Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Books: Arena Asks about US Soccer, "What's Wrong With US?"

What's Wrong With US?: A Coach's Blunt Take on the State of American Soccer After a Lifetime on the Touchline
By Bruce Arena, with Steve Kettmann
Harper, 288 pages; $28.99, available today, June 12

When the United States Men's Soccer team was in trouble and looking for someone to replace Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach, they turned to a familiar face in Bruce Arena.

The winningest coach in US soccer history, Arena was at the helm for the USMNT's best-ever World Cup performance in 2002 when they made the quarterfinals. It was a natural that he come back and try to get them over the top and see if he can duplicate that magical run and keep building enthusiasm for soccer in this country.

Arena did not get the magical ending he hoped for this time, as they failed to make the 2018 World Cup after losing a quarterfinal to Trinidad & Tobago in October 2017. This is the first time the United States has failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1986.

In his new book, What's Wrong With US?: A Coach's Blunt Take on the State of American Soccer After a Lifetime on the Touchline, Arena uses his unique perspective of seeing the highs and lows of US soccer to look at concrete changes American soccer can make to find success again, including a controversial framework for reform.

Arena writes, "I felt terrible after the Trinidad loss, as I think everyone in US soccer did. What bothered me the most wasn't the usual Monday-morning quarterbacking and self-righteous indignation, some of it directed at US soccer in general, much of it aimed at me personally. You expect that stuff; there's value in some of it, and you just tune out the rest. What made me sick was the knowledge that our players would all be denied the experience of playing for their country in Russia on the greatest stage in sport. The World Cup in Russia could have been and should have been the true coming-out party for our young star Christian Pulisic, who, as I said on a CBS 60 Minutes segment, just might be our first true American soccer superstar. Christian was the best player for us in World Cup qualifying and continued to develop at an impressive rate. In 2018 in Russia, he would have been a player to watch. I felt so bad knowing Christian would be denied that. Veteran players like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, huge figures in bringing US soccer forward, would have to sit out the World Cup too, along with our team captain, Michael Bradley, along with every member of the squad. A lot of these guys will never get another shot at a World Cup and that might even include Michael, who was one of our better players in qualifying behind Christian - he'll be thirty-five by the time the 2022 World Cup in Qatar rolls around, and that might be pushing it. I also felt terrible for soccer fans in this country. We usually have one of the largest group of supporters at the World Cup, and missing out was a real blow to them.

"But there are also positives. For a start, the devastating result forces a wholesale evaluation of the state of soccer in this country, and it has been much needed for a while. I hope that this book will be seen as part of the process by which we work out what went wrong and what we need to do to fix the problem. We've come so far since I first started coaching soccer more than forty years ago, and I hope in these pages to tell enough stories and share enough experiences from those forty years to give a sense of just how far soccer has come in this country - and how honored I've been to have played a role in that process. One example is the fact that millions of Americans, including me, cared enough about soccer to feel pained that our great country will not be represented in Russia.

"One of the key problems with soccer in the United States right now is the inability to make a distinction between making money and developing the sport. We've pretended that the two goals are the same, when in fact they're only somewhat related. For years the challenge seemed to be to find a way to have a viable North American professional soccer league, which was rightly seen as the foundation for continuing to move soccer forward in the United States. People were understandably haunted by the memory of the North American Soccer League, launched in 1968 and featuring the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer (and, if I'd agreed to a contract, a young backup goalkeeper named Bruce Arena), a league that drew millions of fans but  which ultimately folded in 1984. Fast forward to Major League Soccer, which was founded in 1996, and which found itself in financial trouble as early as 1999. That was the year when MLS hired as its commissioner Don Garber, whose background was in NFL marketing, not soccer.

"Don has done a good job running Major League Soccer as a business. The league keeps expanding, it's on firm financial footing, many clubs have built fine, soccer-only stadiums, and fans around the country can look forward to a steadily improving level of play. My 1997 and 1998 DC United teams were as good as any teams in the history of the league, but overall the level of play is clearly better - and will continue to improve.

"The question is: are we headed in the right direction? Is the sole purpose of MLS to make money, to build itself into a fabulous sports business like the NFL, or is it also able to provide the foundation for the United States to build itself into a true world soccer power? I think most fans of US soccer would see it as both. It's time to do far more to give young players a way forward, not just at the youth level, but at the young professional level."

Arena looks at the entire system, from recruiting to coaching to the structure of MLS, the integration of overseas players, and the role that money plays in the modern game.

Drawing on his years of experience as a player and coach, Arena gives a candid account of his remarkable career, from college championships in both lacrosse and soccer, to MLS triumphs with DC United and the Los Angeles  Galaxy, to working with superstars like David Beckham and Landon Donovan in LA, and Christian Pulisic with the US team.

If you are disappointed the United States is not in this year's World Cup and want to hear from an authority on the program, this work from Arena is a must-read because he knows how the US can reclaim the glory of that 2002 run.

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