in the middle, Matt Hedges elbowing his way into the mix and Jozy Altidore operating as the lone striker? Absolutely. Could some out-of-left field call-up like Josh Gatt or Mukwelle Akale make his way in? Certainly. And there will of course still be room for the Darlington Nagbes and Dax McCartys. Choices. There are scads of them. The key is picking a USMNT coach willing to experiment with them while keeping to a general framework.
It’s difficult to know exactly where the next cycle will lead us. But at least the way things look now, the possibilities are as endless as they’ve ever been.