Reflections with Bruce Arena (2000-2002)
Coming off arguably the most successful year in U.S. Soccer history, the U.S. Soccer Federation will be celebrating their 90-year anniversary throughout 2003 with a number of special projects and events. As part of the year-long commemoration, the U.S. Soccer Communications Center will produce weekly articles looking back at the organization’s history. Through the Communications Center articles, you will not only revisit some of U.S. Soccer's crowning acheivements, but you will also learn about the people and events that shaped the Federation's first 90 years.
This week, we share with you selected excerpts from a recent conversation with Bruce Arena discussing his first four-year term as Head Coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team. The entire conversation will be published this summer in the limited-edition 90-Year Anniversary book commemorating U.S. Soccer.
REFLECTIONS WITH BRUCE ARENA (2000-2002)
The U.S. Men’s National Team began 2000 with your first major hurdle as head coach, the semifinal round of World Cup qualification. How did the new century begin for you?
Bruce Arena: The year 2000 was a great year. It was the beginning of qualifying and a real eye opener. We were faced with the challenges of opening up in the summer time, and all the issues associated with it. First, we had to deal with the conflicting schedules of the European-based players, as well as MLS. Having to work through the process of calling up our European based players was a great learning experience for our coaching staff, and it got the team used to dealing with having a rotating lineup. Secondly, we had to learn to deal with the difficult conditions in Central America, from the climate to the hostile crowds. The game against Colombia in the Gold Cup in Miami warned us of what lay ahead. Playing against a South American country in the kind of environment in the Orange Bowl that day and the questionable calls from the referee, were a precursor to what we would face in qualifying. Lastly, we were in the process of evaluating the talent of our team, from the veteran players like Eric Wynalda to newcomers like Chris Armas. The experiences we learned from the process made us a stronger team in the end.
This was also the first time you had to face the gamesmanship associated with CONCACAF qualifying ...
Bruce Arena: Certainly. Everything from the travel to a remote location to the heat at the time of kickoff, to the questionable officiating. These were all challenges to the coaching staff and the players, and it didn’t get any better the next week. After the first two games we realized two things: anything can happen, and nothing is safe until the final whistle. Again, these were important lessons to be learned.
The second match against Costa Rica also ended controversially, not only in the result but for you personally…
Bruce Arena: We were extremely unhappy with the result, not only because we lost points, but the subsequent suspensions as well. At the end of the first two games on the road, we felt we deserved to have four points instead of one. But those experiences made our team better in the end. When you have to fight back from situations like that, it’s a real test of character.
The U.S. entered the final match of semifinal round against qualifying needing a victory against Barbados. Was there a lot of confidence, as well as pressure?
Bruce Arena: There was certainly pressure. I had to serve the second game of my suspension stemming from the Costa Rica match, so that was awkward. I give Barbados credit; they played a pretty good game. We weren’t sharp through the first half, and came out in bad form for the first ten minutes of the second half. Tony Meola made a fantastic save to keep us in the game, and then we actually played pretty well in putting in four goals. It was a well-earned victory on the road, and a fitting end to a rather difficult road in that round of qualifying.
The team had earned 13 points from the first four games of final round qualifying, including a massive away victory in Honduras. Was there a bit of overconfidence prior to the July 1 match in Mexico?
Bruce Arena: Going into Mexico City was difficult for a variety of reasons. We had an afternoon kickoff, in the heat and the altitude, against a team with their backs against the wall. It was Mexican head coach Javier Aguirre’s’ first game, and they literally put a brand new team on the field. We didn’t know what to expect. At the same time, although you warn your players against being complacent, when we went to Mexico with a 4-0-1 record in qualifying, our guys didn’t respond. When they got the early goal, it killed the game. We gave away three points too easy.
You have said that losing to Honduras on Sept. 1 was the low point in qualifying. Where did the breakdowns take place in that game?
Bruce Arena: Besides the way we blew a lead, I think we played in such a bad environment for a home game that it hurt us. We actually had a good start in that game, with the early goal by Earnie Stewart. Unfortunately, Stewart missed the penalty just before halftime and took away some momentum. In the second half, all credit to Honduras. They simply outplayed us, and their fans gave them a lot of confidence.
And then the loss to Costa Rica four days later…
Bruce Arena: Costa Rica is a tough place to play. I wasn’t surprised at the result. Costa Rica was clearly the better team that day. At the end of the day, we were clearly now in a dog fight with two games to go, and we mentally prepared for needing six points in order to qualify.
Looking back, do you think you made mistakes in those three games?
Bruce Arena: Sure. If you lose three games in a row the coach has to accept responsibility. I think some decisions on personnel could have been different. Also, some of the attitudes of the players were definitely wrong, and I should have reacted to that quicker than I did. Too many players were complaining that they should have been playing in those games, and these were guys who hadn’t played before. When you get that in the team, it impacts the team spirit and ultimately kills it. I think that three-game stretch was an example of how a team can self destruct. It was a great lesson for us, because it helped us prepare for Jamaica and everything else that followed.
After September 11, the Jamaica match in Foxboro wound up having greater implications for the U.S. beyond being a must-win match. How difficult was it to prepare as a team?
Bruce Arena: September 11 certainly made that day very emotional. It was the first time a team from the United States had played since that day, and we carried that responsibility with us. Certainly the effect was compounded when the word came down that we had bombed Afghanistan that day. We made the decision to tell the players in the locker room before the game. It was something they deserved to know, and I felt there was a possibility that they could find out in other ways, and it could have distracted them. They couldn’t be prouder to represent the United States that day. We had experienced enough ups and downs that we were ready to play.
When the results from Honduras finally came through, sending the U.S. into the World Cup, it must have come as huge relief…
Bruce Arena: I don’t think we ever prepared to qualify that day. We really anticipated needing six points. I was in the locker room when the final word came. The significance didn’t really hit me at that point. I was just happy with the result. Obviously, the news that we had qualified for the World Cup was big, but I wanted to stay out of the way and let the players enjoy it. Every team I’ve ever had, I try to let the players have the time and place to enjoy their results and receive the credit that they deserve.
In laying out the schedule of matches in 2002 prior to the World Cup, what was the strategy?
Bruce Arena: First and foremost, we wanted quality opponents, but there were other considerations. For the game against Italy, we were aware that we could potentially face them in the Round of 16; the same was true with Mexico. The thinking behind the games in Europe was two-fold. Obviously, we wanted good competition and we found it in Italy, Germany and Ireland. More importantly, we were going to ask the European clubs to release our players early in May, and by not taking them away from their clubs too often and subjecting them to the rigors of travel, it put us in a position to get the players in North Carolina from the outset of training camp.
The U.S. obviously had outstanding results in the Gold Cup, winning the championship for the second time. How important was the tournament for the individual players and the development of the team?
Bruce Arena: Clearly, it was the most important competition for the MLS players. We needed to get them games and to look at several players. The three players from Europe - Hejduk, Keller, and Lewis - took full advantage of the opportunity. In addition, the Gold Cup gave Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni the chance to get involved. Out of the Gold Cup, we not only got success in winning, but we also began to find some new players that could be injected into our lineup for the World Cup. I thought we played better in each and every game. It was a very rewarding tournament to see our guys play against basically Costa Rica’s full team in the final and handle them so easily.
At what point were you comfortable that you had found a 23-man roster for Korea/Japan.
Bruce Arena: On the day we qualified in October, I was jotting down a 23-man roster. From there it was always erase one, add another… that went all the way through until the end. I think where I did well was having the chance to evaluate each and every player in the pool. For the most part I think we had the right roster for the World Cup. I just hoped we had 23 players who had the right frame of mind.
After four years of hard work and anticipation, describe what a match in the World Cup against Portugal feels like?
Bruce Arena: Words can’t describe what’s it like to be in a World Cup. I don’t think anyone can tell you differently. Immediately after the opening whistle, I was struck by the incredible pace of the game. We began applying early pressure as we had planned, trying to keep them locked in their half and letting the game settle in. But before anyone even had a chance to do that, we caught our first break when O’Brien scored in the 4th minute. Just like that, we had our first goal of the World Cup.
Were you shocked when the score reached 3-0?
Bruce Arena: I wasn’t. Sure, if you had asked me if I thought we’d ever have had a three-goal lead in the first 30 minutes against Portugal I’d have told you that you were seriously insane. I’ve been in plenty of games where my teams have, for whatever reason, started off games in a fashion that even surprised me. So I was surprised, but not shocked.
What were the emotions like in the locker room after the victory?
Bruce Arena: The players were obviously very excited. It was a terrific feeling. I was happy, but again, I was already thinking ahead to the next game and what we needed to do to get ready for Korea. I did manage to have a few minutes of excitement over the result; however, we knew there was more work to be done.
Prior to the Portugal match, the most difficult decision you faced was selecting the starting goalkeeper. How difficult was the choice to use Brad Friedel?
Bruce Arena: The decision to use Brad Friedel against Portugal wasn’t that difficult. We felt our kicking game had to be good. Because of their pressure, we felt there would be a lot a situations where the goalkeeper would have to deal with the ball at his feet, and this is an area where Brad excels. Additionally, he’s extremely accurate with goal kicks, punts and free kicks. On top of that, in our final preparations, Kasey had suffered some bumps and bruises in May, which did not allow him to play at 100%. We happened to be blessed with two of the finest goalkeepers in the world, and people can argue about the decision with legitimate arguments, but in the end the coach has to make a decision.
The second goal against Mexico was probably one of the most exciting moments in U.S. Soccer history. Describe the play from your vantage point…
Bruce Arena: When O’Brien had the ball, I saw the whole thing develop. I saw Eddie Lewis making a run from a deep position down the left flank, and I saw Landon take off. Never did I envision it would end the way it did. The Mexicans were spent at that point, having thrown everything they had at us in the first 25 minutes. All the hard work we put in during the month of May paid off on that play. It’s a great example for us to use when discussing the importance of conditioning with our players.
In reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup, is there a sense of accomplishment, or do you still wonder about how close you were to advancing farther?
Bruce Arena: We were pretty close to being in the last four of the world. I think you always look at that as a failure, because we had the ability to be there. Although it was a game where we could argue we played pretty well, we did fail. The name of the game in the knockout phase of that competition is to win, and we didn’t do that. Reaching the quarterfinals is an achievement that shouldn’t be taken away from anyone, but I don’t call the result against Germany a major accomplishment. If you can’t think that way, then you’re never going to win those games.
As U.S. Soccer moves into 2003 and a new four-year cycle, what will be the first steps in the process?
Bruce Arena: We begin by evaluating the pool of players that we have, and determining if these are the kind of players that can help us be successful. If not, what are our alternatives? It’s a somewhat logical, yet somewhat un-scientific, method. It’s about getting good games and good competition, and giving these players the opportunity to show what they can do at the international level. Who knows if there is a player out there we haven’t thought of? In 1998, I wasn’t thinking DaMarcus Beasley would be starting for us in the World Cup. There could be another Pablo Mastroeni hanging out in MLS waiting to be discovered. The lesson here is: you have to keep an open mind about it.
The entire conversation, along with a collection of the Communications Center 90th anniversary articles will be featured in a limited-edition 90-Year Anniversary Publication, a coffee-table book which will be published for fans and U.S. Soccer constituencies around the time of the organization’s 87th Annual General Meeting in Chicago from Aug. 13-16, 2003.
Note: Media outlets using excerpts from this release should courtesy ussoccer.com