There was a time when Bruce Arena would not have been this calm about the pressure on him and the United States Men’s National Team as it seeks to qualify for soccer’s 2018 World Cup.
But at 66, the coach is doing his best not to let anyone see him sweat in advance of a crucial game against Panama in Orlando on Oct. 6.
“When you’ve been there before it means a lot, and the players know I’ve seen it all, so it’s really helpful in preparing them and keeping them composed,” Arena, an alumnus of Carey High School, said Tuesday in Manhattan at an event to promote Fox’s coverage of the tournament.
“It’s been good. When I took the job [last November] there was no question in my mind we were going to 10 games to qualify. Despite the fact that everyone wanted us to have it done after six games, I knew it was going to go right down to the end, and that’s what qualifying is about.”
Arena was so confident that earlier, during a formal presentation to advertisers, he all but guaranteed the United States would find a way into the field in Russia next summer.
“I will tell you this: We’re going to be there, and I’m going to miss all this great Fox coverage,” he said.
Even though Fox has adopted Mexico as a second “home” team – as ESPN did in 2014 – the absence of the Americans for the first time since 1986 would be a marketing and TV debacle.
Arena, who coached the U.S. into the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, was brought back to replace Jurgen Klinsmann last fall and bail out what appeared to be a sinking ship.
“There was very little margin for error, and despite all the anxiousness now we’ve only lost one game [to Costa Rica Sept. 1]. It wasn’t the right one to lose, but I am optimistic in the group and I think we’re going to get through these next two games and qualify.”
Arena said he has enjoyed the job more this time around, “because I really know what the job is about. I don’t think I’m going to be coaching another 20 years, so I’m much more relaxed in the position and I feel good about the challenge.
“Everything I’ve ever done in my career has been about dealing with challenges, and this is probably the biggest one. So I’m really looking forward to trying to get this finished off the right way . . . We’ve only lost one game in 2017 and the roof hasn’t caved in yet. It might after the next game, but not yet.”
After the Panama game, the U.S. will play at Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10.
Arena said he still has family on Long Island, including a brother but has not been back in a long time. He lives in California now.
As coach of the national team, Arena naturally was asked Tuesday about the controversy roiling the NFL over how teams have responded to demonstrating during the national anthem.
“I think the demonstrations by the players are appropriate; I can’t question that,” he said. “I don’t want to get into a political debate here. The national team is different. You don’t have to play on the national team. You can choose not to play. Those [NFL] guys are professionals on their club teams. That’s their jobs. They have to be there. Our guys don’t have to be.”
Arena said U.S. Soccer has a policy that its players “respect the national anthem,” but he did not have an answer for what would happen if anyone violated that.
“What do you think I should do, right then and there [remove them]?” he said. “If four guys do it we’re screwed. What happens if four guys take a knee, what do I do? If we need to discuss it, we’ll discuss it. But I don’t think that’s an issue that we’re going to deal with. We have enough to worry about on Oct. 6 besides kneeling.”