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.