World Cup Qualifying
How the U.S. Men's National Team Got Its Groove Back
March 25, 2017
SAN JOSE, Calif.—On Thursday evening, Bruce Arena envisioned the worst.
"Right now, the U.S. is six points out of first place," the American head coach said in a press conference before his squad's final training. "Tomorrow night, worst-case scenario we are seven points out or nine points out with seven games remaining."
Instead of this nightmare, which would have put the Stars and Stripes' World Cup qualifying (and the American fanbase) on life support, Arena got the best. His team played well, countered quickly, and finished effectively in a 6-0 pounding of Honduras. It was one game, a 90-minute stretch when everything seemed to go into the back of the net, but it was also a deomstration of exactly why Sunil Gulati hired the former Los Angeles Galaxy head coach after a disjointed and despondent performance against Costa Rica finally convinced him to jettison Jurgen Klinsmann.
The U.S. played cohesively, like a group rather than a collection of individuals. They played, in other words, like a team.
And for that, to the coach goes the credit.
"I see the seriousness in his demeanor and making sure that everyone is ready to go," said center back Omar Gonzalez, who played for Arena in Major League Soccer. "That's what you need from a manager—a clear picture. He's good at getting us ready to give good performances like you saw tonight."
Alejandro Bedoya, who came on in the 18th minute after Sebastian Lletget left with an ankle injury, agreed.
"It's more the mental aspect," he said. "Bruce has come in here and everybody knows that he's a great player manager. He's been able to set the tone right from the beginning, even in the January camp, making sure of everybody's roles individually and collectively. I think that's helped us out. We've been very organized, and there's a mental aspect of getting everybody on the same page. All 11 players playing as a unit and fighting for each other."
"But the confidence was always there. We know we are way better than those two results that we got [against Mexico and Costa Rica]. This was a statement game."
For Arena, coaching is a simple thing.
"You create an environment inside your team that's conducive to the comfort levels of all players," he said. "You develop a philosophy that you think will work for the group."
That philosophy entails putting the opposition under pressure.
"He wants to have a group on the field that is aggressive, presses, attacks, and goes for it in an aggressive way," Michael Bradley said.
Winning is about having a philosophy. It's also about having a plan.
"I think against this particular opponent we were going to play with two strikers and someone underneath him," Arena said. "We needed to win this game and have an aggressive attacking concept to break down a team that gets numbers behind the ball."
His player responded. They understood their roles and knew where their teammates were going to be. The communication, yelled and wordless, was better than it had been during the late stages of 2016. So was the result.
Six goals, three points, and move on. For Arena and the Americans, it was one game down with more to go. A more difficult match awaits in Panama, four days from now. The forward momentum that hopefully ends up in Russia began on Friday in Avaya Stadium.
"We were six points behind going in and now we're four points," he said. "We're making progress. And we're a lot closer to being in the top three. I think this is going to be a knockdown, drag-out affair right until October.
"It's nice to be a part of it."