By now if you haven't heard, the United States, Mexico, and Canada have submitted a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup. 60 of the 80 games will take place in the United States in the proposed bid, so naturally Bruce Arena has been asked by reporters about the future of the USMNT and he made some intriguing comments.
First the questions were based around this current World Cup cycle and the USMNT’s current situation. After earning four points in four games Arena admitted the situation is not ideal, though Arena has only been at the helm for the two most recent qualifiers. Arena has admitted the USMNT has put themselves into a tough position and as he’s said, “I think we still have very little margin for error.” However none of this has dampened his outlook on the future of the USMNT.
Arena was quoted saying, “I think in 2026, we’re going to be firmly immersed in the game and be a big player. I think 2026 will be the time where we’re going to start talking about winning a World Cup.” Bold words Bruce, very bold. Do we think he truly believes that?
Arena was the coach of the 2002 World Cup team that made it to the quarterfinals where they lost 1-0 in somewhat controversial fashion to Germany. That is the best U.S. finish in a World Cup that any one of us will remember. For all intents and purposes Bruce Arena was the coach of the best USMNT of all time. So if anybody has the right to make those comments it’s Bruce.
This current player pool is certainly the deepest the USMNT has had in a long time, possibly ever. But are they on the path to compete for a World Cup trophy just nine years from now? There are a lot of variables in play before that can happen; the first and most important is the USMNT’s performance in the summer of 2018. Obviously the USMNT have to get there first, and if they don't that will be a catastrophe for the development of soccer in the U.S. (I don't like thinking about that so let’s assume it’s 2018 and the USMNT has made it.)
Say Arena leads the USMNT through a strong World Cup campaign and he makes his second quarterfinal as their head coach. That would be huge for the development of the game in the U.S. and there are plenty of 9-14 year olds out there that are playing multiple sports for whom a successful run in the 2018 World Cup could sway them to pick soccer as their sport. And those kids, along with some the current crop of USMNT prospects, could be huge players in that 2026 World Cup, that again will most likely be here on American soil.
Now Arena will most certainly not be USMNT head coach in 2026, but he is going to be a vital part of laying the groundwork for that team. Some of the players that may feature in that team he will have had a hand in developing these next few years. Those players would include Christian Pulisic, Emerson Hyndman, Matt Miazga, and Cameron Carter-Vickers, just to name a few.
Now taking you all back a bit in time, this is not the first time U.S. Soccer has implemented a long-term plan with the end goal being winning the World Cup. Just before the 1998 World Cup, a $50 million investment was made in development programs that eventually would become known as Project 2010. Two of those programs are still in use today: Generation adidas (formerly called project-40 when sponsored by Nike) and the U.S. U-17 Residency Program that will close this year as the success of other U.S. Development Academy programs have made the Residency Program expendable - which is a good thing by the way.
Generation adidas is still churning out USMNT talent at an incredible rate. The list is too long to post here, which should tell you just how successful this program has been. But even with all the success of these development academies, is the U.S. really that much closer to winning a World Cup? Certainly better off than if these programs had flopped, but still not even close to competing for a World Cup title. Just think of the talent gap between countries like the U.S. and say Germany, France, Brazil, and even England. The fact is we are not prepared to compete with those elite international powers. Maybe we could slip by one or even two in the round of 16 and quarter-final respectively, but to beat four teams of that caliber in row just simply isn't going to happen, yet.
But the truth is we are not quite there yet. Before Jurgen Klinsmann was fired he had a goal for the USMNT in World Cup 2018: make the semi-final. Now obviously Klinsmann can’t complete that goal as he is longer the coach, and the USMNT is just not at that point yet anyway. But that is a goal the USMNT should be shooting for in 2026. A World Cup on home soil and semi-final appearance would launch soccer in this country into another dimension. That is a goal Bruce Arena should have mind for the 2026 World Cup and still a lofty goal at that.
So was Bruce Arena’s comment about competing to win the World Cup in 2026 a bit rash? Probably. Is it a goal the USMNT should aspire to? Absolutely. That’s what those guys are out there building towards, the ultimate goal of one day winning a World Cup.
In the end, I love Bruce Arena’s enthusiasm and optimism. The man has been around for a long time and coached a lot of the best to ever don the red, white, and blue. But the fact of the matter is Bruce Arena will not be around in 2026, so his comments won’t carry much weight nine years from now. I personally find Arena’s statement to be more for show than anything else and Klinsmann’s goal of a semi-final to be more plausible. Who’s to say who is right? Guess well have to check back in 2026.