Bruce Arena's great career smudged by Hexagonal failure

The short-term future of the U.S. national team will be clear on Friday, when U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati will conduct a conference call with reporters to discuss what happens in the wake of its elimination from World Cup qualifying.

But before we throw the last shovelful of dirt on Hexagonal 2017, and the second and very brief tenure of head coach Bruce Arena, there has to be one more rehash of what transpired in front of a few thousand fans Tuesday night.

Yes, the Americans came out flat and sluggish and apparently convinced that the 4-0 blowout of Panama had set them up to cruise past T&T and set sail for Russia. And there’s a modicum of rationale to justify Arena’s selection of the same starting XI that had pummeled Panama. Not broken why fix it?

But the previous nine games had proven that something was most definitely broken, and even the rout of Panama had been marred by defensive breakdowns that could have been, and should have been, punished. And the situations were vastly different; against Panama, the U.S. needed a victory to get badly needed points and an impressive display to restore confidence. In Couva, forget the trickiness of playing for a tie, the objective should have been to shut out T&T, nothing else.

One of my high school football coaches preached this from the very first day of practice. “If they don’t score, we can’t possibly lose.” For the USA, a shutout Tuesday would have guaranteed a World Cup slot.  Shutouts are much rarer in football than soccer, and in knockout play you can shut out the opposition and still lose, albeit on penalty kicks rather than in overtime.

But penalty kicks were not in play in Couva, and T&T took the field without its best attacker, Kevin Molino, who was suspended. Fearsome striker Kenwyne Jones wasn’t named to the squad. T&T’s young players took the field without pressure or fear and the U.S. did nothing to shake their nerve.

In such a scenario, what is gained by taking the field as did the Americans? Choosing not only the same players but basically the same system – a 4-4-2 functioning like a 4-3-3- -- made zero sense, and while perhaps nothing could have salvaged the necessary result given the languid and sloppy individual performances that ensued, the fact is that Arena made no adjustments to maximize U.S. chances to advance.

In short, take the field to get a clean sheet, squelch T&T in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 or whatever, and look to score on a counter or set play. If that means benching Jozy Altidore or Bobby Wood, so be it. I can’t believe that a fired-up Dax McCarty and/or experienced Alejandro Bedoya would not have ratcheted up the pressure and intensity in midfield, where the offensive prowess of Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola – who were essential against Panama – was not the needed ingredient.

Yes, the first goal came off the foot of defender Omar Gonzalez and there’s no tactical remedy for such an egregious mis-hit, nor is there one for the incredible Alvin Jones strike for the second goal. And the inexplicable malaise might have produced the same outcome with different personnel.

Unfortunately, the Americans took the field Tuesday with the same casual attitude they displayed a day earlier when they arrived for training with the running track and a portion of the surface submerged. Players hopped through puddles, waded gingerly, or took piggyback rides from teammates, laughing at the absurdity of it all. This was the mood of a picnic, not a World Cup qualifier. Isn’t game mode supposed to activate the day before, regardless of circumstance?

The case can be made that playing for a 0-0 tie can backfire if the opposition scores late. But defending can be aggressive as well as reactive and a team that forces turnovers can quickly turn them into scoring chances. In any case, lineup changes and directions from the coaching staff of how to throttle T&T could have pushed the Americans to Russia.

Instead, the U.S. destiny wound up in the hands of others and it paid dearly for a cardinal sin. In a vital match, the Americans failed to deliver on those elements they can control: effort and attitude. They were punished by forces beyond their purview: weather, crowds, funny bounces, refereeing glitches, and in the end got exactly what they deserved: bitter disappointment. This may be one of those times when the fickleness of competitive sports rules the day and no solid explanation can be discerned. But sad to say, it's painfully clear that during the Hexagonal too many players didn't want it badly enough.

Credit to Arena for owning up to his role in the debacle. His great accomplishments at Virginia, with D.C. United and the Galaxy, and his first national team stint had previously only been tainted by a rough tenure with the MetroStars. Now he’s also burdened with a last game in which the effort as well as the result fell well short.

And along with that comes the most troubling question of all: If the best coach in the history of American soccer can't do better than fifth in the Hexagonal, what the hell is wrong with the players?

20 comments about "Bruce Arena's great career smudged by Hexagonal failure".
  1. Rusty Welch, October 13, 2017 at 9:56 a.m.

    Arena's selctions were too heavily reliant on MLS players, and putting Pulisic, your best player, in a position where he would not see the ball very much was possibly the worst coaching decision I've ever seen. Ever.

  2. Rusty Welch replied, October 13, 2017 at 9:56 a.m.


  3. Ben Myers, October 13, 2017 at 9:57 a.m.

    What is/was wrong with the players?  Why weren't they torqued up to play on the day before and on match day?  Part of that falls with the players, the rest with Arena for not telling them to knock it off.

    The other part has to do with the technical shortcomings of most of the team, its inability to take control of a match, and not-so-good tactical awareness.  For this, the blame falls to the USSF hierarchy for not investing the critical thinking needed to select and develop players.  

    In short, this failure is a group effort of USSF, MLS (not helping to produce elite US players), Arena and the team itself.

  4. Lonaka K replied, October 14, 2017 at 9:16 a.m.

    Ben I agree with most of what you said.  However, it is too late to ask MLS to develop players with techinical skills like those of other countries.  For the most part US players are NOT COMFORTABLE with a ball in their possession.  Just watch how they try to get out of a tight situation.  For the most part they will hit a long ball.  We are very weak in shielding the ball or passing a ball accurately out of pressure. We need to invest at the 10-16 age group level to get the players to be able to dribble pass defenders, take any ball sent to them (either on the ground or in the air) and with their first touch make a good decision. Either to take it down and posses it or one touch to an open teammate.  Using basketball as an example, not many college coaches have to spend practice time teaching the players to dribble and pass, where as in soccer that is what is asked of the college and MLS coaches to improve on. 

  5. :: SilverRey ::, October 13, 2017 at 10:13 a.m.

    Clearly it's Benny Feilhaber's fault - he was not nearly the chearleader we needed on the night.

  6. Kent James, October 13, 2017 at 10:52 a.m.

    This is a fair criticism of Arena and the players.  On the other hand, the alternative, putting out a more defensive unit, with some new players (Dax McCarthy), could lead to the scenario you mentioned; keeping them goalless while not doing much offensively leading to a fluke goal late.  As they say, it only takes one.  Arena opted to try to take it to T&T, which I respect, but we paid for it.  There's a fine line between confidence and overconfidence, as there is between being brave and being foolish.  Unfortuntately, we stepped over both lines, and paid dearly for it.

  7. M S replied, October 13, 2017 at 11:09 a.m.

    Play defensive vs TT? Are you serious?

  8. Kent James replied, October 13, 2017 at 6:22 p.m.

    MS, I didn't say I favor that, but that would have been the "safe" thing to do, so I understand the criticism.  As I said, there are no guarantees.  Playing with 3 offensively oriented midfielders against Panama at home was a good risk, and it paid off.  Maybe too risky against T&T given the circumstances. In retrospect (everything is clearer in retrospect), maybe play with 5 midfielders; leave out Ariolla, put Dax in as a 2nd defensive mid (next to Bradley), have Pulisic and Nagbe wide, with Dempsey as a #10 with Wood as a lone striker).  On the other hand, both T&T goals came from the flanks, so that might not have made any difference.  I personally respect the decision to take it to T&T, and I think 9/10 times it works.  It just didn't on the day.

  9. Ric Fonseca, October 13, 2017 at 4:52 p.m.

    What is puzzling as heck, if that many of you guys have not pointed out that inour sport of jogo bonito, it is IN the mindset of the Central American teams to do anything and everything possible to knock out the two "gigantes del norte," i.e. Mexico and the US.!  Indeed for the brothers from La H and Los Analeros, as well as de El Salva, always, and I mean always want to knowck the big guys of the north.  And so they did.  Perhaps the players from this recent USMNT and future teams, ought to study and ALWAYS bear/keep in mind that it ain't over until the fat singer sings and while "hope springs eternal", it is hope,  desire and cojones to win. and yes, I'd never seen - well I have on several other times - the USMNT play so effing lackadaisical as they did Tuesday evening, and as I commented to both my wife and son, we're in trouble, and trouble came rather sooner than later, and Karma revisited with that fantastic "Caliguiri-esque" shot on goal. Thanks Ragin Ridge Mahoney for your insightful piece.

  10. Ric Fonseca replied, October 13, 2017 at 4:54 p.m.

    oooops, should be "Los Canaleros...."

  11. Kent James replied, October 13, 2017 at 6:24 p.m.

    Yeah, now we know what it's like to be on the other end of Caliguiri's goal....

  12. beautiful game, October 13, 2017 at 6:03 p.m.

    Let's stop beating up on whomever...the tears are like a mansoon with the same old gripes. Time to reinvent the squad and hopefully plan a positive path for youth development...the systems in place don't work, i.e., high school & college, MLS, and pay for play. Those millions in USSF coffers are not being utilized properly. It's like a revolving door of players & coaches who place player "development"  at a lower rink...if the 'physicality' is the #1 priority, there is not light at the end of the tunnel.

  13. Gus Keri, October 13, 2017 at 7:32 p.m.

    Monday morning quarterbacking is very easy thing to do. How could any one go against playing the same 11 players who destroyed Panama 4 days ago? It's Karma combined with destiny that conspired agiant the US and no body could have predicted it. The Gods of soccer are always at play to even up the scores. It was time for the US to pay the price for breaking the hearts of Panamanians 4 years ago when the US didn't need to do it. The same thing happened 8 years ago when the US broke the hearts of Costa Ricans when the US didn't need to do that either. The USMNT think they are God and can decide the fate of other nations. Ironically, the Panama vs. Costa Rica game with a phantom goal that sent Panama to the World Cup.  And what better scenario than let T&T have their own moment in history and be the one who delivers the blow that bring the US down in the same fashion like in 1989. Then comes the cockiness of the USMNT players and coaches and administrators who treated T&T with atmost disregard. In soccer, karma always knows how to bring those cocky players down to their knees. Can't you see, guys? It's all destiny. Now, let's have a new and fresh start. Let's build our national team with modest and humble players who appoach each game with atmost respect. Players that are not blinded by the Millions of dollars that they make undeservedly. Players who have the right attitude and not afraid to show sinsere feeling like Pulisic who was overwhelmed with tears after the T&T match.

  14. Lonaka K, October 14, 2017 at 9:07 a.m.

    I tell you what is wrong with the players.  They are not good enough.  For the most part US players are not comfortable with the ball at their feet.  We need to get players that are comfortable with the ball and not panic by hitting the ball long and most often to the opposing player.  Our players at the young age need to try and figure out how to get out of a tight situation in the defensive third of the field without panincing when they have the ball.  Be confident to be able to shield the ball and to make a pass to get them out of trouble.  

  15. Andrew Kear replied, October 19, 2017 at 4:05 p.m.

    This brings as back to ball control and the lmportance of free syyle training, which consists of juggling and 3 on 3 games.

  16. ckg beautiful game, October 14, 2017 at 10:36 a.m.

    Benny Feilhaber almost saved the day with 10 minutes of play. When our best most talented player play 10 minutes for 2 coaches in the entire hex we have a problem. This went back to Herr Klinsmann and shockingly Arena followed suit. Simply shocking. They stayed with the same low performers for 3 years. 

  17. Andrew Kear replied, October 19, 2017 at 10:50 a.m.

    Arena's and Klinsmann's biggest mistake was not playing Benny Feilhaber more often.

  18. Walt Pericciuoli, October 14, 2017 at 11:04 a.m.

    It's the players it's always the players. They are just not good enough. In the thirty years of youth player devlopment, of the millions of dollars spent and with a 300 million people population, we have produced (not developed) "maybe" one world class player. 
    So, what do you think is wrong?????

  19. Andrew Kear, October 19, 2017 at 3:47 p.m.

    It simply now means Bradley is the best USMNT player ever. I always knew he was the best. He will be the USMNT next coach.

  20. Allan Lindh, October 23, 2017 at 7:05 p.m.

    Sorry to repeat myself, but the biggest error in the last two games was not starting Geoff Cameron.  Based on tenure and preformance in the EPL he is the best defender the US has, maybe ever has.  And he is solid on the ball, and ranges forward when appropriate and delivers accurate balls into the box.  Sitting on the bench at the end, head down, I wondered if was crying, cuz it was a crying shame.

    Benny Feilhaber should have played a larger role, but that ommission goes way back.  Too damn bad, but fortunately it's just a game.  Or as the great Willie Davis to say when asked how important baseball was, "It ain't my wife and it ain't my life."

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