The U.S. may have wasted its chance at Olympic glory but Bruce Arena didn’t pass up an opportunity to settle an old score.
Hell hath no fury like a manager fired.
In the aftermath of the under-23 team’s stunning elimination from the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament on Monday, Arena fired back at the man who once fired him as well as one of his high-profile disciples. Needless to say, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has had better days.
“We need to have new leadership, a fresh way of doing things,” Arena, now the head coach of the LA Galaxy, told the AP. “Usually it’s a new coach. But maybe it’s time for new leadership and new concepts as well.”
Arena of course is referring to Gulati, who fired Arena after eight seasons and two World Cups as manager of the national team. Last summer, Gulati fired national team boss Bob Bradley, Arena’s former assistant coach, following a loss to Mexico in the final of the Gold Cup. Bradley’s replacement, Jurgen Klinsmann, is the same coach Gulati had pursued, unsuccessfully, five years earlier.
Arena has a long memory. In many ways he's a lot like Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine: successful, opinionated, arrogant and too smart for his own good. And just as Valentine now revels in taking subtle digs at the evil empire known as the New York Yankees, Arena is doing what comes natural to the native New Yorker: breaking chops.
Gulati is the easy target. It’s been a unsettling last nine months for the top dog of the U.S. soccer, starting with the women losing the World Cup final to Japan in penalty kicks after blowing one goal leads in the closing minutes of regulation and overtime. The U.S., which seemed invincible following its dramatic quarterfinal victory over mighty Brazil, badly outplayed Japan but the sentimental favorite manage to secure the trophy.
Within weeks, Bradley was sacked and replaced by Klinsmann, who last month guided the U.S. to a 1-0 friendly win over Italy in Genoa. Things appeared to be heading in the right direction until Monday in Nashville, Tenn., when the U-23s, needing a win to advance to the semifinals, gave up a stoppage-time goal, thus ending their Olympic dreams.
“Obviously last night is a huge disappointment on many levels and for everyone involved,” Gulati said. “We’ve been very successful over the last 36 years in being at most of the Olympic Games on the men’s side, so it’s a big setback.”
The U.S. will miss out on the Olympics for the second time since 2004 and the third time since failing to qualify in 1976. Budding stars like German-born forward Terrence Boyd lose a chance to play in an important international competition which could have helped the growth of the senior side.
Gulati takes a hit here, of course, but this is really Klinsmann's baby. He has control over the system from the grass roots level. It was Klinsmann who hired University of Akron coach Caleb Porter to lead the U-23 team. He made Tab Ramos, who once played for Arena, in charge of the U-20 team, and another Arena disciple, Richie Williams, runs the U-18s.
Some of Arena’s guys are now Klinsmann’s guys. One fluke goal on a cool night in Nashville doesn’t mean Gulati has to go. But it doesn’t make things any easier for him or his hand-picked coach.
“We all feel really sorry for the guys,” Klinsmann told reporters on Tuesday. “They had it. It was all there already and then comes this last-second moment. This is brutal because they worked really hard. They showed a tremendous performance and you feel bad for them.
“The year slips away, a huge opportunity to shine in an Olympics. It’s not coming back any more for them. That’s how football is. It can catch you really brutally at specific moments.”