USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers recaps the World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. and Honduras.
USA TODAY Sports
PANAMA CITY — A lot happened to the United States men’s soccer team over the past four months, and swapping Jurgen Klinsmann for Bruce Arena as head coach was just the start of it.
Based on the evidence of Friday’s 6-0 trouncing of Honduras and heading into Tuesday’s visit to Panama in World Cup qualifying, fear was replaced with fearlessness. Confusion was switched for confidence.
And overthinking, perhaps Klinsmann’s biggest flaw, made way for a new approach that is simple and straightforward but has one great advantage – the players actually like it.
One game does not make a campaign, but Friday’s turned the feel of this one on its head, to the point where it would now will come as a shock if the U.S. did not qualify for next year’s World Cup with a degree of comfort.
Whereas the pair of defeats last November that cost Klinsmann his job had supporters of the program nervous that the U.S. could conceivably be absent for soccer’s global spectacle for the first time since 1986, Arena and his troops have a very different target in mind.
Rather than nervously trying to scrape clear of the basement positions – the win lifted the Americans from sixth to fourth in the six-team CONCACAF group that will send at least three teams to Russia next year – the U.S. now wants to renew its status as one of the heavyweights of the region.
“There are a lot of games left,” captain Michael Bradley said. “All week we spoke about this idea that qualifying is never easy. Every World Cup qualifying cycle there are certain moments along the way when you step on the field having to win, that is just reality. If that scares you, then this is probably not the team or the sport for you.
“Bruce has come in and has shown no fear. It is not like he looks at the group and looks at our position in the standings and thinks, ‘Oh boy, we have got to protect ourselves, we have got to have a team that is only worried about structure and discipline and making sure that we don’t concede.’
“It is actually the opposite, and he wants a group on the field that is aggressive and presses and attacks and goes for it.”
Arena’s tactical systems are not overly intricate, but they are easily understood and give his players the chance to express themselves. His formula is one that demands a high tempo and indefatigable work ethic, and rewards those who are able to deliver it. In short, his ways aim to tap directly into what the U.S. has always been best at.
“As we continue to grow and continue to work on certain things, I think we have a group that can be aggressive and use our athleticism and physicality and mobility to our advantage,” Bradley added. “That’s something that Bruce has really stressed. You have to have guys who understand that and realize when big moments come it you have no choice but to give everything you have. Play in the best, most fearless way possible. At the end of the day, the chips fall where they may.”
A kind assessment of the end of Klinsmann’s reign would be to say the German coach, who led his homeland to the semifinal of the 2006 World Cup, was ahead of his time. The current squad’s strengths lay in their fitness levels and tenacity. While youngster Christian Pulisic is a special talent, the U.S. does not yet have the depth of quality of a Brazil or Spain or other world powers. Klinsmann wanted to expedite that process and it simply didn’t work.
Dominating the soccer world, if that ever happens, is a long, long way off. For now, Arena’s group can concentrate on dominating its own region, getting to the World Cup, and trying to be competitive once there.
Even with a 6-0 result, Arena’s pragmatism did not allow him to get too excited about the Honduras result, but it was significant that he first highlighted how his team had narrowed the gap to the top of the group, rather than pointing out that they’d moved clear of the bottom.
“I think this is going to be a knockdown, drag-out affair until October,” Arena said. “It will be a battle with all six teams down the stretch.”
Victory in Panama, however, would go a long way toward averting any further nervous moments. As much as the U.S. has rediscovered its natural style and reignited its identity, it more than anything wants to make winning a habit once more.