The Dark Days Are Over: Bruce Arena Is Making the USMNT Fun Again

Noah Davis@noahedavisContributing Soccer WriterJanuary 27, 2017

CARSON, CA - JANUARY 19:  Head Coach Bruce Arena looks on during the USMNT training session at StubHub Center on January 19, 2017 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

There's a 40-second clip that tells you everything you need to know about the United States men's national soccer team at the beginning of 2017.

The California sunset alights the sky with reds, oranges and yellows. A small goal sits at the base of a hill, with soccer balls haphazardly surrounding it. Twenty feet away, midfielder Sacha Kljestan picks up a rolling ball with his right foot, juggles twice and then flicks an arching effort into the hillside, where it bounces once before skipping over the crossbar. Moments later, Benny Feilhaber tries a similar approach, only his attempt finds the back of the net.

As he walks away, Kljestan playfully bounces another ball off the back of Feilhaber's head, then turns and puts his into the net as well. He celebrates with a shimmy. The tweet ends with "10/10 for the dance moves."

Ten out of 10 might be generous for "The Kljestan Shake," but the guys sure do look like they're having a good time. For the American team, that's an excellent thing to see.

For too long, levity has been missing from the Red, White and Blue. Even during the good times of the Jurgen Klinsmann era, the group never seemed particularly happy or at ease. Covering the team, there was a sense of tension in the air, a defensiveness. When results started to turn, that feeling was magnified. Near the end, it became unbearable—an unhappy group playing listless soccer and achieving miserable results.

Just days into Bruce Arena's first camp as head coach (this is Arena's second spell in charge), the difference is obvious. Part of that is simply the function of having a new manager.

"Any time you have a change of coach, there is an easing of a burden," former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, a man who knows a thing or two about fun, tells Bleacher Report.

"There is a clearing of a cloud. That's a function of a consistent buildup of pressure, of weight that gets burdensome to a team. This team obviously needed a freshening, and I think that's what you're seeing manifesting in the way players are going about their business."

That's true, but it doesn't explain everything. Think about that video again. Would U.S. Soccer have posted a similar clip during the Klinsmann tenure? Doubtful.

The German had a number of strong qualities—and he wasn't wrong that American players need to be more serious and competitive—but he went too far in the other direction, misreading the importance of the collective sense of unity that had made the Stars and Stripes successful in the past.

HAVANA, CUBA - OCTOBER 06:  Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States speaks to the media prior to the US Men's National Team Training at Estadio Pedro Marrero on October 6, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For all of Klinsmann's bubbly rhetoric and smiles when talking to the media and fans, soccer for him was a deadly serious affair. "Post-training fun" was not in his lexicon, especially not post-training fun led by the players.

It's telling that the two players in the video are Feilhaber and Kljestan, a pair of dynamic, attacking and creative midfielders who saw little time under Klinsmann. While they possessed the types of skill the U.S. squad desperately needed, they either didn't get a call for far too long (in the case of Kljestan) or were essentially blacklisted from wearing the Red, White and Blue (Feilhaber).

Klinsmann's decision-making process was his and his alone, but it's fair to think that their outgoing personalities—symbolized best by the YouTube series, The Benny Feilhaber Show—was one of the reasons they didn't get more of a shot. They took soccer seriously, but was it the priority? In Klinsmann's mind, that was a huge check mark in the negative category. (Isn't that right, Landon Donovan?)

With Klinsmann gone and Arena in charge, there's a change in attitudea loosening and a return to the prevailing attitude of the past. While the idea that fun is important sounds like a youth soccer trope, its existence represents something larger.

"It gets back to this idea of team spirit," Lalas says.

National teams are strange constructs: A group of elite players come together once per month, usually for only a couple of training sessions, and play one game. Then they get on a plane and fly back to the clubs that pay the vast majority of their wage bills.

Feilhaber and Nick Rimando at the U.S. training camp
Feilhaber and Nick Rimando at the U.S. training campVictor Decolongon/Getty Images

Success, especially for a team like the U.S. that won't blow elite teams off the field with its skill, has as much to do with playing together as it does with talent. The best American teams in the past were more than the sum of their parts—a united group that pushed harder as a collective than the opposition. Take the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run, under Arena, as a prime example.

Frankie Hejduk, a perpetually sunny, energetic Californian, didn't make three World Cup rosters because he was the best player on the field. He did it because he ran harder and wanted it more, both for himself and for his teammates. That's something that's easier to do when everyone is having a good time. It's something that was lost over the last five years.

Arena is prioritizing to get it back.

"We need to build a chemistry with this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept," the new coach said during a conference call (per the team's official site) soon after he was named Klinsmann's successor on November 22.

"I really believe individually and positionally we have good players, and we've just got to get them working together as a team. There are no real secrets in how you build good teams. It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline, and it takes some talent. I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia in 2018."

And they do. Feilhaber and Kljestan should be factors going forward, potentially emerging as leaders in the locker room, an amusing yin to Michael Bradley's serious yang. A looser team will be a better one.

The U.S. slog of the past two years didn't just show up on the field; it manifested itself off it as well. Check out the attendance figures for five friendlies in 2016, per the Washington Post's Steven Goff:

  • January 31: vs. Iceland, StubHub Center, Carson, California: 8,803 (capacity 27,000)
  • February 5: vs. Canada, StubHub Center, Carson, California: 9,274 (capacity 27,000)
  • May 25: vs. Ecuador, Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas: 9,893 (capacity 20,500)
  • May 28: vs. Bolivia, Children's Mercy Park, Kansas City, Kansas: 8,894 (capacity 18,467)
  • October 11: vs. New Zealand, RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.: 9,012 (capacity 46,000)

Not a single game attracted more than 10,000 fans. Granted, the competition was not the highest quality, but those middling figures represent a lack of excitement about the squad. Even meaningful games didn't draw particularly well, with attendance slumping 23 percent from 2015 to 2016 and a remarkable 64 percent without factoring in Copa America matches.

The Americans weren't good, they weren't fun, and they weren't fun to watch. Three strikes and you're out.

Yet, it's a new year and a new era—both for fans and the players. With two vital CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers against Honduras (March 24) and Panama (March 28) on the horizon, and the U.S. currently bottom of "The Hex" rankings after two games (the top three of six go to Russia, fourth-placed goes into a playoff), there isn't time for goofing off during practice.

The Benny Feilhaber Show isn't coming to USSoccer.com anytime soon.

But a little post-training fun is exactly what this team needs.

Arena can make playing for the team fun again, which in turn will lead to stronger performances. Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore, Jordan Morris and others make this group arguably the most talented team the Americans have ever had. What they need, however, is that collective identity and that sense of unity that disappeared.

Find it, and they could go far.

"[Arena] has talked about getting something back that seems to have been lost, talking about how this team needs to understand that this isn't just some team," Lalas says.

"It's a team representative of all that he knows and loves. That has to manifest itself in every individual and the team. For whatever reason, from the outside certainly, he seems to feel that that had been lost. How he does that will be interesting to see, but it will also determine how successful he is."

If two players laughing while trying to score a goal by bouncing a ball off a hill is any indication, Arena has already loosened up the group. And that return of joy will have a great deal to do with positive results in the near future and beyond.

       

Noah Davis is a contributing writer at Bleacher Report, covering soccer from his home in Brooklyn, New York, and on the road. Follow him on Twitter: @noahedavis.

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