Arena’s gambles vs. Mexico differed from Klinsmann’s as USA’s path to Russia clears

Bruce Arena’s most celebrated achievement outside select areas of Southern California or central Virginia is managing the U.S. national team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. His famous round-of-16 victory over Mexico remains the only knockout-stage success the American men have enjoyed at the senior level. The images and memories from that day in South Korea—from Landon Donovan’s header to Rafa Márquez’s headbutt—are lasting. “Dos a cero” took root in CONCACAF lore, and American soccer took another giant step on its journey toward viability and credibility.

What many don’t remember is that the journey could’ve ended much earlier. Arena’s team was close to crisis in the summer of 2001. It lost a third consecutive qualifier in Costa Rica and with just two matches remaining in the Hexagonal, the USA was 4-3-1 and in a third-place tie with El Tri (and trailing on goal difference). Only the top three finishers would qualify.

Honduras stumbled, losing at home to Trinidad Tobago. The USA survived and advanced, and its flirtation with disaster soon became a footnote. And in that footnote lies the crux of World Cup qualifying—it doesn’t matter how you get in. There are no gold medals in the Hex, and there’s no reward for finishing higher once the World Cup kicks off.

Just get in.

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