Has Bruce Arena got what it takes to lead the U.S. to World Cup 2018?
By the time his topsy-turvy, five-year reign as United States head coach finally ended in November, Jurgen Klinsmann's dismissal was greeted with relief and even joy among an overwhelming segment of fans.
Bruce Arena's hiring as Klinsmann's replacement, however, was more divisive.
Many saw the experienced Arena, who was previously in charge of the national team from 1998-2006, as the logical -- and perhaps only -- choice to steer the U.S. away from the bottom of the Hexagonal standings and back on course to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But others viewed the hire as a step back.
"I might be biased, but I don't think so: The person who can get the most out of this group of players right now is Bruce," said Landon Donovan, the leading scorer in U.S. history. He debuted under Arena and played for him at two World Cups and during parts of eight seasons with the LA Galaxy. "I can also understand that the people who haven't been around want to see progress. But this isn't the time to experiment with a young coach who has two or three years of experience as a professional. This is the real deal, and we need to get to the World Cup."
But Kasey Keller, a National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee and Arena's starting goalkeeper at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, is less enthusiastic than his former teammate.
"It's hard to look at it with total rose-colored glasses and say we've done exactly what we needed to do here to qualify for a World Cup," said Keller, who was a frequent guest coach on Klinsmann's staff. "Bruce was successful before as U.S. manager. He qualified the team twice. Bruce was also 26 minutes from getting knocked out before the Hex stage his first time around. So it will be interesting to see how it goes in his second stint. A lot of coaches in all sports have gone around the block a second time and haven't fared too well."
Other skeptics have cited the fact that Arena has been out of international coaching for over a decade, and he admits the game has changed.
"The sport is faster," he said shortly after taking the job, citing improvements in conditioning and equipment. "Doesn't mean that the players are better, but it's a faster game."
The question is: Has Arena also evolved? Donovan believes so.
"You can't be successful for this long if you don't have a firm belief in who you are and how you do things, but also if you're not able to adapt," he said. "[Arena has] continued to adapt to change with the times."
Arena insists he's a better coach now than he was in 2006, when his contract was not renewed after the U.S. failed to survive the World Cup group stage. After a season and a half with the New York Red Bulls, he took over at the LA Galaxy in August 2008.
In the eight full seasons that followed, Arena led LA to three championships and four MLS Cup appearances. He initially brokered a truce between Donovan and David Beckham and, over the years, won the respect of other high-profile players, such as Robbie Keane and Nigel de Jong. On the practice field, Arena's training sessions became shorter but more intense.
The Galaxy's veteran-laden rosters were part of the reason for that switch, though, which is why it's fair to wonder if the coach, who made Donovan and fellow 20-year-old DaMarcus Beasley focal points during the U.S. World Cup quarterfinal run in 2002, has become more conservative about giving opportunities to new players.
Then again, Arena, who is now 65, helped turn raw college talents such as Omar Gonzalez and Gyasi Zardes into international regulars during his time in L.A. In 2009, Arena persuaded Gregg Berhalter to join him with the Galaxy. Berhalter, a former U.S. defender and current Columbus Crew coach, mentored Gonzalez.
Berhalter doesn't believe Arena will overlook deserving, young talent.
"His intensity hasn't wavered at all," Berhalter said. "He still knows how to motivate young players. His strength is getting players to perform. That's clear. He still has that, definitely. He gives young players trust. He gives them backing. And he's not afraid to put them on the field. Sometimes coaches hesitate to play young players, but Bruce has never done that."
But Arena's immediate remit is less to do with a process and more focused on results. He wasn't brought in to groom the next generation; he was hired to get the U.S. to the World Cup in Russia. That means quickly restoring confidence after those ugly November qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Two weeks into the national team's January camp, the process appears to be well underway.
"Everybody feels like they're coming in with a clean slate," midfielder Sacha Kljestan told ESPN FC last week. "There's a freshness in the group again."
Part of the reason for that is Arena's laid-back style. Klinsmann and Bob Bradley, his predecessor, liked to micromanage. But Arena is far less rigid.
"He doesn't over-train players; he's sort of the anti-Jurgen in that way," Donovan said. "He lets you be an adult, and that's one thing that seems to me had gotten away from the team a little bit. It didn't seem, at least when I was there, enjoyable to be in camp anymore. Bruce makes it fun. You can go have dinner with guys. You knew what you were there for, but he treated you like a professional. And if guys took advantage of it, then they weren't there next time."
The first impression Arena has made on the camp's newcomers has also been a good one.
"He cracks some jokes here and there," said Kellyn Acosta, who, at 21, was the youngest player called into the January camp. "He'll catch you off-guard, like, 'Did he really say that?'"
When it's time to get serious, though, Arena will ensure that everyone knows what is expected.
"He doesn't beat around the bush," Donovan said. "If you're going to play, he'll tell you. If not, he'll tell you."
D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, who played for Arena at club and international level, says Arena's "ability to make players understand their role is very good."
"It's not that he's not extremely sharp tactically -- he is -- he just understands that sometimes players need things boiled down and simplified. I don't know what his secret is," Olsen added. "He's unique. Some guys, it's easy to say he's a disciplinarian. Or he's a tactician. But it's really tough to pigeonhole Bruce's coaching style"
Perhaps Arena's biggest strength is as a man-manager, skills that will be put to the test when his full team convenes just days before what he has called a "must-win" qualifier against Honduras on March 24. It will mark Arena's first chance to work with his European- and Mexican-based players and to address any rift either caused by, or at the root of, Tim Howard's recent comments that suggest division exists within the national team's locker room.
It's certainly not an ideal scenario but, given the timing and the job itself, Keller admitted that if a change was going to be made, there were not too many other options.
"Who on the world stage is going to take this U.S. national team job?" he asked. "Carlo Ancelotti? Jose Mourinho? Where are we in that pecking order? Would Jurgen have taken it if he wasn't married to an American and living in Southern California? It's too difficult to say if this or that person is the right guy, because the reality is we're kind of stuck in the middle as a nation. It's not a big enough job to go grab these big-name managers, but it's too big of a job to just give it to anyone."
For now, the job belongs to Arena and, for a side that looked lost at the end of Klinsmann's tenure, the measure of success could not be more straightforward.
"We have a team that can qualify for the World Cup," Berhalter said. "We have the quality; it comes down to the psychological part of it. That's a big part of the game. He'll have the players motivated to perform, that I can guarantee."
And after 2018, it will be someone else's turn.
"If Bruce was the coach for the next 12-16 years, I'd say that's a problem," Donovan said. "And Bruce would admit that. He thinks we need to be developing younger coaches, and we are. But right now, his job is to coach, not to teach. He needs to get the most out of these players. And he will."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.