USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers previews the World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. and Honduras.
USA TODAY Sports
SAN JOSE – There is a distinct difference between urgency and panic – and that is a line the United States men’s soccer is treading carefully.
A dismal start to the final round of World Cup qualifying under former head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has not resulted in much talk of crisis, with both the squad and the American soccer public widely believing that the elongated CONCACAF regional process allows more than enough time to revive the campaign.
Yet while Klinsmann’s firing after two straight defeats in November and Bruce Arena’s subsequent arrival has sparked a noticeable mood change, that must still be translated into points, starting against Honduras at Avaya Stadium here on Friday.
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“For us the reality is simple,” captain Michael Bradley said. “We let ourselves down in the first two games and that means that our margin for error is now very, very small.”
Those opening matches of the six-team deciding round in CONCACAF resulted in a 2-1 home setback to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, and a 4-0 drubbing at Costa Rica that effectively pushed Klinsmann out of the exit door.
It also left the U.S. at the foot of the group, albeit with eight remaining games. Getting into the top three and thereby automatically qualifying for the World Cup is the task Arena was brought in for, and the only one that matters at present.
“There is zero point in continuing to look back on (the past struggles),” Bradley added. “We are where we are and it is time to begin the process of moving ourselves back up the table, stepping on the field from the first minute and playing in a really aggressive way that ultimately leaves no doubt. Bruce has done an excellent job in terms of reestablishing certain things and getting at a few things.”
Klinsmann had a grand plan aimed at turning the U.S. into a world soccer power capable of competing with the best Europe and South America has to offer on the global stage. In doing so, he moved away from some of the long-held tenets of the American soccer identity, such as tenacity, work ethic and tirelessness.
Ultimately, long-term plotting means little without short-term success, and when missing out on the World Cup and the financial windfall that comes with it became a possibility, U.S. Soccer chief Sunil Gulati pulled the plug.
Hirings and firings happen with dizzying regularity in club soccer, and there is much talk of the “bounce” effect, whereby bringing in a new coach often leads to a swift uptick in fortunes.
Most recently it has happened in the English Premier League, where much-loved coach Claudio Ranieri was axed last month despite having taken Leicester City to a dream championship last season at 5,000-to-1 odds. Since the firing of Ranieri, Leicester has won four straight, lifted itself out of relegation danger and progressed to the quarterfinals of the Champions League under interim boss Craig Shakespeare.
The U.S. hopes for something similar from Arena, albeit while appreciating the differences between the constant grind of club soccer and the far more infrequent nature of the international game.
“It is natural when you’ve got a new coach that everybody’s attention to detail is a bit greater,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “Everything just lifts a bit more, everybody is more on alert. It is maybe something that can help our team going forward.”
Arena has set a target of at least four points from its two upcoming games, with Friday’s Honduras match-up followed by a visit to Panama next Tuesday.