Perhaps Sunil Gulati put it best shortly after the most crushing loss in U.S. national team history. Addressing the media after Tuesday's catastrophic World Cup qualifying defeat to Trinidad & Tobago, the U.S. Soccer president tried to offer some context and said Bruce Arena wasn't a genius on Oct. 6 — when the U.S. crushed Panama 4-0 — and he wasn't an idiot on that fateful day in Couva.
No, Arena was neither a genius or idiot, but by the time he walked out of Ato Boldon Stadium with the look of a bankrupted gambler after losing the last of his cash, Arena was a failure. Though he was far from the only one to blame for that fact.
Arena resigned as U.S. head coach on Friday, a move that was a mere formality and one that felt like the sacrificing of a fall guy in order to buy some time while U.S. Soccer prepares its explanation for what went wrong, and plan for climbing out of a historic disaster.
"It is the greatest privilege for any coach to manage their country’s national team, and as I leave that role today I am honored and grateful to have had that opportunity twice in my career," Arena said in a statement.
"When I took the job last November, I knew there was a great challenge ahead, probably more than most people could appreciate. Everyone involved in the program gave everything they hadfor the last 11 months, and in the end we came up short. No excuses. We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility."
In some ways, it's a sad ending for a coach who stepped into a mess that wasn't of his own creation. Arena wasn't the coach who led his team to a pair of losses to open the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. That was Jurgen Klinsmann. Arena wasn't the one who let Klinsmann continue on as coach after the 2015 Gold Cup debacle even after plenty of signs pointed to that being the right time to fire him. No, that was Sunil Gulati.
Arena stepped into a thankless task filled with his usual bravado, fully confident he could steer the team to the 2018 World Cup, even with the two-loss handicap. Nobody could blame him for taking the job. It was a decade earlier when Gulati first relieved Arena of his duties as U.S. coach, a move that left Arena enraged at the time because he believed — mistakenly — that he deserved more time. It took a few years, but Arena eventually accepted that Gulati had made the right decision. A decade later, with more experience and success under his belt, Arena considered himself well-equipped to take another crack at coaching the U.S. When Gulati reached out in desperation after those early World Cup qualifying losses, Arena fully believed he would find national team redemption.
For eight months, Arena handled the job perfectly. The U.S. gathered eight points from four qualifiers, including a precious point from its trip to Mexico, and he even threw in a Gold Cup title to boot. By the time Arena was sipping champagne after the Gold Cup final, all seemed right with the world, and the U.S. probably started thinking it would be a good time to start planning their trips to Russia.
Then something happened. Arena's hubris in the wake of that early success led to some moves that laid the groundwork for the failure in Trinidad. He called up and started Fabian Johnson despite Johnson not having played yet since returning from a back injury. He started Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream together despite them having no real history as a center-back tandem. He left Tim Chandler home despite Chandler starting regularly in the Bundesliga and Eric Lichaj playing sporadically in the English League Championship.
The Costa Rica loss should have served as a wake-up call, but it didn't. Instead, it led to Arena losing faith in two of the team's best players, Cameron and Johnson. He benched Cameron for Omar Gonzalez, which then gave us Gonzalez's shocker against Honduras, and he benched Johnson. At the time, both moves were understandable, but then Arena compounded things by keeping Cameron benched for the October qualifiers despite Cameron clearly being a better defender than Gonzalez. He also then chose to leave Johnson in Germany rather than call him up, this despite the fact Johnson was clearly back to full fitness by then, unlike in September, when Arena threw him into the lineup and then watched him be invisible against Costa Rica.
So there was the U.S., in Trinidad & Tobago with Johnson back in Europe, Cameron on the bench, and with the U.S. fielding the same exact lineup that had played just four days earlier. We all know what happened next. The U.S. team came out flat, lacking energy against an inspired Trinidad & Tobago team. Gonzalez managed to steer a ball into his own net, and Jorge Villafana and Darlington Nagbe were nowhere to be found when Alvin Jones blistered his long-range shot past Tim Howard.
Arena tried chalking up the events of that fateful first half to bad luck, but he had to know deep down it wasn't that simple. He had to know it was his decision not to play Cameron, and his decision to leave Johnson home, and his decision to not inject any fresh legs into the starting lineup. That part was all him, and is why he gets a heaping serving of the blame for the U.S. missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
He doesn't get it all though, and that part can't be overshadowed simply because Arena is the one to fall on his sword first. Gulati deserves the lion's share of blame for having chosen the coaches who helped bake this cake of failure the American soccer community is being forced to eat. And while it is unlikely Gulati will be following Arena's lead in resigning any time soon, the good news is Tuesday's World Cup qualifying failure has led to an awakening in the American soccer community, one that is now, for the first time, really calling for accountability in the highest levels of the sport in this country.
"Obviously the biggest disappointment is for our fans," Arena said. "As a person involved in the sport for more than 40 years, to see how support for soccer in the United States has grown is incredibly gratifying. I believe I speak for everyone involved in the game in thanking all of you for your passion and commitment, and I hope you maintain your steadfast support of U.S. Soccer.
We can only hope that leads to more action, and more change, than just one coach handing in his resignation.