Alejandro Bedoya missed a goal in training, and Bruce Arena wanted to make sure the midfielder knew he noticed.
“He threatened to chop my man bun off,” Bedoya said, smiling. “That’s the kind of grief I get around here.”
Humor has returned to the U.S. national team since Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as coach in November, following losses in the first two games in the final round of World Cup qualifying. In the first competitive match of Arena 2.0, the U.S. responded with a 6-0 rout of Honduras on Friday, and the Americans could even their record quickly with a win at Panama on Tuesday night.
A member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame who coached the national team from 1998-2006, Arena wanted to quickly put aside worries the Americans would fail to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup. He turned over staff, tore up rules and defined players’ roles during his first four months. He discarded Klinsmann’s curfew, eliminated the prohibition on meetings with agents at the team hotel, limited training sessions to one per day and allowed the support staff to sit in on video analysis sessions with players.
“Be on time and be respectful. Those are the rules,” he said Monday. “If it’s my job to control them all day, then I don’t think we have a chance, and I’m basically not interested in doing it. I’d just open up a preschool somewhere.”
If not quite chaos under Klinsmann, there was constant uncertainty. Arena brought his own brand of Brooklyn bluntness back to the job, a self-confidence boosted by five NCAA titles at Virginia and five Major League Soccer championships with D.C. United and the LA Galaxy.
“If I was coaching college today I’d be fired, because there’s too many rules,” he said. “In my days there was nothing wrong with having a beer with one of your players.”
Veteran players say Arena is a steady presence, unchanged through the years.
“I think we’re all surprised by the sarcasm. That’s Bruce. It’s great. It keeps you on your toes. He’s very tough to impress, and all of that hasn’t changed,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “If you get a `pretty good’ from Bruce, you should feel like you’re on top of the world, because that’s all you get.”
Klinsmann was a star forward on West Germany’s World Cup championship team in 1990 and coached Germany to the 2006 World Cup semifinals. A resident of California since 1998 where he lives with his American wife, he understands both the challenges of raising the sport’s level in the U.S. and the high-level training techniques he learned as a player at Inter Milan, Tottenham, Bayern Munich and other big European clubs.
Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley in 2011 and coached the U.S. to the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup title and the round of 16 in the following year’s World Cup. But the Americans were shocked by Jamaica in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals and struggled in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
“We had lost our way in some ways,” said U.S. captain Michael Bradley, Bob’s son, who made his national team debut under Arena 11 years ago. “I think Bruce has just done a very good job of coming in and being very clear with how we’re going to do things, with what he wants us to be about, on the field, off the field, and I think the group has responded in a really good way.”
According to Bradley, Arena re-established “what we emphasize, the group, the mentality, the identity, the spirit.”
“A lot of us felt like over this past stretch some of those things had started to drop a little bit,” Bradley said.
National teams are far different than clubs, where coaches preside over their players for roughly 10 months a year. National teams come together for a week or so at a time several times a year, then gather for soccer’s major championships.
Arena traveled for one-on-one meetings with many players to get his message across, and when players gathered last week he brought in Tom Perrin, a performance coach and sports psychologist who has worked with him since they were together at Virginia.
“He works in the NBA,” Arena said. “And you think we got problems?”
As much as tactics, a mental adjustment was required.
“The whole week he was talking to the players, talking about how there’s 24, whatever, different personalities, egos in the room, and how do we make it work,” Bedoya said. “I think that’s the most important thing, to put egos aside and know that we’re all here for one sole reason, and that’s to get to the end goal, to the World Cup.”
Players were on edge under Klinsmann, unsure where they stood, many trying to please the coach rather than focusing on their tasks. Klinsmann emphasized repeatedly that players in MLS should want to go to Europe, that those on small- and mid-level European clubs should not be satisfied until they were regulars for bigger teams.
Klinsmann sometimes called for 10 p.m. team meetings in the hotel bar _ a work and social occasion, but also a way of ensuring players would not be out late on their own. His unpredictability eventually caused the group to become more uptight. He didn’t want players to feel safe, saying top European stars never were.
“In general I think that’s how German mentality is. It’s nothing against Jurgen because he had his good attributes and obviously was a world-class player and we did get some great results under him,” Bedoya explained.
Arena, 65 and coach for four decades, says he trusts his players.
“We don’t really have as many meetings or things throughout the day, so it’s not as rigid,” Bedoya said.
As biting as his barbs may seem, Arena insisted during the 2002 World Cup that his most cantankerous comments are endured by his wife. Howard, who made his international debut for Arena that year, said the demands are straightforward.
“When you step across the line, you train, he demands perfection. When you step across to play, he wants nothing but your everything,” Howard said. “And then the rest of it, you kind of let your hair down and do whatever the heck you want to do.”
After the six-goal win, Arena humorously asked what the “stiffs” in the press corps wanted to inquire about. He was back on track, and so were the Americans.
“If we had lost the other night, they wouldn’t be having that much fun,” he said. “We’re bringing a clown in for lunch today to make balloons and stuff for the players. We’re just functioning as normal people.”