On Monday afternoon, the ax finally fell.
United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati fired Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach of the men’s national team. The parting of ways came a week after the Stars and Stripes lost their first two final-round games of 2018 World Cup qualifying: a disappointing but explainable defeat against Mexico in Columbus, followed by a listless, pathetic 4–0 destruction at the hands of Costa Rica that was anything but. If you’re looking for the smoking gun that signaled the end of the Klinsmann era, look no further than the goals Joel Campbell scored in the 74th and 78th minute last Tuesday night in San José’s Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica. The American team appeared not just beaten, but broken and indifferent.
Six days later, Gulati made his decision, much to the delight of the increasingly agitated U.S. fan base. If early reports are correct, Los Angeles Galaxy manager Bruce Arena, who led the Americans from 1998 through 2006, will take over as head coach and lead the team through the rest of the World Cup qualification process.
Given the circumstances — with the U.S. behind but by no means out of the race for an automatic bid to the 2018 World Cup in Russia — Arena is the right call. The Americans don’t play another qualifier until March, giving the 65-year-old five-time-MLS Cup–winner (two with D.C. United and three with L.A.) plenty of room to fix an American squad that needs tweaking more than an entire rebuild. In subbing Klinsmann for Arena, the U.S. trades a smiling optimist who never really said anything of substance for an eminently quotable good-natured grouch, who also happens to be the most successful American national team manager of all time. In the 2002 World Cup, Arena led the national team to the quarterfinals, where the Americans outplayed a German side that would reach the finals but lost, 1–0.
A better parallel for the team Arena takes over now, however, is the 1998 squad. Back then, Arena replaced Steve Sampson, following a disastrous showing at the World Cup. Arena’s energy rejuvenated the veterans, while he added young talent like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, priming the U.S. for its run four years later. While he doesn’t have as much time now, he faces a much easier task, with quality at nearly every position. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks are an excellent center back pairing. Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, and Sacha Kljestan provide depth in the midfield. Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood are becoming something of a dynamic duo up top, supported by Jordan Morris, Terrence Boyd, and, if he can recover from a heart ailment, Clint Dempsey. Teenager Christian Pulisic already might be the best player on the team, and he continues to improve. The most frustrating part of Klinsmann’s tenure was that he was adding a degree of difficulty to his job, using players out of position and in unfamiliar formations while giving little, if any, tactical instruction. Arena shouldn’t have difficulty getting 16 points out of the next eight qualifying matches.
Arena does come with his own baggage. “Players on the national team should be American,” Arena said back in 2013. “If they’re born in other countries, we aren’t making progress.” He walked those comments back a bit in April, but it’s still not the best sentiment for the coach of a team that started six dual nationals in its last match. It’s also a stark contrast from Klinsmann, who, for all his faults, had success recruiting not just players with German eligibility but also guys like Aron Johannsson (Iceland) and Lynden Gooch (Ireland).
Regardless, Arena has a strong core to build from, and can add to it with players like Benny Feilhaber, one of MLS’s most creative players who couldn’t get a look under Klinsmann (and wasn’t sorry to see him go), right back Eric Lichaj, and MLSers like Darlington Nagbe, Matt Hedges, Dax McCarty, and maybe even Landon Donovan, who came out of retirement to play for the Galaxy earlier this year. Klinsmann favorite Jermaine Jones might see his national team tenure end sooner than he planned, as might Timmy Chandler, whose commitment to the side has wavered.
The U.S. is the same team Monday as it was Sunday: a squad that’s more than good enough to qualify for Russia. The only thing that changed was the man in charge. Gulati stuck by Klinsmann, a coach he pursued for six years before finally convincing him to come on board, for longer than many would have. That’s fine. Coaching stability has been a strength of the American program in the past, with managers given time to figure things out rather than impulsively being fired at the first sign of trouble. But after the loss to Mexico, the U.S. didn’t bounce back as it has in the past. Instead, the team fell further, forcing an American coaching change in the middle of a qualifying cycle for the first time since 1989.
Now, it’s in Arena we trust.