Bruce Arena looks likely to take over as the new manager of the United States men's national team in the wake of Jurgen Klinsmann's firing, and he's inheriting a team that looks much different than the one he presided over. Since Arena -- who managed the USMNT from 1998 to 2006 -- left the national team setup, his two successors have recruited a number of dual-national players. Some had never set foot in the United States before receiving their call-ups, but went on to become key players for the team. Now, some of Arena's past comments about USMNT players who didn't grow up in the American soccer system might come back to haunt him.
In 2013 and 2014, Arena gave multiple interviews in which he spoke out against the practice of calling up players who did not develop in the United States. "Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans," said Arena to Doug McIntyre for an ESPN The Magazine story in 2013. "If they're all born in other countries, I don't think we can say we are making progress."
Arena took shots at the appointment of Klinsmann as well, in a story by Sam Borden at the New York Times in 2014. "I believe an American should be coaching the national team," Arena said, before reiterating his position on where the USMNT should draw its talent from. "I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture."
And Arena's position is not just based on what he thinks is best for on-pitch results, or his personal morals, but his theories about the business of soccer. "I'm a big believer in the American player and producing them out of our system. I think that ultimately is what will develop the sport in our country, not on the field but with the consumer," Arena was quoted as saying by Kelly Whiteside at USA Today. "When they can recognize our players and who they are and where they came from, they'll be more supportive of the sport, and that's a big plus in terms of marketing. When we do it with randomly selecting people from all over that really have no connection, I don't think it hits home with people we want supporting our sport and our national team."
These sentiments have been echoed by arguably the greatest men's and women's American soccer players ever, Abby Wambach and Landon Donovan. They, like Arena, were harshly criticized for comments that many fans see as xenophobic. The assertion that the children of armed servicemen aren't real Americans is particularly offensive.
This isn't an excuse, but when Arena said these things, he probably thought he'd never get another shot to manage the national team. Fast forward two years and he's taking over a squad filled with key players who were not born in the United States. Eight members of the most recent USMNT squad were born in other countries. Fabian Johnson and John Brooks have been undroppable stars over the last two years.
If Arena's actions are going to match his rhetoric, he'd have to drop the USMNT's best players ahead of high-pressure games against Honduras and Panama. If U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati had any reason to believe Arena would do anything but call up the best players available, he wouldn't have made this hire, so Arena will have some explaining to do.
Arena and his defenders will probably try to spin his past words as commentary on the lack of investment into the American soccer infrastructure. And that's certainly one clear and defensible element of his position -- the USMNT can't always rely on other countries to develop their next generation of stars. U.S. Soccer can't take shortcuts to competing on the global stage with the best teams in the world. They need to get better at developing players.
But there's no spinning lines like "I believe an American should be coaching the national team" or "when we do it with randomly selecting people from all over that really have no connection, I don't think it hits home with people we want supporting our sport and our national team." Those are xenophobic comments, period. Arena will be made to answer for them. Anything short of an apology and a retraction will be unacceptable.
Arena is a great coach, but he's bringing a lot of baggage into the national team job, too. If Arena doesn't admit he was wrong, the likes of Brooks, Johnson, and a dozen other players will be left to wonder whether or not they're valued by their new national team manager.
UPDATE: During his introductory press conference, Arena walked back these quotes considerably, and Sunil Gulati made sure to emphasize that Arena will not pick players based on birth nation or where they were trained.
Arena on comments on dual-nationals: "If i made those comments, I certainly don't believe that that's my attitude"— Seth Vertelney (@svertelney) November 22, 2016
Bruce Arena "I embrace all players that are eligible to play [for the NT]. I just want to make sure their hearts are in the right place."— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) November 22, 2016
Sunil Gulati: "He and I have talked about that, not only in the last 24 hours, but quite often… We are open to anyone."— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) November 22, 2016