ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A quick check-in now with the U.S. men's national soccer team. The team is trying to avoid a big step backwards on the world stage. America has played in every World Cup since 1990, but after two recent qualifying losses participation in next year's World Cup is not guaranteed. Well, now there's a new coach, and here's NPR's Tom Goldman on Bruce Arena's return for a second stint with the U.S. national team.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It was one of those southern California days in January that laughs at the calendar - a blue, cloudless sky, the temperature creeping towards 70. On a lush green soccer field, a U.S. national team scrimmage was all chatter and speed and energy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come here. Come here, Jermaine. Right side, Jermaine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hold the line. Hold the line. Hold the line.
GOLDMAN: After those two qualifying losses in November, the Americans dropped to the bottom of the region's hexagonal. That's the six-country World Cup qualifying group. The U.S. men's team is not among the world's best, but this was dispiriting. The team didn't play like one. Two months later, at this U.S. practice in Carson, Calif., the ailing patient looked better.
BRUCE ARENA: I wouldn't say it's that bad. You know, we're not in triage right now. We're in maybe primary care.
GOLDMAN: That's coach Bruce Arena.
ARENA: Obviously it's not an easy situation being down at the bottom in the hex right now, but our aim is to make up for lost ground real quick.
GOLDMAN: The next qualifying matches against Honduras and Panama are two months away. Until then, Arena has a couple of priorities - defense. And he liked this defensive stand in practice.
ARENA: Pivot back. Pivot back. (Unintelligible). Guys, that was great. That was well done. You were really pulled in as a group, the integrity of line was there.
GOLDMAN: Probably his main priority is building a team. This has been one of Arena's strengths during a long coaching career. Michael Bradley is a veteran midfielder.
MICHAEL BRADLEY: Bruce has an aura. When he walks into a team, you know, he has a way about him and a way of working that I think engages everybody and motivates every guy to play for him and to really go after things.
GOLDMAN: I asked another midfielder, Graham Zusi, what specifically Arena does to create that cohesive feeling.
GRAHAM ZUSI: You know, every day he lets us know what the mission is for training. Every now and then we'll have a quick meeting after lunch as well just to kind of recap.
GOLDMAN: He's a good communicator?
ZUSI: He is.
GOLDMAN: Was that missing before?
ZUSI: (Laughter) I thought we weren't talking comparisons here (laughter).
GOLDMAN: Before camp started, players were told to avoid publicly comparing Arena and his predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann. But comparisons are inevitable. Klinsmann, who played and coached in his native Germany, preferred players with international experience. Arena coached for many years in America's domestic league, MLS. He's been more open to having MLS players on the national team.
In fact, he brought to camp some MLS players overlooked by Klinsmann. According to a team official, Klinsmann also liked to make players uncomfortable. When they competed for spots, he didn't want them feeling like anything was guaranteed. Arena talks about relating to his players, although he's hardly an everybody-gets-a-trophy-and-a-hug kind of coach.
ARENA: Come on, too sloppy there, guys. Keep the ball on the ground.
GOLDMAN: A U.S. soccer official watching practice on that January day noted the players didn't look nervous. As they scrimmaged, Arena yelled, if you make a mistake, make a mistake. Make an aggressive mistake. In 2002, Bruce Arena led the U.S. to the World Cup quarter-finals. That was the team's second-best finish in history. Now, 15 years later, his mission simply is to get to the tournament. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.