Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was shown the door. It was a huge announcement, considering years of criticism, and bad results, notably including the poor outlook from Klinsmann going into World Cup 2014 as he said the team likely didn’t stand a chance to win the whole thing*, the dismal 2015 Gold Cup, highly questionable lineup choices, and the recent losses in the Hexagonal of the Road to Russia World Cup qualification matches.
Immediately, the very next day, Bruce Arena was hired as the new coach. With Klinsmann out, Bruce was back. Long live the Bruce! Bruuuce! Oh wait, that's Springsteen. There was ambiguity as to whether or not Bruce Arena was the best choice. Some were on board. Others were skeptical, thinking more of the same wasn't a good idea. As head coach of Virginia University, Arena won four NCAA national championships in a row, two consecutive MLS championships with DC United and two consecutive MLS championships with the LA Galaxy. He was a winner. No one could argue against that. Arena also had the experience of coaching the US men’s team in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Under his guidance, the team did well with a quarter final appearance in the 2002 World Cup in which they lost to Germany, yet they failed to reach the second round in 2006. Bruce had arrived at just the right time in the late 1990s**, in that he inherited players with MLS experience.
Prior to 1995, the MLS did not exist. Most the players had the disadvantage of coming right out of college, competing with opponents that were raised in some kind of professional system. When the MLS was established it gave US players an opportunity to gain experience and confidence with a legitimate domestic league. This played to the advantage of Arena as he took over the team, guiding the US to a new level of confidence.
One detraction from Arena’s record was that he won within the US system. In other words, most US teams - be it college or professional - have played the same style. Therefore, one of the teams will come out on top. With good recruiting, along with strong leadership skills, Arena managed to make his teams better than the rest. The problem was, when he left US shores and played teams abroad, the US style of play was often dragging behind the rest of the world. So, was Bruce an outdated coach with outdated ideas? He had previously been given eight long years as the US coach. Was it really time to bring him back? Was this really a good decision? That was yet to be seen as he took over the helm of the USMNT for the second time.
There were other interesting options for coach, including Caleb Porter, who had done well with the University of Akron and the Portland Timbers, leading them both to championships. Why not Anson Dorrance? He had previously coached the USWNT, along with the men’s North Carolina Tarheels, and, notoriously, the outstanding women’s North Carolina Tarheels. Peter Vermes was an option, as coach of Sporting KC.
The US Soccer president, Sunil Gulati was behind the decision, confident Arena would get the US back on track and into the next World Cup.
It was definitely a good change. However, Klinsmann had good moments...Phil had good moments on the Jack Benny Show. Screech had good moments on Saved by the Bell. Though Klinsmann was not a member of Saved by the Bell, at times it seemed as though his decisions were influenced by Zach and Slater. All-in-all Klinsmann is an experienced soccer-mind, who led the team through some good memories, including but not limited to big wins over Holland and Germany, on the road. Yet, during his run, just as Philipp Lahm had questioned his approach with Germany in 2006, there was lingering doubt in the direction he was taking the team. It seemed unfortunate that far too many people had placed too much faith in his coaching ability, based on his accomplishments as a player, winning the European Cup and World Cup. Despite his good times with the USMNT, there was much to be desired. Klinsmann's constant lineup choices - which were painstakingly questionable at best - were ruining the potential of the team. While Chile and Mexico - the USMNT's somewhat equal partners on the overall scale of quality - were fielding exciting offensive talent, the US was regressing to teams of yore. Large, slow defensive-types were playing far too often as the team was relying on only a few creative players for all the offense. It was a system of play that was out of balance.
As to whether or not Arena was the right choice, it would be easy to say "Give him a chance." He already had eight years of a chance. And now it's back to that? Taylor Twellman and others were okay with the move. And they have every right to be; in the short term, it does make sense, considering the quick turnaround needed, which is the experience Arena can bring to the table. Despite Arena's proven track record, there was discontent. Unnamed sources I spoke with were very upset with the decision, essentially calling it an insane step backward in time, accusing the whole system of being replete with hypocrisy, full of guys that know what they're talking about, however, the substance of what they're talking about is the wrong approach altogether. While so many programs and teams are on the right page, the decision-makers of US Soccer are reading off of some archaic scroll of papyrus which is based on a lecture from leaders of the American Soccer League back in the 1950s.
So, was Arena the right choice? Player choice and lineup decisions will be a key factor. And time will only tell. At this point, there isn't much of it, as the Road to Russia gets closer each day.
* Which may or may not have been true, but it wasn’t a wise message to send to the team.
** Bruce Arena first coached the USMNT from 1998-2006.