Anyone with half a brain could recognize that Bruce Arena’s second tenure as USMNT coach was a monumental failure of historic proportions for which he deserved to be exiled to Soccer Siberia and never heard from again. Ditto for U.S. Soccer’s broader complicity in allowing the men’s national team to realize its biggest humiliation ever by missing out on the next World Cup. The specifics of just exactly why and how Arena and the soccer federation failed are a little more obscured from the outsider’s view, though. Thankfully, we have guys like Geoff Cameron who are willing to call out and describe these failures in detail.
Cameron, like Christian Pulisic before him, has penned an article over at the Players’ Tribune describing what he sees as the problems with American soccer at the moment, and specifically with the latter stages of the USMNT’s World Cup qualification collapse. You should check out the entire thing, as it’s chock-full of interesting insights about how he feels the culture of U.S. soccer has backslid since the departure of Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm, where in his mind there is now much less ambition and competitiveness and accountability driving the team and players forward than there was when the controversial but successful German was managing. His most cutting remarks, though, are reserved for Arena himself.
If Klinsmann’s USMNT was defined by ambition, by pushing the team and the individual players as far as they can go to challenge themselves, then by Cameron’s telling Arena’s team was one defined by entitlement. As Cameron writes, “When Bruce came in, it was like everyone relaxed.” Referencing the widely disseminated pictures of Trinidad and Tobago’s waterlogged pitch from the USMNT’s warmup training sessions in the days before the match, Cameron points at that particular scene as evidence for how the team’s coaching staff seemed to take the qualification process for granted:
We showed up in Trinidad and expected that it was going to be a cakewalk. The day before the match, the entire pitch was under water. It was pretty clear that the game was going to be complicated. It wasn’t going to be football. It was going to be a grind. But the whole coaching staff was just … honestly, it was like it was all a big joke. They were so loose that, in retrospect, it was actually ridiculous.
Throughout his article Cameron hints that Arena and the staff’s approach was out of touch with the modern standards of the game at the highest level. He calls Arena’s leadership “an old-school regime” that “certainly wasn’t equipped to lead us to the next level and the next phase in U.S. Soccer.” Part of what he seems to be getting at is that Arena wasn’t prepared to take seriously the unique challenges CONCACAF teams like Trinidad & Tobago and their shitty pitch posed to the U.S., and instead figured if they simply showed up, they’d win. This may have been more true back during Arena’s first go-round as USMNT coach (he managed the team from 1998-2006), but is clearly no longer the case anymore.
Proof of Arena’s entitled mindset and lack of any personal accountability comes from the team’s tactical setup for that fateful Trinidad & Tobago loss. Cameron comes off as flat-out exasperated with the overly attacking lineup Arena put onto the field—a starting XI that didn’t include Cameron:
It’s this simple: That Trinidad & Tobago team was full of athletes, and we were playing away on an atrocious pitch, and we only needed one point to qualify for the World Cup.
So what formation did we use?
One defensive midfielder.
One defensive midfielder, on a terrible pitch, against a team that wants to capitalize on bad bounces and mistakes. When we only needed one point.
I don’t bring this up to be a jerk. I don’t bring this up to rub salt in any wounds. I bring this up because Bruce Arena, the coach who was responsible for this formation, came out after the game and said, “We played down a man because we couldn’t dribble out of the back.”
He threw his two central defenders under the bus — after the single most depressing day of all of our careers — because they “couldn’t dribble out of the back” on one of the worst pitches I’ve ever trained on.
You throw your own players under the bus? When we played a 4-1-3-2? When we only needed one point? One freaking point. To go to the World Cup.
This isn’t the first time Cameron has publicly called out Arena, nor is the anecdote mentioned above in which Arena blames his central defenders on the Trinidad & Tobago loss the first time Arena has taken shots at others as a way to deflect blame from himself. A New York Times article from a couple weeks ago quoted Cameron as saying “Bruce Arena made decisions that cost us going to the World Cup,” as well as lamenting Arena’s decision not to start him in either of the U.S.’s final two qualifying matches.
When reached for comment about Cameron’s dissatisfaction with not playing, Arena replied, “I don’t think 2017 was that impressive of a performance for the player. When the stars and the moon and the sun are aligned properly, Geoff is a very good player. They don’t all align properly all the time.” Before the Times’ article was published, Arena took another opportunity to malign one of the U.S.’s all-time greatest players when he said this about Cameron, this time in a more private setting:
In a subsequent appearance two weeks ago at a coaches convention in Philadelphia, Arena asserted that “the chemistry of the group wasn’t right” and mentioned “a couple of bad eggs.” He expressed disappointment that there had been a few players on the national team “that we could never get to.”
“You’ll read about one of them in the next day or two in The New York Times,” he told the gathered coaches, implying — without speaking Cameron’s name — that he had been referring to him.
Cameron seems to agree at least in part with Arena’s assessment of a fractured USMNT roster, citing in his Players’ Tribune article a “poisonous divide between the MLS players and the so-called ‘European’ players.” German-American midfielder Danny Williams also recently brought up a similar dynamic when he mentioned his belief that Arena and U.S. Soccer favored MLS players over European ones. However, Cameron calls for that barrier to be torn down so that a more unified, holistic culture can be built in its stead. One that acknowledges what U.S. Soccer and even MLS do well while nevertheless being honest about the shortcomings of domestic soccer as it exists today, a culture that at all times is focused on challenging the status quo with a ruthless eye toward getting the best out of the players and teams we have, one that always looks forward for the next coach or federation president who will aim to press the sport ahead rather than one who sees our mediocre past and thinks it good enough.
If there is to be an honest reckoning over how U.S. Soccer has failed soccer in America, and if there will be a new vision that does drive this country’s youth players and academy coaches and national team managers and senior squad members to achieve the level of success the country can and should be striving for, then I’m pretty sure that future will look much more like the one Cameron is calling for than the one Arena was taking us toward.