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Column: Bruce Arena’s return brings a timeless element to U.S. national team

Bruce Arena’s return brings a timeless element to U.S. national team
Bruce Arena, coach of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, watches his squad during a practice session Jan. 11.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

It’s been a while since Bruce Arena coached a game with the U.S. national team.

“We’re on our third president now,” said Arena, whose first stint with the national team ended when the 2006 World Cup did.  “Things have changed.”

Changed a lot. Consider that Twitter was launched the month Arena was fired, while Facebook was still a niche product. And the iPhone hadn’t even been invented.

But if the world around him has changed, those who know Arena best insist the coach hasn’t.

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“Same guy,” said forward Jozy Altidore, who played his first professional game for Arena.  “He’s probably a better coach. [But] he’s still the same guy.”

Added defender DaMarcus Beasley, the only holdover from Arena’s last national team: “There’s nothing much different. … His personality’s the same.”

Arena will start his second term with the national team Sunday when the U.S. meets Serbia at Qualcomm Stadium (1 p.m. PT, ESPN2, UniMas). And if you’re looking for another way to measure the passage of time between his firing and rehiring, consider that Altidore was a 16-year-old unknown when Arena gave him his start with the New York Red Bulls in 2006. Sunday he’ll get his 100th cap for a national team he leads with 37 goals.

If Arena hasn’t been reinvented, though, he certainly has been reinvigorated by his return to the national team after spending the last 8½ years with the Galaxy, where he won three MLS Cups and reached the Western Conference semifinals seven times.

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“It’s a challenge for any coach that’s been somewhere for a long time and had a great deal of success to maintain that and to find ways to be as passionate as when he first started,” said Pat Noonan, who played and coached under Arena with the Galaxy before following him to the national team’s staff as an assistant. “Now it’s an opportunity to have a new challenge. With any new challenge there’s a new excitement, a new energy.”

The challenge he faces may be the stiffest for a national team coach in a generation, since Arena is being asked to rescue a World Cup qualifying effort that got off to a rocky start. Under former Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. lost to Mexico and Costa Rica in November, falling to last in the six-team tournament and leaving the Americans in danger of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

“He was the best option we have right now. And everyone’s excited to play for him,” Beasley said of Arena, who was given the job two months ago, a day after Klinsmann was sacked.

But the sport, like his former teammates, has moved on since 2006, Beasley warned.

“Football’s changed so much,” he said. “It’s a young man’s game now. So you’ve got to adapt to different situations.”

Arena, who spent eight years with the national team in his first stay, has done that. A Hall of Famer and the most successful coach in the U.S., Arena has won five MLS titles and is the only man to coach the national team in two World Cups. He’s starting over Sunday, though, with the game against Serbia and next Friday’s exhibition with Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tenn., marking the first steps on a new journey.

Neither game may offer a true test of progress because Arena’s roster lacks key players such as Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson, who remained with their European club teams. But he will get a look at MLS-based players such as Altidore, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan and will be auditioning others, including Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget and Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, who is getting a trial at right back.

And with defender Geoff Cameron injured and defender Timmy Chandler and Jones, a midfielder, suspended for the next qualifier, the new coach already has several holes to fill.

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“These games are very important,” said Arena, whose team returns to World Cup qualifying in March with a must-win game against Honduras. “We’re thin in some areas, so I need these games to answer a couple of questions. And hopefully that allows us to move forward and develop the right kind of roster necessary to be successful.”

Building a roster wasn’t the only thing Arena hoped to do with his winter training camp, which opened 2½ weeks ago. He also wanted to build a winning atmosphere and restore the confidence the U.S. appeared to lose in November. He’s made progress there as well, although a poor performance Sunday against a weak Serbian team composed of domestic-based players could set that back.

The true tests begin in March, though the question of whether Arena is truly the savior the U.S. sought is one only time will answer. And time is something Arena, 65, has on his side.

“I should be a little better than I was 10 years ago,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a real difficult thing evaluating the talent that we have … and understanding what they’re about.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

 

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