Bruce Arena will not return as U.S. men’s national team manager after the Americans failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
Arena, who had signed a contract through next summer, announced that he was leaving the role in a statement released by U.S. Soccer Friday morning, three days after the U.S. was eliminated with a 2-1 loss in Trinidad.
An hour later, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said on a conference call with reporters that he himself will not resign. Gulati, nearing the end of his third term, did not announce whether he intended to run for re-election in February.
Gulati did say that the federation will move to appoint an interim men’s national team manager in the next 7-10 days. Tab Ramos, the current youth technical director and under-20 head coach, appears to be the favorite for that role.
Gulati said there is no rush to name a long-term successor. The U.S. will play friendlies in November under the interim manager, but has no competitive matches on its calendar until the summer of 2019. “We don’t need a long-term, four-year commitment to a coach by February or March,” Gulati said.
Arena was brought in as a stop-gap last November after the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann. The U.S. had lost its first two matches of the final round of World Cup qualifying, home against Mexico and at Costa Rica. Arena’s directive was to steady the ship and get the Yanks to Russia. He actually did the first part, but not the second.
“When I took the job last November, I knew there was a great challenge ahead, probably more than most people could appreciate,” Arena said in the statement. “Everyone involved in the program gave everything they had for the last 11 months, and in the end we came up short. No excuses. We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”
The U.S. spanked Honduras 6-0 at home in Arena’s first qualifier in charge. The Americans then got a point in Panama, three at home against Trinidad and Tobago, and one more at Estadio Azteca – the third away point the men’s national team had ever picked up in World Cup qualifying on Mexican soil.
The U.S. entered Matchday 7 in third place in the Hex. The ship had been steadied. The shortcomings of last November were an afterthought. And then it all went terribly, terribly wrong.
A lackluster 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica was followed by a somewhat fortunate draw in Honduras. Arena appeared to have accomplished what he had set out to do with a 4-0 win over Panama last Friday. But the inexcusable defeat in Trinidad knocked the Americans out of contention.
Arena’s fingerprints were all over the wreckage. After adhering to a successful rotation policy in previous qualifiers, he foolishly trotted out an unchanged starting 11. He left Michael Bradley exposed in the middle of the field. His team’s press was disjointed, and its attacking ideas stale. He left Geoff Cameron, undoubtedly his best defender, on the bench. Cameron’s replacement, Omar Gonzalez, scored a shocking own goal, and was poor all night.
Arena was hailed by players for his detailed preparation, and his implementations of plans in short windows leading up to matches. That showed in Mexico City back in June. But he got his tactics terribly wrong when it counted most. And that’s why he’s no longer the national team manager.
Arena admitted in his statement that the failure will harm U.S. soccer. “This certainly is a major setback for the senior men’s national team program, and questions rightly should be asked about how we can improve,” he said. “No doubt this process already has started and will continue so that U.S. Soccer can progress.”
But Arena also echoed his comments from Tuesday night, and from a Thursday interview with Steven Goff of the Washington Post, saying progress is being made. “It also is important to recognize the tremendous growth and accomplishments we have achieved over the past two decades in all areas, including player development, coaching education and a stable domestic professional league. That work is ongoing, and despite the result in Trinidad the sport is on the right path. By working together, I am confident soccer in this country will continue to grow in the years and decades ahead.
“Obviously the biggest disappointment is for our fans,” he continued.” “As a person involved in the sport for more than 40 years, to see how the level of support for soccer in the United States has grown is incredibly gratifying. I believe I speak for everyone involved in the game in thanking all of you for your passion and commitment, and I hope you maintain your steadfast support of U.S. Soccer.
“While this is a difficult moment, I maintain a fierce belief that we are heading in the right
direction. I believe in the American player and the American coach, and with our combined efforts the future remains bright. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I can say this from the bottom of my heart: from the high of reaching the Quarterfinal of the 2002 World Cup to the low of a few days ago, I have appreciated every minute of being a part of this program.”
Arena’s legacy is a complex one. His most recent stint at the helm of the national team was his second. He managed the U.S. for eight years from 1998 to 2006, and led the men to their greatest World Cup success, a quarterfinal appearance in 2002. But his team crashed out of the 2006 World Cup without a win. And now this.
His legacy extends beyond his national team exploits. He won five MLS Cups, three Supporters’ Shields and a U.S. Open Cup in 11 combined seasons with D.C. United, the New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy. He is a National Soccer Hall of Famer. But that legacy will be stained by this colossal failure.
“I want to thank Bruce for everything he’s done for the game over a long period of time,” Gulati said on Friday. “It’s unfortunate that it ended on Tuesday the way it did, but Bruce’s record, both at the college level, at the professional level and with our national team program, has been extraordinary. And it saddens me at a personal level that it ended the way it did on Tuesday.”
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.