Rebuilding a legend: What's next for Bruce Arena?
And then, when asked to play savior, he failed.
The United States’ shocking inability to snare a must-have point Tuesday night in Trinidad is going to play havoc with Bruce Arena's legacy, threatening to wipe away that consensus greatest-American-soccer-coach-ever tag that's followed him around for at least a decade and a half.
Whether that's fair is beside the point. How does one measure all he's done — the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, three Gold Cup titles, five MLS Cup championships, a U.S. Open Cup triumph, five NCAA crowns, an impressive and growing coaching tree, and a role in promoting and developing some of the finest players the country — against missing the World Cup, when a draw against the weakest team in the field would have sent the U.S. through?
This will be part of the overarching conversation around these parts through at least next summer, and no conclusions will be found until everyone has completed the “five stages of grief,” as described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. We got past “denial” pretty quickly, are wading in “anger” at the moment, and Panama's phantom goal has brought about a bit of “bargaining.” Next up is “depression,” with “acceptance” just around the corner.
There will be changes made, perhaps not as many as the fiercest critics would like. Some of them will surely work; others, not so much. Whether Sunil Gulati will play a prominent role going forward is anyone's guess, but it seems certain that Arena will not.
This is likely it for Arena with U.S. Soccer, at least in any substantive role. He officially resigned on Friday, and a new head coach is in order. Arena isn't going to be booted upstairs as a technical director. He might do a bit of scouting, but that's no full-time position for a man of his qualities.
He still has more to give to the American game. How much and where aren't so clear. What is, is that he's not going to want to go out like this.
Sure, he could just pack it in and do television work, and that day might not be far off. He is 66. But he's been a full-time coach for four decades and loves the challenge of building teams into winners, and the opportunity to do that would be enticing, as long as the situation is right.
A post overseas might be inviting, but the prospects of such are slim. Maybe a Caribbean federation would consider him for its national team, but if he's going to coach another national team, the likeliest best is to the north. If or when things go south for Octavio Zambrano and Canada, the CSA could do far worse than to bring in Arena. That also assumes he’d want to coach another national team.
Otherwise, his future is almost certainly back in MLS, so expect Arena's name to be bandied about every time a head-coaching post opens up.
Is Orlando City ready to move on from Jason Kreis? New England hasn't yet replaced Jay Heaps. Might San Jose want to upgrade? Philly? Would any of these posts meet Arena’s standards? Perhaps he'd prefer the opportunity to build from scratch in Nashville or Sacramento. They'll be looking soon, right?
It is possible that two of his former clubs might have interest.
Arena still carries a lot of weight in the capital, after two MLS Cup championships and another title-game appearance in the league's first three seasons. D.C. United has been up and down under Arena pupil Ben Olsen and continues to try to get things right. The rebuild for next year has already begun, with Olsen firmly at the reins, but another big slip-up could bring change.
The other natural landing strip would seem to be with the LA Galaxy, with which he won three MLS Cup crowns in eight years before leaving last November to take on the U.S. post. The club is at the bottom of the league standings, its worst season in history, and Arena is rightly revered around StubHub Center.
The timing, alas, is not good. The Galaxy already parted with Curt Onalfo, Arena's chosen successor, and brought in another legend to run things, one who also won trophies in LA. And Sigi Schmid's going to get the chance to turn things around, a task he's already embarked upon.
Yes, Chris Klein & Co. could, theoretically, throw all of that away to bring Arena back, but that era's over, and such a move could backfire badly. If things don't get better next year, though, no telling.
Expect Arena to take some time off to reflect, catch his breath, and figure out exactly what it is he wants to do. He'll be back at some point.