Thursday, June 22, 2006

In Defense of Bruce Arena

Quite a few commentators, most notably Eric Wynalda are calling for Bruce Arena's head on a pike. I find that unfair, and here are my reasons (and no, not all of them revolve around refs or "Players decide the game.")

1. Artificially heightened expectations. ESPN grabbed onto that #5 FIFA ranking and went to town, despite every commentator on ESPN admitting it was basically bullshit. There's no way the US has ever been the #5 team in the World, ever, ever, ever, and every US soccer fan who looked at that team and knew even a little bit about other teams could rattle off 10 teams who were at least as good as the US. I'd say Ireland, had they played in the CONCACAF, would have been in the top two. They didn't qualify in Europe.

2. The fact that FIFA rankings aren't used in World Cup seedings. Many casual fans may have come in knowing that the US was ranked #5, and thought that the US was given a seed deserving of that ranking. They weren't. World Cup #1 seedings are based, at least in part, on the past 2 World Cups. So, keep in mind, the awful team and coaching of Steve Sampson (8 years ago!) played a part in the US not getting a #1 seed. It was that Cup performance that led to Arena getting hired. He's still dealing with the penalties of the Sampson era. Does even the most angry fan amongst us think that if the US were in a group with Portugal, Iran and Angola we would fail to advance? I don't think so. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Lack of Understanding as to what "Group of Death" Means. Some people labeled Group C as the Group of Death. A lot of people did. But Serbia laid a bigger egg than the US did, losing all three of their games. Ivory Coast, while entertaining, didn't win a game until they played Serbia. Group of Death is called that for a reason. In Group D, there were four teams that had a decent chance to advance. And I watched the seedings of that Group live, with quite a few of my friends, and when Italy and the Czech Republic were placed together, we all started praying that the US would not end up in the that group. And then they did, and we all sat around and looked at the teams left, and said, Please not Ghana, please not Ghana. And boom. Ghana. Let's not forget what a fucking nightmare of a draw this was considered to be, right from the outset. Even in the FIFA rankings, which are bullshit, you had 3 of the top 10 teams in the world in one group. Two of those top 10 teams are going home. I'm far more surprised by the Czechs heading home than I am by the US. Anyone who knew the US team isn't that surprised that they lost to the Czechs and Ghana. The surprise is that they tied Italy. Arena didn't pull off a miracle this time around. Is that really a firable offense? We expect miracles, and you didn't deliver? Phht.

4. Corey Gibbs + Red Cards. The most signficant injury to the US occurred prior to the tournament. Gibbs would have been a great player to have to sub in for Eddie Pope. Of course, neither Eddie Pope nor Pablo Mastroenni should have had to sit out game 3. Every commentator on ESPN has said so. So, why is it, if we acknowledge that the US defense was missing half its starters due to bad calls, and we all know that the US isn't very deep at central defending, that we are now blaming Arena? What happened to the refs that we were blaming during the games?

5. Shoddy play by usually reliable starters. Landon Donovan disappeared in this tournament, as did DeMarcus Beasley. They have played extraordinarily well under Arena. In fact, the reason they were ever offered lucrative offers in Europe is in part to the way they played under him in 2002. I don't think it was Arena who told them to be tentative and not take shots on goal. The fact remains, these guys are young, but played like old men who are no longer secure in their talents. And old men like Reyna, who just purely fucked up against Ghana. No other way around that. Mastroenni would not have sat there and gotten the ball taken off of him like that. Reyna was playing defensive mid like he does offensive mid, and it cost the US the game. Does anyone think Arena encouraged Reyna to dribble the ball in the defensive third?

Real quick: Good news for the next cup: Convey, Dempsey. Adu will be 20 in 2010. That's about it.

6. Lack of Eddie Johnson. This is a somewhat legitimate beef, but at the same time, the guy never recovered the scoring touch he had in the early qualifying, after he suffered an injury. He came into the Czech game, and yeah, he put some shots near the goal, but nothing that wasn't handled or didn't soar over the net. In the Italy game, Arena decided to go for the tie, and knew that McBride would track back and play defense, and had no faith that Johnson would. They got a point from a vastly superior Italian side. You can't question that decision. Johnson had 30 minutes against Ghana and didn't do a damn thing. At some point, we have to realize that the US is talented against CONCACAF, not the World, and Arena's system, while not perfect, is the most successful system we've had, ever. Again: Steve Sampson. Steve Sampson.

7. Lack of John O'Brien This I have no good answer for. Was he not healthy? Not fit? Play him and get him fit. I would call this Arena's biggest gaffe. Unless O'Brien wasn't healthy, and he was just holding out hope he could get healthy.

Arena's moves were not as questionable as they have been portrayed, to me. For all the talk about Lewis and Cherundolo, it was Oguchi who got worked against the Czechs, and it was the ref who decided the Italy game, and it was a combination of Bocanegra and the ref in the Ghana game. Those were pivotal moments, and none of them were Arena's fault. The guys calling the game said so, and how that became Arena's fault is frankly beyond me.


robustyoungsoul said...

Great post. Nice to see someone with a little perspective on this.

Fish said...

I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment. However, I still think Arena is done as coach through either him being pushed out or him just feeling done. 2 World Cups is a long time for 1 coach to manage a national team. I think that Arena has done a tremendous job making the USA a legitimate team on the world stage but new blood wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

jared said...

Bollocks. Yes, anyone paying attention to soccer would have expected to be knocked out. However, given the way we played with a lineup which was obviously far from our best, we could have easily beaten Italy and Ghana, and therefore advanced. Mastroeni should've never played a minute. As far as US midfielders go, he's behind Donovan, Beasley, Reyna, Convey, Dempsey, and O'Brien, who should've played just about every minute. He WAS fit. We've SEEN him play. There is no excuse. If we played a 4-4-2 with McBride and Johnson up top and any 4 of the 6 midfielders I mentioned, we certainly would have advanced. That is why Wynalda and such are so mad - we could have advanced, but we didn't.

psu_eddie said...

1&2. Heightened expectations, yes. FIFA rankings are meaningless, yes. I wouldn't blame Sampson for not being you really think the US is better than any of the top seeds? Definitely not...I mean I can think of 16 teams better than them still playing...(and yes, I think the US would have struggled with Angola, not to mention they lost to Iran last time around)

3. Group C was the true group of death. Argentina and Netherlands are top notch teams (both on par or better than Italy), while Ivory Coast was competitive in every game and would have competed for advancement in most other groups. The teams in Group C are more potent than Group E and all would have beaten the US team, no question.

4. The red cards were possibly harsh, but totally off base? No. The blame for this falls squarely on the US Squad & Arena's shoulders. Mastroenni was simply stupid not to be careful as he should know the referee would be looking to even things up, especially with a challenge that appeared as dangerous and careless as his did. Arena should have subbed Pope out of the game (possibly try playing with 3 in the back so that they could try to score some goals...) leaving a carded defender in a game where a ref is trigger happy is a major risk. Not to mention he should have instructed his players to take it easy. We can blame refs all we want, but even the weak penalty call didn't matter...the fact that we couldn't score was the key.

5. The entire team appeared as if they had never trained together. Especially in the last game when for the most part they were playing long balls looking for a lucky attacking break. Maybe mistakes made by individual players can't be blamed on Arena, but the fact those players were in the game, continually making those mistakes can be. Instead of shaking the team up when they obviously needed a jump start, he basically continued to stick with the same group of underachievers.

6. Eddie Johnson...barely played. For some unknown reason wasn't subbed in during the Italy game...Arena at fault. You say it was because of his defense, but playing for the tie was probably his biggest mistake. Italy was not playing well. Why not go on the attack...not that it would have mattered because the US has no attack to speak of. And while Johnson's shots may have been off the least he shot the ball.

7. O'Brien...again, Arena...what was he thinking?

Arena plays a very old school style system. There was never any unity in the way the US played. He never seemed to change the style of play and certainly didn't manage to find a way for some offense to appear. Refusing to adjust his approach when it obviously wasn't working was the biggest mistake he made.

A young European coach with a fresh style needs plugged into the system.

Ben said...

The problem with Arena is it was painfully obvious to anyone that Donovan and especially Beasley hadn't been playing well for a long time. Yeah, they're our "stars" but other teams will bench a guy if he isn't playing well.

Not moving on isn't the offense but playing so poorly and not moving on is. Bruce has pushed the right buttons in the past but it's pretty clear he pushed the wrong ones in this tournament. He played not to lose in a must-win game.

I have a ton of respect for him and think he's done a ton for US soccer but after 8 years it's time to move in a different direction and take it to the next level. New blood is a good thing.

Jason said...

I see your point, but I had two big beefs with Arena's tactics:

1. How can you come into a game needing a win, and probably a big goal differential, and stick with a formation that got 0 shots on goal in a match and a half (I'll give a free ride on the 9 v. 10 part of the Italy match)?

2. Beasley needs to play on the left wing or not at all. I know he moves around with the US and with PSV, but it is a difference of night and day when he plays on the left wing instead of in the middle or on the right. Look at the cross he made on Dempsey's goal. He wasn't within a mile of playing in a dangerous ball from other parts of the field.

Muumuuman said...

Bruce Arena seemed tired and withdrawn. After the matches he nearly lulled me to sleep with an apathetic monotone. “Ahhh I’d have liked to go into half time tied up instead of having to chase Ghana…Zzzzzz… in the second half...” I'd of liked to see him fired up against Ghana like he was during the Italy match. He seemed to have a defeatist attitude (oh boo hoo, another bad call, I give up), when he needed to light a match under the collective USA ass like their future depended on it. It did. Instead, I saw a team play like they could loose a few games, like they were still in the early stages of the preliminaries. Did they forget their next chance is in 2010?

eirishis said...

Great post. You make some solid points I hadn't considered, but I think you are going a little easy on Arena. I have a tough time believing that the performance of his players was a total shock to him, that he knew the team so poorly that he couldn't predict that Dempsey would play with confidence or that Donovan (and to a much lesser extent Beasley) would shit the bed.

My feeling is that he is a clipboard guy, and what the U.S. needs now is a motivator. Bring on Klinsmann!

(And, shameless plug, I did a quick analysis of what we've learned about the USNT from this Cup back over at my blog.)

Planet B said...

Goodbye, Boring Bruce!

You are so wrong on this one, it's not even funny.

Big Blue Monkey said...

Wow, this has been by far the most commented post on I Dislike your Favorite Team. Yes, even more than the one I wrote about Boof Bonser.

So, for most the part, I'd like to thank ya'll for being smart commenters who made me think some stuff over.

I should say I wouldn't be suicidal if Bruce left and someone else came in, though I'm no fan of Klinsmann. I just don't think it would be fair to fire the man. He's got options, he's got some pro-club teams in Europe interested in him, and if he wants to go, then we should let him go. But the idea that World Cup coaching ability is somehow the problem, and not World Cup Talent, is silly. We have talent enough to qualify, easily, and to shock a team that hasn't gameplanned (like Portugal in 2002), but we aren't the this talented bad-ass squad. And we won't be, probably for another 8 years.

And that's not Arena's fault. Anyone who thinks the US could have won out if we had played more Johnson or more O'Brien didn't watch enough of the latter qualifying matches.

Anyway, let's close the book on the US Cup, and move on.