Team USA's World Cup Hopes Hang on Bruce Arena Uniting a Divided Squad

Noah Davis@noahedavisContributing Soccer WriterMarch 23, 2017

Virgo A'Raaf for B/R

Four months ago, Costa Rica tore apart Jurgen Klinsmann's Team USA 4-0. That ugly defeat cost the coach his job and left the USMNT at the bottom of their six-team 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying group known as "The Hex."

What we watched was a dismal performance marred by individual mistakes and collective apathy. It wasn't just that the Americans lost; it was that a team whose reputation was built on graft and togetherness looked splintered and disinterested.

"We don't see the heart that used to be so evident," beIN Sports commentator Phil Schoen said on the coverage. "It seems as though it has been ripped out of them."

Days later, Klinsmann was out, replaced by Bruce Arena, a 65-year-old Brooklyn, New York, native who previously coached the Americans between 1998 and 2006. Arena returned to the U.S. squad with one goal: qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Friday night's match against Honduras in San Jose's Avaya Stadium is thus as close to a must-win as the Red, White and Blue will ever face. If Arena is going to succeed, he needs to remake a fractured team on the fly. He'll have to fix the chemistry issues that plagued the squad throughout Klinsmann's tenure. This USMNT squad is a diverse cultural melting pot, and for too long, its parts have failed to mix.

In short, Arena's job is to unite the United States.

Steve Sampson worked with the 1994 World Cup team and coached a divided USMNT in France at the 1998 World Cup. "In terms of the emotional piece, the chemistry piece, the psychological piece, I think we will see a much different national team," he told Bleacher Report.

"They have a hell of a lot more to concern themselves with than whether they are playing in Europe or playing in MLS. Arena has to really work on the chemistry of the team, on the field and off. That's where I think he will do an exceptional job. Players typically like to play for him. He is a good man-manager."

U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones agrees. "With the Galaxy, [Arena] had a lot of players with big names around him, and he handled it well," he told Bleacher Report. "In training, he's not doing all kinds of crazy things. He's trying to keep the group positive, to build the trust in ourselves, so that we can go to the World Cup."

Jermaine Jones (left) and Graham Zusi in action against Serbia in January
Jermaine Jones (left) and Graham Zusi in action against Serbia in JanuaryGetty

Reports of Team USA disharmony—of factions and cliques at play inside the USMNT ranks—hit the headlines after Brian Straus' Sporting News report in March 2013. Earlier this year, Tim Howard told USA Today's Martin Rogers that "having American roots doesn't mean you are passionate about playing for that country."

Howard later walked those comments back, telling ESPN FC (via Goal) he didn't mean to target dual nationals specifically, but the damage had been done.

Just two weeks ago, USMNT teammates Alejandro Bedoya (American-born, of Colombian descent) and Jozy Altidore (American-born, of Haitian-American parentage) faced off as the Philadelphia Union took on Toronto FC in MLS.

Afterward, Bedoya told reporters Altidore "tends to go down easily in the box" when asked about a penalty decision. Altidore tweeted back, "Nice comment, pal @AleBedoya17. You have a lot to say but never to anyone's face. I'm surprised...but I shouldn't be."

Altidore deleted the tweet, but the incident could be seen as a window into the psyche of this U.S. team. Based on the exchange, it's hard not to sense open wounds are apparent in Arena's camp.

Getty

Jones hints at problems below the surface—at select players who come into the camp with a chip on their shoulder. When asked whether there are different groups on the American team, he denies it at first. "It doesn't matter if you're German-American, Norway-American or full American, or where you play. At the end of the day, you have to show it on the field."

But as he continued, you couldn't help but sense an air of Euro superiority creeping in: "To be honest, most of the guys who play in Europe show their quality when they come back. If they played here in the league, they would definitely be top players. Whether players in MLS went to Europe and would be top players, that's a different question."

So, how does Arena fix what ails the squad? For one, he brings in his guys. The 25-man roster training in San Jose includes fresh faces like Sebastian Lletget, Dax McCarty, Jorge Villafana and Walker Zimmerman. All four were excellent during the January camp and have earned their chance.

Darlington Nagbe, who had issues with Klinsmann, also comes in from the cold at the behest of Arena and will be eager to prove he's more than just potential, while 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta is in camp as well. He appeared for the previous coach but was usually limited to a full-back role, which is not his best position. Arena should give him a chance to play his more comfortable defensive-midfield position.

These six have extra incentive to be unifying forces rather than divisive distractions.

Bruce Arena.
Bruce Arena.Getty

Arena has downplayed the tension regarding dual nationals. "All I know is they have a U.S. passport," he said, per Janie McCauley of the Associated Press. "This whole thing has gotten a little blown out. All the players I've met with want to play for the U.S. team, so I don't have any issues."

If there's a clue for tastes in Arena's initial roster, it did favor domestic players more than past ones with 14 players from MLS, four playing in Germany, three in England and three in Mexico versus Klinsmann's 10, eight, four and three, respectively, picked during the November qualifiers.

Some of those choices came because of injury—Clint Dempsey was out with a heart condition in the fall, and Timmy Chandler is suspended for the match against Honduras—but there's still a tilt toward MLS players. We might argue Arena needs to rely on what he knows, and that's the domestic league.

Christian Pulisic (right) in action against Mexico in November.
Christian Pulisic (right) in action against Mexico in November.Getty

All other things being equal, Klinsmann would choose a player based in Europe over one based in America; the new coach, however, seems to lean the opposite way. That's not to say the European contingent will be forgotten. John Brooks and Geoff Cameron will likely start as Arena's centre-back pairing, and the attack should run through 18-year-old wonder Christian Pulisic.

To bring the team together, Arena will rely on the veterans.

"He'll do that by leaning on individuals like Michael Bradley, Timmy Howard, Clint Dempsey and even Jermaine Jones," Sampson said. "People who have played extensively in Europe and have come back to the United States. Those guys understand what it means for individuals to have a shot to play in Europe in the highest leagues in the world. I think he'll lean on those relationships, and those guys will help bridge those gaps."

Jones is ready to take on his role. "Oh yeah. I'm 35, and I'm one of the oldest guys," he said. "I speak up."

Arena needs "his" guys to perform better. So far, he's reconnected and empowered the senior leaders on the squad, hoping to release the tension that existed in previous American camps. This is a coach who has managed superstars like David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Landon Donovan successfully, so he clearly has the flexibility, understanding and ability to fix the chemistry issues.

Of course, good results would help as well. A couple of months ago, Bedoya told Bleacher Report about the difference in attitudes before and after the loss to El Tri in Columbus, Ohio. "We were laughing in training sessions before the game against Mexico," he said. "We were still laughing then. The time when we could laugh. Before the results."

Nothing brings a team together like positive results. And the U.S. better start getting them quickly.

When asked if he thought the American squad would be ready for its crunch match against Honduras—if the fissures would be fixed—Jones had a poignant response: "I will say it in a different way. I will say that we have to be ready. If we're not ready, we can almost reserve our holidays during the 2018 FIFA World Cup."

      

Noah Davis is a contributing soccer writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @noahedavis.

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