Russia: mission possible
Hope. This is a feeling that all United States Men’s National Team supporters have for their side. For over twenty-five years there has always been a feeling that no matter the circumstance that the United States will pull out results when it needs to. But after a difficult 2016 campaign that resolve is being tested. Although Jurgen Klinsmann’s time with the US is over and Bruce Arena many are left wondering if it is too little, too late for Russia 2018.
While it would be easy to say that 2016 was an outlier for the United States there were previous signs of problems. In 2014 after having a respectable run in the World Cup the side. 2015 proved to be more of the same with a fourth place showing at the Gold Cup and a heartbreaking loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup. Although Klinsmann had managed to pull off some impressive friendly results in Germany and the Netherlands whatever goodwill that had existed between himself and the supporters had evaporated.
There was some hope leading into 2016 that this side could turn things around. With players like Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, and Fabian Johnson receiving quality minutes in the Bundesliga and Jordan Morris turning heads at Seattle Sounders there was at least a glimmer of a chance that perhaps that 2016 would be different for the red, white, and blue.
But as had happened so many times during the Klinsmann regime that hope and promise quickly evaporated. A 2-0 loss against Guatemala in February put their chances of making it to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualification in peril. That loss coupled with a 4-0 drubbing by Argentina in the Copa America Centenario semifinals and a 1-0 loss to Colombia in the third place game turned what had already been a hot seat for Klinsmann into a raging inferno.
Results would not get any easier for the German legend. Their 2-1 loss against Mexico in October would not only put them at a disadvantage for World Cup Qualification but also extinguished their domination of their chief rivals north of the border. Dos a Cero is dead. So too was the players confidence in Klinsmann. A 4-0 loss against Costa Rica five days later was the final nail in the coffin for Klinsmann who would be fired six days later.
The question going forward for the United States entering the final stages of World Cup Qualification is how do they get that back? U.S. Soccer has pinned their hopes on Bruce Arena, the former National Team coach who helped guide them to a quarterfinal appearance in the 2002 World Cup. Arena has spent the better part of thirty years coaching in American soccer, going back to his time with the University of Virginia coaching players like John Harkes and Tab Ramos. His work over the past ten years with the likes of David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Giovani Dos Santos, and Steven Gerrard has proven that his skills as a manager have not diminished.
World Cup Qualification is also not set in stone just yet for the CONCACAF region. Although their two losses and minus five goal differential is not ideal they can still qualify. Three of the six sides from CONCACAF will automatically qualify with a fourth side earning a spot in an intercontinental playoff against a side from Asia.
The schedule should also get a bit easier. With the home match against Mexico and the road game against Costa Rica behind them they are now past two of their most difficult matches in qualification. Home matches against the Ticas, Honduras, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago are also still on tap.
In the end whether Arena can restore the confidence of the players will determine how successful they are leading up to Russia 2018. While Klinsmann’s tenure certainly brought in an array of talented players, his penchant for changing lineups and putting players out of position seems to have shaked the once unwavering confidence of the USMNT. Although their play was not always the best, U.S. teams have always been highly organized and never lacking in ambition. The hope now is that 2016 has not shattered those ideals and that Arena can make the USMNT great again.