Analysis

Believe Bruce Arena when he says the U.S. can compete for the 2026 World Cup

He has not guaranteed anything. He's just setting a standard, and as history shows, Arena's 2026 goal isn't out of the U.S.' reach.

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Bruce Arena enjoys a good media joust as much as any manager ever did. Even this latter-day Arena, a more affable, open Bruce still enjoys a hardy back-and-forth, although the deliberations now seem more playful and far less antagonist.

So when the U.S. men’s national team coach stirred up headlines last week – it really was a lulu as Arena talked up the U.S. chances in a World Cup not too very far away – it might have been easy to dismiss this as Bruce being Bruce. Was he just goosing the chattering class? Blowing some narrative smoke and having some fun with a few of his new media besties?

Or, perhaps there was something slightly more strategic at work. Arena has been at this coaching thing quite a while, hasn’t he? He understands the value of controlling the message, of deflecting pressure and maybe even manipulating the masses through all available mouthpieces. This is not his first rodeo.

On a media conference call just after the joint bid announcement by the United States, Mexico and Canada for the 2026 World Cup (a bid where the balance of matches slants substantially in U.S.’ favor), Arena dropped a whopper:

“So, I think 2026 will be the time where we are going to start talking about winning a World Cup, to be honest with you.” Yeah, he took it there. The United States, quarterfinalist at its best – and that was back in 2002 – as a real-deal World Cup contender nine years from now?

He may not exactly be right – but he’s not really wrong, either.

If you just read the headlines, you might think he’d gone a little loopy, that the pressure had gotten to him or that he’d fallen victim to some bad sushi. If Arena says, “Go ahead and start planning the victory tour; we’re gonna win the World Cup,” well, that’s just wacky.

But look closer: That’s not what he’s saying. He added plenty of cushioning qualifiers to his words. “I think we are going to be positioned to be a big player in 2026.”

And he’s right. By 2026, particularly in a tournament this country (more or less) hosts, it’s not completely insane to wonder if the United States might be discussed as dark-horse contender.

If you are the 6th or 7th best favorite according to the oddsmakers, then almost by definition you are some version of a “contender.” Is it complete lunacy to see that the United States, considering the traditional host-nation bump, and considering the non-linear but somewhat steady progress of the years, as latching on as the 6th or 7th pre-tournament favorite? I certainly don’t think so.

Host countries and significant edges

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

History has taught that host countries do well in World Cups. That doesn’t mean host countries always win World Cups, although six have done so through the years. Doing well is a relative thing, of course; home teams have frequently overachieved relative to their world standing. 

The United States last hosted a men’s World Cup in 1994. For you millennials, I cannot begin to tell you how different soccer in this country looked in 1994. Just know that it was.

So the United States advancing to the knockout round was pretty much the target, full stop. Nobody believed for even a teeny-tiny second that winning was even in the planet of “possible.” Even a knockout-round appearance seemed like it might be a bridge too far. But the United States got there, thanks to a 1-1 draw against a quality Swiss side and an upset for the ages, a stunning triumph over Colombia, which stood among the tournament favorites that summer.

It is pretty easy to make the case that a home-crowd boost, not to mention the overall fervor and added expectations of being host country, were big factors.

Four years later, France was a good team but hardly considered a great one in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup.  Zinedine Zidane, then 25, was just emerging as the giant in the game that we recognize today. So the usual suspects of that period, Brazil, Germany, England, Argentina, the Netherlands and Italy, were talked up as favorites, alongside France’s improved odds by virtue of being hosts. France, of course, rode Zidane and the host country zeal to the biggest celebration Paris had seen since the 1944 liberation.

In 2002, Japan and South Korea co-hosted the tournament. Much like the United States in 1994, a second-round appearance would check the box under “competitive success” for both countries. So, mission accomplished; they both made it. South Korea advanced all the way to the semifinals, in fact, although it took controversial wins over Italy and Spain to get there.

More evidence: German soccer was a mess coming into World Cup 2006, having looked dour and something close to inept at the 2004 European Championships. As this story put it, “… the only reason why a novice coach like Jürgen Klinsmann eventually got the job [for 2006] was that nobody else wanted it.”

But Klinsmann put together a good, young group, assembling the building blocks for the dynamic and highly successful German teams we’ve known since. Germany finished a crowd-pleasing third, and a lot of that was about riding the patriotic wave of a tournament on home soil. Germany was only eliminated from contention by eventual champion Italy in the dying seconds of the extra time in the semifinal.

England won the World Cup as hosts in 1966, as did Germany as hosts in 1974. Same for Argentina in 1978.

The other consideration of being a “contender”

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Host countries don’t always rise to the moment, of course. Few would look at Brazil’s stunning collapse in 2014 and declare any sort of host-country achievement. But that looks more “exception” than “rule.”

Still, beyond all the evidence that host countries tend to prosper, the United States has reason to like its coming place in things. Again, we’re just talking about “talking about” the United States as a team that could breach the later rounds and perhaps kick up some fuss from there.

You cannot look at the progress of the country’s top professional league, Major League Soccer, and not marvel at how far things have come in the last 10 years. The stadiums, training grounds, the coaching quality and particularly the development of the academy programs will all help cultivate more fertile fields in which talent can flourish.

When Arena took over in November, he quickly sketched out a rough draft of a 50-man player pool.  In terms of “depth in quality,” there’s hardly a comparison to 2006, when Arena had access to about 20-25 quality international players – and then a list of what we’d call “very good” league talent.

The official list of alternates for the U.S. roster at World Cup 2006 included the likes of Matt Reis, Chris Albright, Todd Dunivant, Chris Klein, Pan Noonan, Kerry Zavagnin, Chris Rolfe and Conor Casey. Good MLS players, all, but in a league that simply wasn’t as advanced then. None of those names had a particularly distinguished international career.

By contrast, Arena has a relative embarrassment of riches at his disposal in team depth today. And there’s no reason to think it won’t be just as rich in years ahead, not if you look at the list of up-and-comers, guys such as Cameron Carter-Vickers, Emerson Hyndman, Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams and, of course, Christian Pulisic, who will be 27 in the year 2026.

Add all that to the historic precedent for some degree of a host-country bump, it's hardly complete fantasy to see the United States in another quarterfinal. And from there, who knows what might happen? At the very least, it is worth discussing the possibility. And that was Arena’s point.          

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Steve Davis' column, America's Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.