Two World Cup appearances with the national team and five MLS titles with D.C. United and the Galaxy make Bruce Arena the most successful soccer coach in U.S. history. Now he faces his biggest challenge: trying to get the U.S. team to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Arena returned to the national team this week, replacing Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired as coach after losing the first two games of the hexagonal round of qualifying. Arena, 65, spoke exclusively with The Times shortly after he accepted his new job.
You have a knack for taking over struggling teams – the national team in 1998, the Galaxy in 2008 – and turning them into winners. Do you embrace that reputation?
I do enjoy that. I like to start a project that needs some work and leave it in good shape. That’s something I take a lot of pride in.
This appears to be a win-win situation. If you take the team to the World Cup, you saved it. And if you don’t, it was beyond repair.
I don’t know about that. I think the savior in this project are the players, not me. I’m just going to help guide them a little bit. The players are the ones that are going to get the job done. And I’m confident we have a group that can do it.
The style of play you’re been associated with has been called conservative, stodgy, unattractive. Does that bother you?
Well, at this point, when you’re trying to qualify a team for a World Cup, the most important thing is the win column and the points. Nothing more than that. I don’t think there’s any person in the world that would tell you otherwise. We obviously want to entertain and we want our fans to enjoy watching our team play and support us and all. But we know the priority is to qualify for the World Cup. And I want to have a group of players that are ready to do whatever they need to do to put us in that position — whether that means we have great style in games, we score a lot of goals or we defend very well. We need to do what we need to do to qualify this team.
Is the goal simply to qualify for the World Cup? Can you think beyond that to how you perform in Russia?
Once you qualify, then you have almost a year to get your team ready for a World Cup. And you know what your draw is, you have your focus on your opponents, a focus on the right kind of roster for a World Cup. And then you proceed. But every step of the way everything’s a little bit different.
You were a little vague on the plans for your roster. Is this team a little bit old in some key spots? Can you get to Russia with this group and do you need to make changes?
Actually that’s not the impression I got of the roster. Where is the roster old? I know you have a goalkeeper [Tim Howard] that’s 37 and a midfielder [Jermaine Jones] that’s 35. But for the most part, that roster’s not that old. Through the year players are going to develop, other players may lose form. A lot of things can happen in a year and a half. But in all honesty, there’s no focus on the 2018 World Cup right now except the fact that we’re trying to qualify for it. The whole focus is this team in qualifying and nothing more than that. I’m not that much of a genius that I can look that far ahead. But I do know from my experience, rosters change for frendlies, for World Cup qualifying and for the World Cup. In some ways they’re three different animals, and we’ll take everything one step at a time.
What’s the most glaring weakness?
That’s a tough question to answer. If you looked at the last two games you would say the back line, right? I happen to think that if we have the right group of guys together it’ll be a strength. It’s hard just to look at a couple of games and draw any conclusions. I think the group is pretty solid in every position.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for the national team over the last year. Is that something you have to address, the lack of consistency?
It will definitely be addressed. I think the negative part is they never quite had a consistency in terms of playing together as a team. And therefore the results were a little bit up and down. We need to get a consistency within this group. With a national team you need more than 11 players. You need a pretty solid group of players to be successful because along the way there are injuries, there are suspensions, there are games played close together. So you have to have a large group of players and the group all understanding what the goal is and have everyone prepared to play. Next man up kind of mentality.
Do you expect this team to have a renewed focus on MLS players over foreign-born players?
We have no bias in terms of Major League Soccer, players playing abroad, how you acquire a passport. What we’re going to do is find the best players we can for the team. And that’s how the decisions will be made. If it’s a large group of domestic players, terrific. If it’s a small group of domestic players, that’s the way it is. We’re going to take the best players that position our team to be successful.
But you are so comfortable with and knowledgeable about MLS players. There’s no predisposition to those players?
I think all that means is I have an advantage. I understand the players and I’ve seen what they can do. And if I work with them firsthand, I’ll get to know them even better. I think it’s an advantage having been a coach in Major League Soccer for so many years.
Will Landon Donovan return to the national team?
Landon hasn’t decided whether he’s going to continue his club career. And obviously until he decides that, you couldn’t give any thought to him returning to the national team.
There has been talk that as many as four coaches from your Galaxy staff could follow you to the national team. Do you need people you trust because you have a short window to qualify?
I haven’t finalized anything like that with the Galaxy or with U.S. Soccer. However, I would simply say this: We need a coaching staff that’s coordinated and working together just like we need the team to do that. And whoever gives me the best chance to do that, I’m going to hire. Obviously, we all are more comfortable with people we’re familiar with, and the group of coaches at the Galaxy, if they’re available and have a desire to work with me, I’d certainly give them strong consideration. I believe that’s another formula for success: to have a familiar and comfortable coaching staff.