In qualifying for the World Cup, U.S. coach Bruce Arena pushed all the right buttons
So remote were the U.S.'s chances of clinching a fourth straight World Cup berth that when it actually happened on Sunday, team officials had to hunt down four bodies of champagne in a catering supply room at Foxboro Stadium to celebrate. "We couldn't believe it," said defender Jeff Agoos after the Yanks' 2-1 victory over Jamaica, combined with a tie by Mexico and an upset loss by Honduras, earned the U.S. a spot in Japan and South Korea next June. "Nobody in our locker room thought we were going to qualify today."
Staggered by three consecutive losses, coach Bruce Arena challenged his players before the match by reading an inscription from the plaque he had received as a 50th birthday present from a friend: "What would you attempt to do if you could not fail?" Duly emboldened, the Americans played without fear, riding the unique playmaking skills of captain Claudio Reyna, who returned after missing three games because of injury and suspension. "He's phenomenal," says striker Landon Donovan. "It takes pressure off people when he holds the ball. He does a lot of the work [so] that we don't have to."
Adds Arena, "When you add Claudio to the mix, you can get players forward and create chances. We sorely missed that."
In qualifying, Arena displayed an uncanny talent for player management, massaging bruised egos with a masterly touch. Within an hour of the U.S.'s 2-0 loss at Costa Rica last month, Arena held a heart-to-heart in the bar of the team hotel with forward Joe-Max Moore, who had been unhappy coming off the bench in the last two matches. "I told him that he had been productive in those games," Arena recalls, "and that he should be ready to start in Foxboro." Sure enough, Moore was in the lineup on Sunday and scored both goals—on a diving header early in the first half to put the U.S. ahead, and on a penalty kick in the 81st minute to break the tie.
In June, Arena defused the biggest personnel crisis of his three-year tenure with a dose of welcome patience. According to two players, at the end of the bus ride to the hotel following the Americans' 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago, goalkeeper Brad Friedel, disgruntled at backing up Kasey Keller, announced to his teammates that he would no longer play for the U.S. After meeting with Arena, however, Friedel left for Bora-Bora on his honeymoon and soon decided to rejoin the team. Because Keller is riding the bench for the English club Tottenham Hotspur while Friedel starts for Blackburn Rovers, Arena has used Friedel in the last two games, and he's played solidly.
The challenge now is for the U.S. team to rebuild in the coming months as a host of attackers—Clint Mathis, Brian McBride, Ben Olsen and Josh Wolff—return from long-term injuries to the active roster. "We told the players that if we could get through this stretch when we're not at our best, we'll bring some players back and get better over the next six months," Arena says.
There's certainly room to improve on the U.S.'s last-place finish at the World Cup in France. "Our goal is to play better and to get better results than we did in '98," Arena says. "But you never know what the draw will bring. We could open with France, and Brazil could be a Number 2 seed in the same group."
On a memorable afternoon in New England, Arena could afford to leave those worries for another day—and maybe even enjoy a swig or two of victory champagne.
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