How failing to qualify for the World Cup could stain Bruce Arena's legacy

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

He has been a winner at every level, but missing out on Russia 2018 would affect how we remember the coach.

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As legacies go in U.S. Soccer, you’d think Bruce Arena’s is safely bubble-wrapped.

He’s won everywhere, right? In college and in the pros. And U.S. soccer supporters are still hanging their hats on that sensational 2002 World Cup quarterfinal dash, guided ably by Arena’s trust in the young players of that generation.

So, yes, Arena’s legacy is mostly secure – but that doesn’t make it impenetrable. Indeed, it’s looks vulnerable right now. It isn’t necessarily exposed to a full unraveling or some potential, major script re-write – but there is a weak link in this chain.

What happens if the United States men's national team fails to qualify for the World Cup?

After all, that was job No. 1 for Arena as he took charge less than a year ago, right after U.S. Soccer kicked Jurgen Klinsmann to the curb. The mandate went something like this: ‘Things have gone wrong. Fix them. Get the team to the World Cup, and we’ll worry about the rest later.’

Arena was always honest about the project, noting immediately that the United States could still get to the World Cup but that the wiggle room had mostly been erased. He was the fixer, openly shutting down any questions surrounding his role beyond 2018.

The jury is still out as to whether things have been fixed, leaving a susceptible spot in Arena’s otherwise sterling legacy.

A list of (mostly) unassailable accomplishments

Only the purposefully ignorant or the most unwavering cynic could fail to recognize Arena’s accomplishments. In terms of domestic achievement, no one else comes close.

Yes, there was a bit of a thumb on the scale as Arena won two early MLS titles as D.C. United head coach and then three in four years with the LA Galaxy. Both MLS addresses generally outspent the field, providing Arena with more talent at his disposal than plenty of challengers.

Arena at the 2006 World Cup

Still, Arena deserves credit for managing those rosters intelligently, and for generally getting team chemistry more right than wrong. After all, plenty of clubs have had access to cash and skill through the years, but still couldn’t get the job done.

Critics also point out that the historic events of 2002 came ever so close to going all kinds of wrong. The United States nearly blew it, dropping its final group match (3-1 to Poland) and needing a result from South Korea against Portugal to advance. Otherwise that historic knockout-round win over Mexico never happens, and the stunning upset over the Portuguese would have been wasted.  

But margins are small and Arena’s men got the job done, thanks in no small part to prudent roster rotation that summer in Asia and an unpredictable, shrewd gameplan against Mexico.

All this is to say, his legacy will remain mostly intact regardless of what happens Friday in Florida and then four days later on a potentially dicey field at the Ato Boldon Stadium. Mostly intact.

How the critics could grow in volume

Don’t believe all the apocalyptic talk of what an ultimate qualifying misadventure would mean for soccer in the United States. This isn’t the three-legged stool it was in the 1990s; the sport is in a great place and the top-tier men’s professional league is in a great place.

But there would be obvious consequences to World Cup failure. The players would bear significant responsibility, but that would be dispersed among them. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati’s reputation would certainly suffer, but he’s just an administrator; people would kick him around in effigy and then likely move on.

Not so with Arena, who took majority ownership once he signed on for the rescue mission. We can’t kick Klinsmann around any longer; this one would be on Arena, too.

If the ultimate World Cup qualifying calamity comes to pass, Arena’s legacy certainly becomes more of a mixed bag. Currently, when we consider “Arena and national team,” we think immediately of 2002. We tend to minimize the 2006 World Cup icon in our mind’s computer screen. That one is less flattering, of course. The balance could shift significantly if the current U.S. team fails to qualify for Russia; at that point, his last two cuts with the international soccer bat are big, swinging misses.

We can ask these same questions again, if the team gets to the 2018 World Cup; the Arena legacy could still suffer if he leads a team that unravels there. But even then, the debate would have been re-framed. We may look at that World Cup as a mess, but still have the forgiving caveat that Arena got the team there.

But if the U.S. falls short in the coming week, some of his current, bold roster choices will be red meat for critics. A few in particular: pulling enigmatic midfielder Benny Feilhaber out of storage, the choice not to summon talented midfielder Fabian Johnson and the selection of Chris Wondolowski.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Feilhaber’s inclusion clearly confirms that Arena hasn’t found that final-pass creator he has discussed all along, someone to slice, dice and fire balls into Christian Pulisic in more ideal positions. The problem is that Feilhaber has been uninspiring for Sporting Kansas City this year, posting three goals and five assists. Meanwhile, similarly suited Sacha Kljestan, who has been in the U.S. mix more often, has 15 assists for the New York Red Bulls this year, one off the league lead.

Arena’s retention of Wondolowski (and Gyasi Zardes, before he withdrew due to injury) is the coach trusting a guy that he knows over younger, clearly talented players who just don’t have enough experience for the Arena’s liking.

Johnson’s omission is the real headliner. Arena is clearly hedging the intangibles of addition by subtraction. Johnson hasn’t always seemed fully, 100 percent bought into the national-team cause. Klinsmann sent Johnson back to Germany two years ago after a match in the CONCACAF Cup, unhappy with the midfielder’s disposition. "I had a very severe word with Fabian Johnson, and I sent him home today," Klinsmann said at the time. "He can rethink his approach about his team.”

Arena clearly is betting on improved esprit de corps sans Johnson, who was pretty much invisible as the United States fell too meekly to Costa Rica last month in New Jersey, among the results that has the U.S. team in this patch of serious squeaky bum time.

It’s all classic Arena, balancing talent with trust. Players trust him to align them into the best positions and to make choices that benefit the group over the individual. He trusts players to perform, regardless of age or circumstance.

Arena has dug in on some guys – just as he always has. His reputation has been built on it. Now his legacy clings to it. Some of it, anyway.

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