Column: Arena is not the answer

Colombia's Radamel Falcao celebrates after scoring against Paraguay during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Roberto Melendez stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

World Cup qualifying across the world will conclude in the next week, sealing the 32 teams that will compete in Russia next summer.

Heading into the final round of fixtures, the United States men’s national team has yet to qualify and will need results against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago to secure its spot.

I am fairly certain the US will be able to get a win at home against Panama and at least a point in Trinidad to seal a direct spot, but crazier things have happened. If the United States were to come in fourth, they would face off against either Syria or Australia in a two-match playoff, so hopes would still be alive.

It is a shame that the United States is even in this position. The team got the hexagonal round of qualifying off to a terrible start under former coach Jurgen Klinsmann. After sacking Klinsmann, the United States Soccer Federation needed someone to steady the ship to Russia and selected former coach Bruce Arena.

The USSF panicked and went with a known entity in Arena. Arena was the helm of the team from 1998-2006, taking the team to two World Cups, with a quarterfinal finish in 2002. He is also one of the most decorated American coaches ever with five College Cup titles and five MLS Cup titles.

But hiring Arena was a mistake.

After firing Klinsmann, the goal became to qualify for the World Cup. For a nation with the history and resources of the US, the goal cannot just be to qualify.

“Working as a team, I'm confident that we'll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia,” Arena said to ESPN.

That is not acceptable.

I understand that the United States not making the World Cup is still not a sure thing, but the team needs to aim higher, which is why the team should have hired someone else. Even with the safe hire of Bruce Arena, the team is still sweating after losing 2-0 at home to Costa Rica last month.

Granted, with the emergence of Costa Rica as a regional power and Honduras and Panama as tricky as ever, qualifying in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) is not as simple as it once was for Mexico and the United States. In order to qualify for the 2014 World Cup Mexico had to defeat New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff.

A coach that is unfamiliar with the region would have been able to piece together enough results to get the team to Russia and would have set the team up nicely for Qatar 2022. The players Arena has worked into his team are similarly very safe and known variables.

After Brazil, the US needed to begin a generational shift of players. While all has not been lost as players like Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola and Kellyn Acosta have been worked into the squad, there is still a reliance on veterans Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. While both can still play important roles, they cannot compete at the top level anymore, which is what the US should be striving to achieve.

The United States has not missed a World Cup since 1986, qualifying; for us to miss it in 2018 would be a major setback to the progress soccer has made in this country.


Antonio Salazar is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at antonio.salazar@uconn.edu.