Lost in much of yesterday’s commotion with the New York Cosmos and the tragedy that befell Brazilian club Chapecoense was Bruce Arena’s sit down with U.S. Soccer about his potential philosophy for the United States Men’s National Team. Many have been wondering what the new old boss will change, if anything, from Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure.
Breaking Down Bruce Arena’s USMNT Plans
He had a lot to tell the officials, but here’s my thoughts on what he had to say.
He is Wrong to Dismiss Analytics
Arena’s feelings towards analytics in soccer was one noticeable change from Klinsmann. Where the old regime favored the use of advanced numbers and data analysis in soccer, Arena brushed them off. He doesn’t think that soccer is an analytic sport, which, to be frank, isn’t true at all.
Analytics and advanced data have a place in soccer. The problem is not many people know how to properly use them yet. There isn’t even a really great stat out there. The most commonly used metric is expected goals, which has it’s many flaws. The idea behind it is determining how many goals a team should have scored based on shot locations. It isn’t perfect at all. It doesn’t account for defensive skill, goalkeeping skill, or even the skill of the shooter in question.
However, just because we don’t have anything overly reliable yet doesn’t mean Arena should throw them out completely. For all it’s flaws, expected goals does tell you a few things. Typically, the higher the number, the more often a team finds itself in attacking positions. Throwing out that data is throwing out a measure you can use to evaluate your attack.
Plus, if Arena at least keeps the door open to analytics, he can bring in brains that can help refine the data into something more robust. Throwing it out entirely is bad for the progression of the sport.
He is not Ignoring “Foreign Nationals”
One of the knocks against Arena’s rehiring was his comments seemingly bashing the use of players not born in the USA. He clarified those comments during his meeting with U.S. Soccer officials. He doesn’t have any love for the term “foreign nationals” and thinks that the players born outside the country still have a place on the team. In fact, he is meeting with the German based players in the coming week or so.
Many would agree that this is a good thing. While his comments from months ago appeared to make him against players like Jermaine Jones, Timmy Chandler, and Aron Johannsson, his behavior after being on the job for a week or so implies otherwise. He’s publicly stated that Jones, for instance, will still be an important part of the team going forward.
While no mention was made of future potential foreign players, such as Cameron Carter-Vickers, he never outright dismissed their possible inclusions either.
Arena will have to make use of every available resource if he wants to build a successful national team. This includes continuing Klinsmann’s practice of pilfering players who are eligible for more than one national team. There is a lot of benefit to pulling in guys from other countries. Different, and often more refined, training methods can impart skills American raised players don’t have. They can help impart these skills on those domestic players and increase the overall skill of the player pool.
The Return of Benny, and Other Forgotten Stars
One of Arena’s main priorities will be finding a suitable attacking force for his team. One of the issues from the Mexico and Costa Rica defeats was poor passing in the midfield and poor link up from back to front. While Jones and Bradley apparently still have their place in the team, Arena is looking for a more dynamic playmaker in the attacking midfield. He specifically told ESPN that, “We need a better passer in the midfield than we have.” Thankfully he has several great options before him.
It is heavily speculated that Benny Feilhaber will be getting looks with the national team. He was mostly left out thanks to petty grudges between him and Klinsmann. His play with Sporting Kansas City has definitely earned him another shot with the USMNT. He was second in MLS among American born players with 13 (liberally allotted by MLS) assists this season. His free kick skills are among the best in the country.
There is also Darlington Nagbe, who was on the Copa America roster, but hardly featured and was left off for the last round of World Cup Qualifiers. Nagbe, at his best moments, is an excellent playmaker in the central midfield that could suit Arena’s purposes very well. He was the second most accurate passer in MLS during the regular season and first among Americans. It would be hard to find a better distributor in your midfield.
Sacha Kljestan, who came close to breaking back in under Klinsmann, is going to get some high profile minutes under Arena. He had an MLS MVP caliber season with New York Red Bulls and the new boss respects that. Kljestan led MLS with 20 liberally allotted assists. He led the league in key passes with an average of 3.3 per game. He is exactly the type of playmaker Arena is looking for.
Expect all three of these guys to get a call up for January camp and beyond.
The Immediate Future
One of my criticisms of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure was his often blinding focus on the future. It almost looked like he was so concerned with what may work in a year or two that he lost the ability to concentrate on the present. That’s why he lost against Mexico a couple weeks ago and why he lost the Gold Cup in 2015. Arena’s administration will be concerned with one thing and one thing alone, the present.
Arena’s first goal will be taking stock of his team during January camp. He should have a great idea of the domestic based players available to him afterward. During the couple matches he wants to schedule, he can figure out tactics and experiment in a low pressure environment.
More importantly, Arena needs to focus on qualifying for the World Cup in 2018. He does not need to focus in the development of youth talent. He doesn’t need to look to the future by recruiting dual nationals. The roster overhaul can wait. He knows things will have to change, but, right now, his single focus is winning the eight matches ahead of him and getting this team to Russia. Nothing else matters at this point.