It's been more than a decade since Bruce Arena last coached the U.S. men's national soccer team, an eight-year run that included both historic and disappointing World Cup performances.
Now he's back, assigned with righting a 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign that lost its way under Jurgen Klinsmann and is in danger of missing the sport's quadrennial spectacle for the first time since 1986.
The U.S. Soccer Federation on Tuesday announced that Arena, a three-time MLS Cup champion the past eight seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, will take over the program, effective Dec. 1.
"When we considered the possible candidates to take over the men's national team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list," USSF President Sunil Gulati said in a written statement. "His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach."
His hiring comes one day after the federation fired Klinsmann, whose recent on-field failure overshadowed his long-term vision for remolding American soccer. Arena was not hired to revolutionize anything; he was tapped to navigate the final round of CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying competition -- something he did successfully twice -- and get the Americans to Russia two summers from now.
"Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team it's an honor," Arena said. "I'm looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex [final round]. Working as a team, I'm confident that we'll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia."
At this late stage, the USSF was not comfortable hiring an MLS coach without international experience or a foreign candidate unfamiliar with the player pool, personalities and system. Arena has coached, and coached against, many of the U.S. players. His relationship with captain Michael Bradley dates back to Bradley's early childhood when his father, Bob Bradley, was Arena's assistant at D.C. United in 1996-97.
Beyond the potential embarrassment of missing the World Cup and stunting soccer's growth here, the federation is at risk of missing out on untold millions through sponsorship deals and FIFA payouts.
With eight qualifiers left, the Americans remain very much in contention for one of the three automatic berths awarded from the six-team group. But defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica this month have raised the urgency to earn points when the schedule resumes in March against Honduras at home and Panama away.
Arena, 65, won five NCAA championships in the last seven years of an 18-year tenure at the University of Virginia and two MLS titles in three years with United before serving his first tour with the U.S. team from 1998 to 2006.
In 2002, the Americans advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea, their deepest run in the modern era. Four years later, after the United States failed to advance out of group play at the German-hosted tournament, Gulati ousted Arena.
Arena had an unsuccessful 1 1/2 seasons with the New York Red Bulls before taking over the Galaxy, which, with star-laden rosters featuring, among others, David Beckham and Landon Donovan, raised the MLS Cup trophy in 2011, 2013 and '14. Arena is the only coach to win five league titles.
This year, the Galaxy finished third in the Western Conference with a 12-6-16 record, defeated Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs and lost to the Colorado Rapids in the conference semifinals.
A source with close ties to U.S. soccer said early last week that, should Klinsmann lose to Costa Rica, the federation would hire Arena. Following the defeat, the federation moved quickly. Gulati and USSF chief executive Dan Flynn met with Klinsmann in the Los Angeles area Sunday and finalized talks with Arena and his representative, Richard Motzkin, shortly thereafter.
An unfiltered speaker with New York bluntness, Arena has, at times, gotten himself into hot water with his comments.
In 1996, while in the dual role as coach of both United and the Olympic squad, he said U.S. officials were "too stupid to fix a draw." The host Americans were placed in the same Olympic group as Argentina and Portugal and failed to advance.
In 2013, he questioned Klinsmann's call-ups of German-American players, telling ESPN The Magazine that "players on the national team should be Americans. If they're all born in other countries, I don't think we can say we are making progress."
He backtracked a bit last spring, saying on Alexi Lalas's podcast that "to say you need to be born in the United States to play for the national team is a ridiculous point of view. But if you play for the national team, regardless of your background and how you got that passport, it's got to be important to you. . . . I hate saying this, but today I don't feel we fully have a national team where all players understand that."
Several U.S. players were raised in Germany to German mothers and American fathers who served in the U.S. military: World Cup starters Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and John Brooks, plus Timmy Chandler and Julian Green. Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd also remain in the mix. All but Green were born in Germany.
Johnson and Brooks are regulars with their respective Bundesliga clubs and among the most prominent players in the talent pool. Green is a 21-year-old attacker for global titan Bayern Munich.
Arena's appreciation for MLS players could lead to fresh domestic call-ups, such as Sporting Kansas City's Benny Feilhaber, who, moments after the USSF announced Klinsmann's ouster, posted a smiley face on his Twitter page. On multiple occasions, the 2010 World Cup member shared his disappointment in not receiving call-ups from Klinsmann the past few years.
Arena will gather his team for the first team at the annual winter camp at StubHub Center in Carson, California, coincidentally his base of operations with the Galaxy and near his home in Manhattan Beach.
With most foreign-based talent unavailable because of club commitments, MLS players will comprise the bulk of the roster for the multi-week camp starting in mid-January. Two friendlies are in the works, but because they fall outside the official FIFA calendar, the Americans and their opponents will field secondary squads.
Integrating new players into the full group, though, could prove difficult. With qualifying matches looming, Arena will not have full-fledged friendlies to experiment; he'll need to hit the ground running. That means largely working with the current player pool, implementing lineup and tactical adjustments, and re-calibrating a team that had run aground under Klinsmann.