Daily Soccer Digest writer Doug Sibor chats with retired American soccer legend and Fox Sports broadcaster Eric Wynalda to discuss the state of U.S Soccer, Christian Pulisic and the top American soccer talent, Bruce Arena's USMNT hiring, World Cup 2018 and much more in this must-read exclusive DSD interview...
What do you think went right for the national team over the course of the past year?
If you go through the year in soccer, boy was it tumultuous to say the least. The positives are always the same, that we are gradually getting better as a soccer nation. When you look at the performances as a whole with the national team, this has what’s kind of been happening lately: we lower our expectations, we over-perform, we get excited about it, then whatever tournament happens to be next it comes to abrupt halt in a very disappointing loss. In the Copa America, to lose 4-0 the way [the U.S.] did to Argentina disappointed a lot of people, and more recently the qualifier 4-0 loss to Costa Rica set off some alarms as well.
If I’m really going to take one positive away from this year, it’s the arrival of Christian Pulisic. He started the year at 17 and is 18 now, and while we don’t want to put too much pressure on him early there’s certainly a lot of optimism about what he provides and what he’s all about. We’ve never had this before. We’ve never had a young American player performing at an extremely high level with a team [Borussia Dortmund] that could possibly be considered top five in the world. Not to put it all on one kid, but he’s the golden boy right now and I’m really looking forward to watching his future and watching him grow as a player. That’s the one real bright spot I take out of the entire year.
Every generation tends to have a player to whom huge expectations are attached very early in his career. What is it about Pulisic, in comparison to someone like Landon Donovan and others, that separates him from others and where do you see him fitting in going forward in the global hierarchy?
The first comparison that people will make is that Landon [Donovan] also was in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen at a similar age and chose not to stay, whereas Pulisic has chosen to stay, but it was a different time especially in American [soccer] history when that all transpired with Landon. The difference with Christian in my eyes is that at a very young age—and Landon had a whole lot of poise too—he is wise beyond his years and has zero fear in his game. There’s just no fear in him whatsoever.
Every play that he’s involved in, whenever he gets the ball, he seems to make it better. He doesn’t take the easy way out in life and he does not take the easy way out on the soccer field. That’s respectable, and that’s something where guys like me will take a look at it and say “there’s something special about this guy,” because he’s constantly trying to have an influence on the game. Even if the play doesn’t work out, he’s right back at it 30 seconds later or 30 minutes later. He just doesn’t seem affected by the failures within a game that can really smash your confidence.
Whether we want to call it “confidence” or just a way of thinking, there are a lot of things that our young players in the U.S. should take from the way Christian addresses his life and the game. He is everything I think we have been looking for, for a long time. He’s going to be the hero of a lot of kids for a reason, and that’s because he does it the right way.
Pulisic’s rise has occurred at least in part because of his experience in the Dortmund youth system, and similarly there are many other young American players scattered in systems across Europe. Do you see this is becoming part of pattern, whether in 2017 or beyond, where these types of players become the next generation of national team players? And are these the guys to finally take the team forward?
The wheels are already in motion for guys like Cameron Carter-Vickers, Pulisic of course, and Emerson Hyndman. There are also guys like Matt Miazga, who started in the U.S. then took his game to Europe. The environment is the key; there’s this overriding perception that Europe as a whole is a better environment than Major League Soccer. But the argument to that point is specific to each team. Each team has its own environment; we don’t have an overriding theme that makes the New York Red Bulls the same as NYCFC. We have two different coaches with two different setups and are building two different cultures within their clubs, so sometimes you get lucky and sometimes the growth of the players is deterred by an unhealthy environment. That happens in Europe just as much as it happens in the United States, and the perception [otherwise] is sometimes wrong.
I do think that this next wave of players might very well be the product of their development in Europe. The challenge really is to create some environments Stateside that rival that and give our young players the opportunity to go to Europe if it’s there and not force it, because if it’s not there the onus is on us as a league and as a country to do everything we can to make sure that players are getting the right instruction and they’re in the right environments and cultures here to ensure they have proper growth as a player.
That may be a “Jurgen Klinsmann” view; that perception was certainly his, that being in Europe was better than being in Major League Soccer. Because of that, we really only got to see the Emerson [Hyndmans], the Pulisics, the Fabian Johnsons, Jonathan Brooks, Bobby Wood, Alfredo Morales (who’s actually doing really well but just got hurt). But there’s going to be a change now, where maybe certain players within Major League Soccer or in developmental academies here will get a realistic opportunity to compete for positions on the U.S. National Team. That could very well be a guy like Benny Feilhaber—who’s deep into his career—who might get a realistic chance with this coaching change. It’s going to be an interesting transition from what Jurgen was trying to build to what Bruce Arena has now inherited.
Do you see guys with MLS experience like Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, and Sacha Kljestan making a major impact this year, especially considering they need guys who know how to compete in a CONCACAF-style environment in order to make the World Cup?
When there is a coaching change like this, everybody on the team has to prove it all over again. There is no complacency with anybody. And that’s healthy, that’s why a lot of people argue the point that the national team coaching position should only be in four year cycles. If you’re constantly hearing the same voice or the same instruction, or maybe your performance wasn’t the best but you’re not feeling the pressure of someone trying to take your job because the coach has seemingly taken a liking to you, and then there’s a coaching change, everybody is now standing straight up and trying to prove their point with a whole new set of eyeballs on them, which is good.
I will say this about Bruce Arena: he doesn’t care about anything but winning. I won’t say he doesn’t care about development, but his job is very specific—and nobody in the United States understands that job better than Bruce Arena—which is to asses and select a team, to play and to win. That’s it. That’s the job. It’s not to have opinions about what the Under 14s are doing in Frisco, Texas, which I think maybe could have been a huge reason for why Jurgen Klinsmann at times seemed to lose focus. Bruce Arena is laser-focused on one objective, and that’s making the United States the best group of guys possible the next time they hit the field. There is no reason for him to take a player’s past or relationship into consideration, and he’s very good at that. I was coached by Bruce, and with him the bottom line is what is should be: I’m going to put the best guys on the field for the objective of winning the game in front of us.
He’s very good at that, and he does not care where they came from. He doesn’t have favorites; he’s influenced by one thing only: good performance. And there are some guys in the U.S. National Team who are probably a bit nervous about their longstanding starting position because they need to prove to Bruce that they belong in that starting XI, or the [matchday] 18, or the 23 for that matter. Just because the other guy liked you does not mean that Bruce will.
Bruce is very good at recognizing form; somebody else might be viewed as a better player but he’s unafraid to take a guy like Sacha Kljestan and put his ego aside and say “he’s in better form right now, I’m playing him because I want to win. I believe this guy gives me the best opportunity to win today. Not next week, not next year, it’s not about development, I don’t care. I’m playing the team that’s going to win.” That’s what I love about Bruce.
How does someone like Michael Bradley—whose 2016 was marked by poor form and a seemingly strained relationship with his coach—rebound under Bruce Arena? Or will there be a huge shift in the identity of the team going forward?
A longstanding track record can work both for and against you in a scenario like this. It’s really healthy for Michael—who has not had the best performances lately—to hopefully find his game. If he doesn’t find his game and Bruce Arena feels that he’s not the best option and does put him on the bench for the first time in I don’t know how long, probably eight years, that would be pretty amazing. I think he played more minutes for Jurgen Klinsmann than he did for his dad, to be honest. But the bottom line is that if [Bradley] is not cutting it right now, Bruce will not have any issue telling him that he’s not good enough right now and has to figure it out.
You have to handle it as a professional, and Michael is a great professional. He’s very serious and very dedicated. There are a lot of things you can appreciate about what Michael brings to the table, but that’s the hard part about coaching (and management, for that matter): your job is to make tough decisions that are in the best interest of the team. If they’re in the best interest of the team, no decision should be a tough decision; because if your job is to make us the best team and you got a guy and have to have a tough conversation with because he hasn’t been on the bench for a long time and you have to be the one to tell him…that’s the job! That’s the job of the national team coach, or any coach for that matter. The tough decisions and the tough conversations that you have to have as a manager are what differentiate the good ones from the great ones.
That doesn’t seem like something we’ll have to worry about Bruce Arena shying away from.
Just you watch, Bruce will loosen [Bradley] up. If anything, he will give that kid a smile again. I was talking to somebody today about coaching and managing, and the way I’d describe it is you have to be a sponge. Everybody thinks the coach is the coach and the players have to be the sponge and learn from the coach. That’s not how it works at the professional level. As the coach, you have to be the sponge. You have to take away the players’ pressure, listen to their problems and take it all on your back. Bruce does that. Bruce doesn’t create problems, he just basically takes them in, puts them inside his bubble, and says “let me worry about this for a while, you go play.” That is what makes Bruce a tremendous manager in my eyes.
I’ve worked with him. We weren’t particularly friendly at the beginning stages because of my role in the media (which is still that if something goes bad it’s our job to talk about it), but he doesn’t get caught up in that stuff. He’s not going to call you and say “I didn’t appreciate that,” he’s going to let you have your opinion and move on to the next question. That’s the difference with Bruce, his response [to criticism]. Players appreciate that, because you do have pressure and you do have problems, you have issues or questions, and it’s something that over the years he’s proven to be very good at: telling players to take all their pain, problems, and alleviating that pressure and allowing them to go out and play the game to the best of their ability. I think Bruce’s hiring might be extremely helpful when it comes to a guy like Michael Bradley, or even someone like John Brooks, who had an absolutely horrible game against Costa Rica. If you’re John Brooks, you’re thinking “Oh my God, [Arena] saw that, this guy is not going to start me. He’s going to play someone else, he can’t trust me.”
Bruce will walk in and go, “Hey, I saw that game. Boy, were you bad. Try not to do that again.” And the past is gone, because that’s Bruce. He has a way of doing things and a way of speaking that is a calming influence on a team, and God knows we need that right now. We’re going through a very tough phase, but the skillset that Bruce Arena possesses is the reason I am feeling very confident he can get us through a very difficult qualification stage.
Would you say that the ability to manage his players is a dramatic change from Jurgen and how he handled similar situations?
Bruce isn’t going to throw anybody under the bus, if that’s what you’re alluding to. Criticizing the players after the Mexico loss didn’t help Jurgen in any way, shape, or form. I think it was Bear Bryant who said “When something bad happens, I did it. When something good happens, you did it. When something great happens, we did it.” That’s how you address most press conferences.
I always loved that joke, “players win games, coaches lose them.” It’s definitely wrong, but once you get in that frame of mind and you’re able to take on the responsibility of losses as a manager even when they’re not your fault, even when it’s clear that individual mistakes were the reason why you lost, it’s not something that ever bodes well for the future with your team if you go into a press conference and say, “Well he blew it here, and he blew it here, and he blew it here, and that’s why we lost. Next question.” You’ll lose the locker room in a hurry.
Is the U.S. going to qualify for the World Cup?
Yes. We still have to play Honduras, who’s filled with a bunch of young, energetic talent that just went to an Olympic final, so let’s not forget that. Honduras isn’t a big country and if you just look at that and say oh, we should win that one, think again. We have to bring out A game. CONCACAF has its own unique challenges, but there are enough points out there to make it happen. That’s all predicated on whether we can get our act together in the very near future, which is why I say “yes,” because I believe the coaching change was the right move and the players will bring a different energy and mindset. That’s bad news for everybody else. If we hadn’t moved on from Klinsmann and were still talking about the “what ifs,” I don’t think we would have had the confidence to play the way we can play and be successful. So I think it’s a good move.
Author: Doug Sibor
More Daily Soccer Digest insights you may enjoy: