HARRISON, N.J. — Bruce Arena hasn’t had much time to breathe since retaking the reins as U.S. national team coach in November.
While he got a full four years to prepare the Americans for both the 2002 and 2006 World Cup tournaments, this cycle has presented the 65-year-old with more pressing responsibilities. Taking over for the fired Jurgen Klinsmann after back-to-back losses to open the final stage of qualifying, Arena grasped the task at hand: Promptly get the squad back on track or watch Russia 2018 from home.
“Every game,” Arena said, “has been do or die for us.”
Under Arena, the U.S. has gone 2-0-2 in qualifying — moving the Americans up to the CONCACAF region’s third and final automatic slot with four matches remaining.
It’s firmer ground than when Arena took over, but there’s still little room for error when the Americans resume World Cup qualifying against Costa Rica on Friday at Red Bull Arena.
“We know we have to win,” Arena said. “We know that all hell breaks loose when we lose a game and all of the critics come out. That’s why we compete, and we understand that when we sign up for this stuff.”
The U.S. hasn’t failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1986, and the Americans have finished first in CONCACAF’s six-team final stage — nicknamed the “Hexagonal” — each of the past three cycles.
For a program that has grown accustomed to comfortable progression, the tension is unfamiliar. But between the surge up the standings in qualifying and a 5-0-1 run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup title in July, the U.S. is playing with confidence entering the final four matches of the Hexagonal.
“We know the importance of these last few games, that we definitely need results,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “But we don’t really look too much at that. We look at it as another game of importance. Every game, we treat it like a final. We’ve just got to go out there and keep battling and keep fighting.”
Although Friday’s venue offers the U.S. with a prime opportunity to earn three points in the standings with a win, the comforts of home inevitably invite pressure.
A 2-1 loss to Mexico in November was the Americans’ first home defeat in World Cup qualifying since 2001, and even settling for a draw against a defensive Costa Rica team could put the U.S. in a tough spot entering Tuesday’s imposing trip to face Honduras in San Pedro Sula.
“In our competition, where it’s only 10 games and the conditions are very challenging on the road, it’s critical that you earn three points at home,” Arena said. “If you don’t do that it’s not likely that you can qualify for the World Cup. The U.S. started poorly in the competition with two losses, losing the opening game to Mexico, and that put the team behind the eight ball. To recover you need to win at home.”
Defender Graham Zusi added: “I think [Costa Rica] will be pretty happy with getting a point here on the road for them. I think we’ll have to be the ones on the forefront causing the attack.”
While Costa Rica handed the U.S. a 4-0 defeat in November — Klinsmann’s final match in charge — the Americans edged the Ticos with a 2-0 triumph in the Gold Cup semifinals last month.
In terms of talent, the U.S. carries a clear advantage. Christian Pulisic, an 18-year-old playmaker at German club Borussia Dortmund, is one of the sport’s top rising stars. Captain Michael Bradley earned MVP honors at the Gold Cup. Forward Clint Dempsey is one goal away from breaking Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring record for the U.S. squad, and longtime goalkeeper Tim Howard remains a steady presence between the posts.
Having bounced back from that rough start to qualifying, the Americans understand they’re firmly in control of their own World Cup destiny.
“Everything is on the line,” Bradley said. “We’re going to use our good position and finish things off.”
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