For his own good, for the good of the U.S. team, and for the good of the American game in general, Bruce Arena should move on to coach elsewhere after the World Cup.
It's time. Regardless of the success, or lack thereof, perhaps, that the U.S. squad might have in Germany this June, a changing of the guard at the top is in order.
It's not that Arena doesn't deserve to stay on as coach of the U.S. men's national team. He earned that a long time ago. With the U.S. team now ranked in FIFA's top five, he has presided over the most consistently successful period in the program's history, both on and off the field. Other than his occasional verbal jousting with the media when he is annoyed by questions, there's no scandal or impropriety of the sort that dogged England's coach, Sven-Göran Eriksson, attached to Arena's tenure.
The one quibble that some might have with his record concerns the lack of wins on European soil. That criticism has faded somewhat after two wins there over Poland -- the most recent coming under less-than-ideal weather conditions in Germany. Even if the U.S. team does not advance out of the group stage at the World Cup, Arena will almost certainly be offered a contract extension by U.S. Soccer. New federation president Sunil Gulati has already given Arena a strong vote of confidence by indicating how pleased he is with Arena's tenure. A preliminary offer may even be on the table already.
That doesn't mean Arena should accept it. Beyond the clichéd "going out on top", and "timing is everything" points that still might have some truth, here are a few reasons why.
1. The team
Arena was offered the top post during a crucial time for the national side. In the wake of the dreadful 1998 World Cup, the morale of the players was in disarray. Veterans were bitter, while new talent was leaderless. In righting the ship, Arena proved savvy enough to mix young prospects with still-productive experienced players. He set a tone of discipline for the team without patronizing.
It's not a betrayal of any kind to leave after these accomplishments. A fresh perspective, new techniques, and perhaps a bit of a shake-up among the established favorites would probably re-energize the team post-World Cup. It's possible that players can retain the lessons of Arena while adding the teachings of another.
The experiences of top coaches in other American sports, including ones like Bill Parcells, Pat Riley and Larry Brown, all of whom Arena has mentioned as role models, show that even the best motivators sometimes find their charges displaying ennui after an extended period of exposure to the same techniques.
Rightly or wrongly, the U.S. team has also been slighted somewhat in the praise often heaped upon Arena for its progress. As excellent a coach as he is, timing has also helped. Arena was fortunate enough to reap the benefits of a developing domestic league, MLS, which granted him a deeper pool of talent than was available to any previous U.S. coach.
Different leadership would reveal the true measure of the players without any veiled insinuations that Arena is a sorcerer spinning straw into gold.
2. The game
The sport of soccer in America functions in a dynamic exchange with the world at large. It's part of what makes the game a global force. Player transfers, tours of top teams, fans and broadcasts of squads abroad -- few sports have the international flavor of soccer.
There is something of a trade deficit in the sport, though. At one point it appeared that the only U.S. players other countries bothered to consider worthy of purchase were goalkeepers. It was difficult for field performers to prove that perception wrong when few were given the opportunity to do so.
Impressions can be powerful, but not necessarily objective.
The Dutch, for example, have a long-standing reputation as a top soccer nation. This is based on their players, of course, but also partly on the legacy of great coaches the nation has produced. Leaders such as Rinus Michels, Leo Beenhakker, and Guus Hiddink became as well known as the players they coached, if not more.
Some of the preconceptions concerning American soccer have already surfaced in regards to Arena. After he expressed his desire to coach abroad, namely in England's Premiership, skepticism or indifference seemed to be the main response from English fans and media.
One imagines that if Arena had achieved the same results he has with the U.S. team, but was Dutch instead of American, the reaction might be different.
Though some are loath to give up the notion of the U.S. as a soccer minnow, the game worldwide is stronger with the full participation and influence of the country. That includes its media, fans, corporations, players and of course, coaches.
There are now more American players carrying the soccer banner for their country in foreign leagues than ever before. It's only natural that their best coach should join them as well.
3. The coach
The final, and probably most important, reason Arena should move on is that he wants to. He has indicated his interest in working elsewhere. Obviously, he hasn't accomplished what he has -- college championships, MLS titles, and World Cup quarterfinals -- without ambition.
Yet the challenge of coaching an overseas team is one that he hasn't faced yet. It's no wonder that he has the inclination to test himself in a new way.
In addition, as accomplished a national team skipper as he is, there's an argument to be made that the job wastes some of Arena's talent. Between World Cups, there's a significant period of dead time for the program. A consummate competitor like Arena has to wait for a few specific dates to use his skill as a tactician.
Unlike the freedom he had with his club team to pick and mold players on a regular basis, Arena also has to often field his national squad at less than full-strength. Despite whom he might want on his roster, clubs can refuse to release players, or stunt a player's development by not playing him on the regular basis needed to maintain and develop skills.
As much as Arena wants to step right into coaching in the Premiership, a better option might be to start with a club one level below. With an owner willing to give him rein to bring in the right players, Arena could conduct a team to promotion and enter the highest rank with legitimacy beyond question.
Likewise, if the U.S. team's advancement is genuine, a change at the head should not be disastrous. A variety of coaching options exist as successors to Arena. Besides a handful of domestic coaches with experience, Eriksson will apparently be available after the World Cup. Dutchman Guus Hiddink might be interested. Jürgen Klinsmann would at least already be in the country.
It remains to be seen whether Arena will even have the option to consider shifting abroad. He is unlikely to depart from his current post unless he is offered something truly worthy of his time and effort. Some club has to have the courage that U.S. Soccer once did when taking chance on Arena. That move paid off big for the national team.
Another move might do the same again.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com