In March 2015, Jurgen Klinsmann sat in a hotel conference room in Philadelphia and explained to reporters — in a presentation complete with a PowerPoint element — his vision for how the U.S. national team would crest toward the 2018 World Cup.
On Tuesday, sitting in a hotel conference room in New York, Bruce Arena — one week after replacing Klinsmann as the team’s coach — did the same.
The differences were considerable, and one variance that was particularly noticeable was the importance of data and analytics to each coach. Klinsmann, during his presentation, spoke at length about how he wanted to increase the depth of advanced analysis done on potential players, and at his behest U.S. Soccer, the national federation, added a data analysis arm to its operation.
Arena, who coached the national team from 1998 to 2006, did not dismiss the notion of advanced analytics outright on Tuesday, but he did question its validity in soccer.
“I’m not a person that digs deep into analytics, because I don’t think the sport of soccer is an analytic sport,” he said during a roundtable with a small group of reporters. “I think baseball clearly is. I think football can be. Basketball a little more. Soccer’s a hard one.”
Noting that soccer has “no timeouts, no substitutions, longer games,” Arena recalled the recent Major League Soccer playoff game in which Seattle was outshot by Colorado by a margin of 16-6 but still advanced. “What do you want to do with all those statistics?” Arena said.
Specifically, he said, it is unclear to him how to interpret some of the advanced statistics — as one example, how definitively can one quantify whether a player is fully sprinting or just running hard? — and he mentioned a recent presentation he saw by a MLS team in which it highlighted its advanced analytics department and labeled it one of the best in the league.
“The team didn’t make the playoffs,” Arena said. “Our sport is a little different.”
Arena’s approach — which has made him the coach with the most wins in national team history as well as arguably the most successful MLS coach in the league’s existence — is based more on evaluating a player’s technical ability as well as his mentality.
To Arena, building a team — particularly a national team — is based in finding the right mix of chemistry and predictability in terms of what can be expected game to game.
“We, and countries around the world, have players who are spotty,” he said. “There are too many peaks and valleys of players. We’ve got to level out their performance.”
Arena acknowledged that he faces a difficult challenge. Klinsmann was fired after the U.S. lost its first two games in the 10-game final round of regional qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. The Americans still have a strong chance of making it to Russia, as the top three teams advance automatically while the fourth goes to an intercontinental playoff, but there is no question that the pressure on Arena to produce results immediately is significant.
Arena’s first match in charge will be a home game against Honduras in March, and he has clear feelings on what happened during the United States’ close loss to Mexico and its embarrassing shredding on the road in Costa Rica.
“We’re fighting for our lives starting March 24,” he said. “For whatever reason, the game against Mexico — Mexico came out and took control of the game early. I don’t think that should happen at home. The game against Costa Rica was not good from start to finish.
“In general, in both games, our back line played poorly,” he said. “And I don’t think they’re poor players. We’ve got to get them organized. We’ve got to get them playing better as a unit.”
Arena, who had been the coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy since 2008, said he got to work immediately in his new, albeit familiar, role. Just 30 minutes after finalizing his contract last Tuesday, he arrived at a hotel to meet with U.S. Soccer executives and already had a list of players he wanted to invite to the team’s annual training camp in January.
He also had begun plans to travel to Germany to meet with the team’s foreign-based players, a trip he will take later this week after a stop in Toronto for an MLS playoff game on Wednesday.
Arena also sought to clarify, again, comments he had made years ago about players who are eligible to play for the United States and another country, saying they were widely misinterpreted. He joked that he had heard some had referred to him as “the Donald Trump of soccer” and stressed that he was focused on the development of young players, not whether it is more or less appropriate for foreign-born Americans to play for the United States.
“I think the phrase foreign-nationals is a very poor term,” Arena said. “And I will not use it. They’re national team players.”
Arena also said he is hoping to finalize his coaching staff by the third week of December, but he did not offer any clues as to the makeup of the staff. He added that he hopes to have the national team play two exhibition matches near the conclusion of the January training camp, but those opponents are still being determined. Those games most likely will take place without the team’s European-based pros, since their clubs are not required to release them for the January camp.