Arena’s Dilemma

Bruce Arena lacks the options he had in 2002 to shake up the team

The embarrassing performance of the USA in the World Cup opener on Monday would be enough force most coaches to seek asylum in some foreign nation instead of returning home after the competition with the team. But in Bruce Arena’s case he is lucky that the vast majority of Americans do not even know the World Cup is currently taking place in Germany, let alone have in interest in the results.

No doubt exists that Bruce Arena has brought the USA to previously unknown heights in world of international football. But it is also true that Arena was a lot more thorough and comprehensive in how he looked at his player pool in preparation for the 2002 World Cup. It seems the roster decisions made in 2002 were better because Arena had taken long looks at every American player that could potentially play for the national team and had chosen the 23 best players available. Contrary to the bluster on ABC prior to this World Cup about this easily being the most talented American team ever, I believe the 2002 squad had a substantially higher amount of depth and talent and many more playmakers and potential goal scorers than this squad. The 2002 squad was a nice mixture of veteran leadership a legacy of the Bora Milutinovic days with Cobi Jones, Joe Max-Moore and Earnie Stewart, a player in his prime as the captain, Claudio Reyna, a striker in his prime in Brian McBride and two superstar youngsters, Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley, as well as two absolute stud products of MLS, Clint Mathis and Tony Sanneh. Even though Clint Mathis was an out of shape trouble maker, the USA really hasn’t produced a player with his combination of excellent ball skills, speed and size. While Mathis was trouble off the field, he was lethal on it, scoring a spectacular goal against eventual semi-finalists South Korea and perfectly setting up a Landon Donovan strike later in the tournament. It isn’t Arena’s fault that Mathis went bad, but the 2006 edition of the US World Cup team doesn’t have a comparable player. Tony Sanneh too was special player who blossomed late in his career into one of the top American players both on the national team and on the club level. What Sanneh gave the USA was strong man marker in the defense who could push forward with ease on the ball and served up excellent crosses. Sanneh has been replaced Steve Cherundolo, an unused sub from the 2002 team who as we saw Monday isn’t ready for this level of competition yet. Throw in the loss Frankie Hedjuk, a hustler and ball winner from the 98′ and 02′ cups who tore his ACL just before this World Cup and it’s obvious we just don’t have the depth we once had. Right now, the USA only has one top player in his prime, the injury prone John O’Brien. Perhaps 2006 just isn’t our year when you look at it that way.

Thus Bruce Arena has a major dilemma. Unlike 2002 when he was able to shake up the lineup totally after a disheartening performance against Poland, this squad just doesn’t have very much depth. Arena’s own unwillingness to select players such as Taylor Twellman or Steve Ralston who could have been difference makers didn’t help the cause but the reality is that our player pool is just not as deep as it was four years ago. I have looked at our roster and cannot see us making many changes for tomorrow’s game, despite the pathetic performance on Monday. Clint Dempsey replacing DeMarcus Beasley on the right side of the midfield is the only sure change, though I would consider replacing Eddie Lewis on the back line with Carlos Bocanegra. If Eddie Pope cannot go tomorrow, Gregg Berhalter should start in his place. Should Eddie Johnson start? Maybe. He’s earned a start based on the fact that he created more scoring chances in the 45 minutes he played Monday than the rest of the team combined in 90 minutes. However, if you take Johnson off the bench you have zero potential game changers to bring on the pitch if we fall behind. This isn’t like 2002 when Bruce Arena brought Clint Mathis, Earnie Stewart and Cobi Jones into the Germany game and still had Joe Max Moore as an unused sub! Brian Ching and Josh Wolff, who played decently in 2002 but has not been as strong in MLS since, would probably get eaten alive by Italy’s defense.

Bruce Arena has precious few options to shake up the team and still be successful. Some like Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson make sense from a certain point of view. Others like potentially playing Ben Olsen, Jimmy Conrad or Brian Ching make no sense whatsoever. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that our boys give a better effort tomorrow because if they do not, the Ghana game will officially be the start of the next rebuilding era of US Soccer.

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About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the World Soccer Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the books 'Blue With Envy' about Manchester City FC, and 'Soccerwarz' about the MLS, USL and NASL infighting.
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