Fake news: Why the Arena-Klinsmann double standard is a complete myth

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Klinsmann got one; Arena's enjoying his now. Every U.S. boss gets a grace period.

No one will argue that Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Panama was a shining moment for the U.S. men’s national team. Then again, considering squad strength and the tournament’s objectives, neither was Saturday’s result some historic clunker.

But with any U.S. loss comes the concerns – never mind if it’s a friendly or an undercard-level tournament. Wild overreaction is a staple of the American soccer fan diet, so in some corners, Saturday’s disjointed account actually did register as a full-blown fiasco.

Whatever blame there was fell mostly on players. With that, there’s a danger of falling into a toxic thread, that perhaps Bruce Arena is being measured by a different standard than we used for Jurgen Klinsmann. That we were all quick to blame the last manager for poor performances, but when results get dicey for the new regime, well, that’s on the players.

Sure enough, accounts of Saturday’s tussle are rife with fingers pointed at Arena’s charges rather than at the man who picked them. The back line was rickety, although goalkeeper Brad Guzan mostly stood fast. Assessments of Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty ranged from ineffective to “crap,” in Acosta’s own words. Kelyn Rowe’s best moments were mitigated by shakier ones. Joe Corona was largely MIA, and so on.

So, are there shards of truth here, that Arena and Klinsmann are being sized up with different tape measures?

In a word, no. And it definitely is a narrative that deserves knocking down before it gains any real traction. At least for now, pending a longer run of pedestrian results.

How history kills the myth

It’s true that Arena is mostly getting the benefit of the doubt, currently. But it’s also true that results under Arena have mostly been positive. Nine games into Bruce 2.0 and he hasn’t lost a match (4-0-5). It hasn’t been overwhelming, but it never needed to be. He was always brought in as a stabilizing arm, a course correction to a period of experimentation and wanderlust gone askew.

Benefit of the doubt afforded to early stages is nothing new; Klinsmann mostly got it during his early days in charge. His initial results were spotty at best. The United States lost at home to Ecuador and Costa Rica within his opening months. (Also to Belgium and France, although those losses were more foreseeable.)

Klinsmann was mostly screened from criticism, even as whispers of player discontent were being heard by late 2012. The full-blown crisis in spring of 2013 started changing the conversation, but order was restored in the snow globe of a Denver night. Criticism of the coach mostly remained on a low boil, even in the low points of 2014, the stunning Landon Donovan exile and the business end of a Belgian shooting gallery.

But by years four and five in charge, when the transformative Klinsmann revolution clearly wasn’t happening, the knives came out. It took about four years to reach peak Klinsmann criticism.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

So, no, Arena’s early time in charge isn’t being measured differently. This is his period where the benefit of the doubt is granted. 

What of arguments that Arena doesn’t deserve it because he has served before? That doesn’t wash. His tenures are 10 years apart, and who among us isn’t better at our vocation with an additional 10 years of experience? It’s OK to use Arena’s first term for some context, but not for assessing current performance as if nothing happened in the interim. 

Now, things just make sense

Even comparing results between Klinsmann and Arena is hardly apples to apples. Good results or bad, a couple of things drove fans and media particularly batty with Klinsmann. More to the point, these infuriating habits acted as accelerants when the fires of criticism were lit.

First, Klinsmann routinely deflected accountability. When the team looked out of synch or just plain out to lunch, there was Klinsmann ready to insist, “Everything is fine!” When that didn’t work, he sometimes played the “Americans don’t understand” soccer card or just blamed the players.

Asked to share his thinking on some of his mad scientist ways, what emerged was a mishmash of mixed messages, confusing contradiction and outright nonsense. But all of that is well-covered ground. The point here is this:

With Arena, things seem to make sense, at least. More players are stationed in familiar positions. Formations look rehearsed. Imagine that.

That doesn’t mean connections are always made – they certainly weren’t on Saturday. But where there are particular tactical problems to solve under Arena, it’s not the tactical free-for-all we sometimes saw under Klinsmann. As Michael Bradley told us after last fall’s loss to Mexico, teams need “clear ideas” on how to approach matches. They seem to have them now.

Look, all this could change. If the United States can’t get the job done in final group matches against tiny Martinique and Nicaragua, then the conversation surely changes.

If this Gold Cup comes and goes and the United States looks as inept as it did in the 2015 Gold Cup – beyond a win over hopelessly overmatched Cuba, the U.S. was outshot by a shocking 85-47 – then we can talk. Until then, this notion of Arena and Klinsmann being judged by different standards is just silly.

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