USA coach Bruce Arena under scrutiny after World Cup qualification shocker

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 13 October 2017, 09:36

It would be easy to think it all unfolded horribly in one traumatic and decisive evening of World Cup qualifying. The United States had seemingly recovered their hopes of qualifying for next summer’s tournament in Russia, with boss Bruce Arena returning last November to steady the ship and navigate his troops back on course.

Going into the final match day, the US looked to have one foot in Russia. They were two points clear of both Panama and Honduras, with a vastly superior goal difference. They only needed a point in Trinidad and Tobago - who had lost eight of their nine previous qualifiers - with the assumption Mexico and Costa Rica (both of whom had safely qualified) would trump Honduras and Panama respectively.

Their campaign fell apart like a cheap suit in a nightmarish two hour spell - they could not recover from going two goals down in Couva while they could only watch in horror as both Panama and Honduras came from behind to secure late wins.

Not only had Arena’s side missed out on qualifying, but they had fallen below the safety net of the playoff. They had failed to progress through a group specifically designed for them not to fail. It represents a significant body-blow and signals the first genuine disaster for the nation in the sport since their rise to prominence in the 1990s.

Indeed, this is the first tournament The Stars and Stripes will miss out on since 1986 and leaves question marks not just over the futures of the players and manager, but of the entire structure of football in the nation.

Such a botched campaign cannot be down to one failing alone but several, and it starts with the playing squad. Of the 23-man squad for the most recent qualification double-header, 14 players were aged 30 or over, with only five aged under 27. It’s an aging squad and the emergence of rising star Christian Pulisic alone should not be allowed to mask the fact that this is a country no longer producing players on a regular basis.

The quality, or lack thereof, in Major League Soccer must also now come under scrutiny. 14 of the recent squad were home-based players - in the 2014 World Cup there were only nine while four years earlier, only four MLS-based players were in the squad. The squad that travelled to South Africa consisted of 14 players who played at the top level of European football. Of the latest squad, only four - DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, Pulisic and Bobby Wood - compete at such a level.

Whilst many local fans may have delusions over the strength of MLS, it is blatantly not at the same level of competitiveness of its European counterparts and the number of US-based player in the squad is a concern.

This alone however cannot account for such a limp and underwhelming showing in Trinidad and Tobago - who’s starting XI consisted of nine Central American based players (five in their own league) and whose sole top level competitor is 19-year-old midfielder Levi Garcia, playing for AZ Alkmaar in Holland. Panama and Honduras too do not boost vintage teams and their resources are vastly inferior, so where does attention then turn?

Scrutiny must now fall on Arena himself. Instilled after Jurgen Klinsmann was dismissed after opening back-to-back losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, he inherited a team in disarray. In other qualification zones this would cut him some slack, but losses to those two nations in itself was no great disgrace. What is concerning is that the US did not pick up a single victory away from home and despite a draw in Mexico, a 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica last month showed the fragility of his side.

The decision to exclude Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder Fabian Johnson from the final qualification squad was inexcusable. The 29-year-old (a relative youngster in the squad) struggled in the defeat to Costa Rica but cited he was selected despite being unfit with a back injury. However, not only was the talented midfielder dropped from the starting line-up but from the match day squad altogether despite featuring regularly in the Bundesliga.

Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron - widely recognised as the strongest defender available - made the squad but did not feature in the final games, replaced by Omar Gonzalez who against Trinidad and Tobago, was exposed. Elsewhere, the decision not to start a fresh Clint Dempsey proved a mistake which did not require hindsight to call out.

These were some of the more costly decisions stemming from Arena’s management and Johnson was one of four regular Bundesliga starters not selected by Arena; Aron Johannsson, Timmy Chandler and Danny Williams were others to be sidelined.

Despite all this, the US still had sufficient room for error to progress to next summer’s Championships in Russia. Statisticians state that going into the final round of matches; they held a 93% chance of qualifying. As he demonstrated several times throughout the campaign, Arena failed to adjust tactics during the game. Trinidad & Tobago sat back defensively to stifle the American counter-attack and rather than move an extra player into midfield, the US did not compromise and were sucker-punched on the counter.

The US simply could not cope with a younger and more energetic team. This in itself should cause alarm, but the host’s - who had long since been eliminated - were more enthusiastic and hungry during the encounter, which again calls into question the man-management.

Arena coached the US to huge success between 1998 and 2006 but the game has moved on in the subsequent decade and not expanding his coaching experience outside of his home country may ultimately have held the 66-year-old back from modernising alongside many more upcoming nations not just in Europe but in Central America.

Tuesday night was rock bottom for US football but rather than mope, now is the ideal opportunity for a root-and-branch examination of how the nation can self-criticise and rebuild going forward in the sport.

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