Still the man: Arena remains more than a safe pair of hands at the USMNT's helm
The press conference following the United States men’s national team’s victory over Trinidad and Tobago brought a moment as telling as any action on the field.
A reporter had just asked a fairly routine question suggesting that regardless of the outcome of other games, this result now put the U.S. in third in the final round of World Cup qualifying.
U.S. head coach Bruce Arena, long used to sparring with said reporter from his days as coach at LA Galaxy, interrupted him with a laconic, “No, I don’t think so,” and a further drawled “I think your math is wrong.” Arena was having fun with him. A couple of questions later, Arena turned to the reporter and asked deadpan, “Are we up to second yet?”
It set the tone for a Q-and-A session with Arena in his element — holding court, choosing a victim (without real malice), and making a pointed show of being studied and unflustered by any question that could possibly be put to him. Later in the press conference, he even gently made fun of his boss, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, seated in the second row, for making his job more difficult by not appointing him sooner.
There have been positive public appearances for Arena before now, of course, even in the short period of time that has been his second coming as U.S. boss. The dismantling of Honduras, for example, was always going to make for an upbeat post mortem. But this was perhaps the first time that the U.S. camp felt as if it was shifting out of triage mode following the losses that ended Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure. Having avoided the banana peel section of this qualifying window by taking three points against Trinidad and Tobago, Arena was enjoying himself.
And as the coach ran through his not-new-to-this routine on the dais, it was possible to see a shift in how we in the media were collectively engaging with him. I wrote immediately after Thursday’s game about the provisional short-term feel of his appointment as a safe pair of hands becoming something more stable. They’ve become something to be assessed in more than just his ability to put 11 players on the field in the right positions in the next game, but in terms of his vision for the team and how that stands up.
Arena certainly deserves better than to be judged at the level of basic competence. When he talked about Christian Pulisic being “a big boy now,” he may as well have been talking about himself as an international manager. He’s not here to be a custodian until the permanent candidate can be found, but as the possessor of probably the greatest level of knowledge and experience of any U.S. manager in the game today. Bob Bradley has his own distinct claim in that regard, but there’s no conversation on the subject that doesn’t set Arena up as the man to tilt against.
Arena’s in-game adjustments have been simple — a little urgency here, a little shape-shifting there. Under the circumstances, there hasn’t been the time or latitude for throwing masses of players onto the field in random formations and combinations to see what sticks, as had become the norm in Klinsmann’s second cycle, nor has there been much inclination to. Arena’s not an instinctive experimenter; he’s a distiller.
Even the eyebrow-raising changes for the Mexico game were a logical rather than a radical move. In his own assessment, Arena saw little option other than utilizing the roster fully for the strained circumstances of a three-day turnaround at altitude, where three points against Trinidad and Tobago were absolutely necessary. But he did so with enough nuance about his substitutions to not only see out the Trinidad and Tobago game but to bench-test a couple of key partnerships for the Mexico game and beyond.
The horizon has definitely moved beyond for Arena and the U.S. The Klinsmann days suddenly feel a long way off, even if there are bigger questions about just what is going to happen to the structural overhaul he tried to implement as technical director. The first reviews of the Trinidad and Tobago game acknowledged a job done, but also introduced criticism of the style and pace of the U.S. in the first half. Any indulgence for a coach inheriting a difficult scenario has given way to an acknowledgment from coach and media alike that he’s the man again. Enough reacting; time for planning.
Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.