US Soccer took their sweet time in firing unpopular former coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but they were swift in naming his successor. Bruce Arena was named the new USMNT head coach today, returning to a post he held from 1998 through 2006. Arena will leave the LA Galaxy with immediate effect and begin work on guiding the United States back up the table in the Hexagonal, CONCACAF’s final stage of World Cup qualifying. The US is currently at the bottom of the six-team group, and will need to finish in the top three to qualify for Russia 2018.
Arena’s appointment comes shortly after Klinsmann was fired after five years in charge of the US program, including three years spent as both head coach and technical director. Arena will not take the latter job, which has been left unfilled at the moment.
Arena’s task is unprecedented. US Soccer has never dropped a coach in the middle of qualifying, and they’ve also never seen their team in last place 20% of the way through the Hexagonal. However, fans can take heart from the fact that CONCACAF’s final round of qualifying is generous. Half of the teams that make the Hex qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth place team gets one more crack at it in an inter-confederation playoff (against the fifth place finisher in Asia).
The target for Arena in his remaining eight games will be clear. The US most likely needs to take 10-12 points from their remaining home games (i.e. no more losses), and probably will need at least one (and possibly even two) road wins. Finishing in the top three required just 12 points in 2014 and 14 in 2006, but in 2010 Costa Rica ended up in the playoff despite getting 16 points.
Arena will likely use the traditional January USMNT camp as more serious preparation for March’s round of qualifiers. In the past, January’s camp has been referred to as “Camp Cupcake” (or, under Klinsmann, “Camp Strudel”), but this is Arena’s one serious chance at implementing his ideas and establishing standards within his squad. While most European-based players won’t be available, it’s safe to expect any national team hopeful playing in MLS and Scandinavia to get called in for a competitive camp, and players in Liga MX might push for a spot in that camp even over being with their clubs for the latter stages of preseason.
In late March, the USMNT will play Honduras at home - the venue has not yet been announced - before traveling to face Panama four days later. A win over Los Catrachos is more or less a must; a loss or draw coupled with a Panamanian win over Trinidad & Tobago the same day could see the US fall as far as five points out of an automatic qualification spot. A win, however, would vault the Americans right back into contention.