Arena must mix and match for US qualifiers
WHIPPANY, N.J. — In addition to being the coach who thus far has turned around the U.S. team’s fortunes in World Cup qualifying, Bruce Arena needs to be a world-class chef.
For each set of two qualifying games, he summons players from all over the place. Europe, Mexico, MLS sites from coast to coast. Then Arena must make sure the stew he is preparing has just the right ingredients.
It’s not an easy chore for any national team coach and it helped lead to the undoing of Arena’s predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann. Yet, heading into Friday night’s match with Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, then a trip next Tuesday to Honduras, Arena has made it all taste pretty good.
“The players are familiar with each other and with the various opponents,” Arena said Monday after a light workout as 19 of the 26 roster members were on hand. “Through the week, (information) will get devoured pretty quickly.
“They’ve been together at one time or another this year, that’s a good thing about this group.”
The group includes 18 players from MLS squads, three from England, three from Germany, and two from Mexico. Many were in action with the national team in its most recent qualifiers, a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago and a huge 1-1 draw at Mexico in June. Several others played for the United States in July when it won the Gold Cup, though the strongest national rosters were not involved for that entire tournament.
“There were 18 of them in the Gold Cup,” Arena noted, “and they’ve all been together in different ways over the last couple of months.”
During that span, the Americans have gone 2-0-2, both victories at home, both ties on the road. Those correspond with Arena taking over a last-place team that was 0-2 because of losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, which ultimately cost Klinsmann his job.
The Americans stand third out of six in CONCACAF qualifying with four matches remaining. Mexico leads with 14 points, Costa Rica has 11 and the United States has eight. The top three teams automatically make the field of 32 for Russia 2018. The fourth-place team gets into a playoff for another berth.
Success under Arena, who guided the team to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals before a mediocre performance and first-round elimination at the 2006 tournament led to his departure, is not being taken for granted.
Defender Tim Ream, who has been on and off the team in recent years — but who could start Friday — lauds the coach’s demeanor and style, but recognizes it means little if the guys on the field don’t come through.
“As professionals, you can’t get above yourself and think the job is done. The job is never done,” Ream said. “There are bigger things at stake than your confidence in one game. We know nothing is guaranteed and our approach as players matches as if this can be your last game.”
Ream, like many of his teammates, appreciates that few if any positions are guaranteed — although stars such as Christian Pulisic and Tim Howard aren’t likely to be benched, barring injury.
“If you know you have competition, it keeps you on your toes,” said Ream, currently with Fulham in England. “Competition is important not just at the club level but at the international level. If you know you come in and don’t have a shot (of playing), it’s demoralizing. I know, I’ve been there.
“But they’ve created an atmosphere of competition here all the time.”
NOTES: Arena is from Long Island, and when asked about playing a qualifier for the first time in New Jersey, he playfully said: “I’m from New York. We don’t accept New Jersey as part of New York.” He later expressed confidence that the stadium would provide “good support. We’re well aware there are many Costa Ricans in the New York metropolitan area. I don’t mind playing here, it’s a great venue for getting players in from Europe and from Mexico.”