U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena is confident about his teamÆs preparations, but he says some players must take big strides over the next few months if the USA is to make an impact at the 2006 World Cup.
SOCCER AMERICA: If someone wanted to see the best 90 minutes of soccer the U.S. national team played in 2005, which of the 20 games would you recommend they watch?
BRUCE ARENA: I think oddly enough, from start to finish, we were excellent against Trinidad in Hartford [a 1-0 win Aug. 17]. And against Guatemala at home [2-0 win March 30]. We absolutely dominated those matches from start to finish. Scorelines may not tell you that.
Against Mexico, arguably a better opponent, we played well [a 2-0 U.S. win Sept. 3].
We played a good road game against Panama [3-0 win June 8]. Obviously a good game at home against Costa Rica [3-0 win June 4]. I think in the Gold Cup we had a good game against Jamaica [3-1]. I thought actually we had a good game against Honduras [2-1 win in the Gold Cup semifinals], given the conditions of the field and the fact we had to come back, we played a pretty good game. Those were among our better games.
SA: How close has your team come to playing what you consider ideal soccer?
BA: I know everyone wants to see great, beautiful soccer. The focus of the national team, especially at this stage, is to get results. This concept of entertaining sounds great and lovely and all that. Do you watch any qualifying games around and see what they look like? I mean theyÆre tough matches and theyÆre not as entertaining as games at the club level. ThereÆs so much more at stake. The caliber of play is higher.
What team in the world do you think plays the best soccer?
BA: Why is that?
SA: TheyÆve got the best players?
BA: OK. ThatÆs the bottom line. ThatÆs why they can produce that kind of soccer on more occasions than not. They have the best players.
SA: What are the best attributes of your team?
BA: The best attributes are that weÆre a team. How many of our players were on the original list of FIFAÆs [30 candidates] for World Player of the Year?
You didnÆt see any U.S. players there. But our quality is that weÆre a team. ThatÆs our best quality. When weÆre healthy, thereÆs a lot more there. But since IÆve been in this job, we havenÆt had a full complement of players on the field together at any time. If that day ever happened, weÆd look a little different, for sure.
Therefore I think the strength of our team has always been playing as a group, having a good mentality as a unit and understanding what has to be achieved on a given day.
SA: At which positions is the USA well stocked and at which positions is it lacking?
BA: It changes all the time. Years ago we used to have a lot of backs. Right now thatÆs an area where weÆre a little limited. Right now, when healthy, we have a pretty good group of center backs. When healthy, probably some decent forwards. But whenÆs the last time weÆve seen Eddie Johnson and Brian McBride together?
It hasnÆt been perfect by any means. Oddly enough we have some left-sided midfielders in DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Eddie Lewis. WhenÆs that ever happened? So things change.
For years weÆve had a number of pretty competent right-sided midfielders, especially when Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart were in their prime. ThatÆs a little bit of a void right now.
SA: How would you compare the national team pool now to four years ago?
BA: I would think itÆs a little bigger, but I donÆt look at it that way. All we want to do is get through the next three or four months and see who positions themselves to be considered in the final group. I think in theory itÆs bigger.
Is the quality better? That remains to be seen, but we certainly have a number of players who are very competitive with each other in the pool. For the January camp, we called in some 28 players and we could have called in 28 others. No question about that, but somewhere along the line weÆve got to draw the line and make decisions.
But thereÆs a strong group of players at a certain level where weÆve got plenty of fairly competent players. But to do anything more at a World Cup, we need some players getting a little bit over the hump and becoming a little more than what they are right now and thatÆs one of the objectives over the next four or five months -- to see some other players emerge or step up their game a little bit and position themselves to be on the World Cup roster.
SA: Is there anything you learned from preparing for the last World Cup that will encourage you to do something differently this time?
BA: For the most part, we did a lot of things right. ThereÆs not much that I look at the last time I would say I wouldnÆt so again. I canÆt think of anything we regret we did.
Maybe player selection, knowing a little more first-hand as to what the challenges of the World Cup are. Maybe we make one or two adjustments on our roster based on what we saw the last time.
SA: Your contract is up after the 2006 World Cup. What factors will go in to determining that you remain U.S. head coach following the 2006 World Cup?
BA: Until thereÆs an offer presented to [me], thereÆs no ability for me to respond to that.
SA: Do you enjoy your job?
BA: Yeah. I enjoy it. I think thereÆs a lot of pluses and minuses to this position like anything else. At the end of the day, if they said ''weÆre not interested in your services anymore'' I could walk away, one, feeling pretty good about the job, and two, really being grateful for the opportunity.
I tried to do the best job I could do and weÆll see if that continues. You never know how these things go. Obviously, at the start of the year IÆll look for any opportunities that might exist. It only makes sense. IÆm not going to wait around until after the World Cup for someone to tell me ''good-bye'' or ''do you want to stay around?''
SA: WhatÆs your favorite part of the job?
BA: The competition. Getting a group together. Building a team over the years and getting out and playing good teams and trying to win and trying to qualify for a World Cup. ThatÆs what itÆs about. We enjoy that challenge.
SA: What are the minuses?
BA: Simply an imperfect system for player development in our country and maybe a lack of interest and support at times. WeÆd like to see everything grow. To help not only the national team but the league. But thatÆs also a plus, that in most days of the year nobody cares, so that IÆm not running from the press like other coaches around the world have to do.
SA: How can the player development be improved?
BA: Our big issues in terms of elite player development - IÆm talking about elite players, not any other type of player - we donÆt have a good enough soccer environment for them to develop properly. ThatÆs probably not an indictment on the coaches as much as it is the system.
We are not in a position yet to create an environment like youÆll see anywhere else in the world because we donÆt have professional clubs that are involved in youth player development. Everywhere else in the world, for the most part, professional clubs play a real key role in developing players. We donÆt have that kind of environment and that impacts player development.
SA: Since 1999, the U-17 national team program has had a residency camp ...
BA: We have a nice setup in Bradenton with our U-17 residency program. However, it is a bit artificial. TheyÆre not associated with a club. ThereÆs not the kind of competition they need. ThereÆs not players to look up to, to follow. ThereÆs not the kind of pressures and requirements you see in the professional clubs, and it impacts development.
However, if we can create better environments for our elite players where we have more than 40 kids in a little bit of a more advanced soccer setting than the one in Bradenton, weÆre accomplishing something. My goal would be to get 1,000 kids into those kind of environments. If we can create soccer environments where a thousand of our elite players in the ages 14 to 16 are involved, that will enhance their development and that will create a better pool of players for not only the professional ranks but also the national teams.
BA: I think thereÆs a lot of factors that go into making club soccer better. One thing that concerns me is that MLS games are not competitive enough. Not meaningful enough. And IÆd like to see a mechanism in place that requires that each and every MLS game mean something.
My particular theory on the subject is that the regular season [should be] much more important than postseason and that the MLS champion comes out of the regular season. Bonuses for teams [should be] much larger for regular-season performances.
And then for MLS Cup, the postseason, IÆd let everyone be involved. It extends the playing season for all the clubs, which they need. Seed the top four teams and give them a bye.
Right now if you win two games in a row in September, youÆre in the playoffs, it seems. It just seems that way. So you go through a whole regular season where the games donÆt mean a whole lot.
I think the regular-season champion [should be] the team that goes into the CONCACAF Champions Cup, not someone that wins a couple of games in the postseason.
SA: In following your career at the college, pro and now after seven years with the national team, it seems you have an extraordinarily good relationship with your players. WhatÆs the secret behind that?
BA: I do think that although IÆm ancient in this regard I do understand the playersÆ mentality. Maybe not all the time, because in this day and age theyÆre a little bit different than they were years ago, but I think I understand where theyÆre coming from and I try to deal with their concerns whether theyÆre the star player or the guy fighting to make the roster.
I think they all have a value to the team, so we treat them all with proper respect. For the most part - itÆs never a perfect situation - but they kinda know where they stand.
LetÆs face it. We all make mistakes. IÆve got a lot of mistakes ahead of me and so do the players, but at least if you can be straightforward, sometimes you make the right decisions in selecting a roster, selecting your first 11, your approach to games - thereÆs good days and bad days with all that - but if as a group you can deal with the good and the bad along the way, you can succeed.
(This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)