Bruce Arena defends Sunil Gulati, lineup decisions, says criticism is 'a bunch of baloney'

Bruce Arena’s U.S. men’s national team lost to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday on the worst night in American soccer history. (AP)

Bruce Arena, who is widely expected to be relieved of his duties as U.S. men’s national team manager in the wake of Tuesday’s shocking loss in Trinidad and Tobago, defended both his lineup decisions and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati in an interview with Steven Goff of the Washington Post on Thursday.

Arena also said he and Gulati had spoken on their flight back from Trinidad, and, according to Goff, hinted that his contract might have an early exit clause that could be triggered by the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Arena did, though, make it clear that he will not be sticking around with the program long-term: “Obviously, I have no interest in going on a four-year cycle right now,” he told the Post.

In his first public comments since Tuesday’s postgame news conference, Arena, when asked about his decision to play an unchanged starting 11 despite only needing a draw, and despite just three days of rest, got defensive.

“You can say I could’ve played this guy, that guy, and then you’d come back the next day if we had lost and said, ‘Why did you make those changes and play those guys?'” he told the Post. “The job we have doesn’t allow us to be the Monday morning quarterback. [Trinidad and Tobago] played almost the same team that played against Mexico on Friday, so there’s no difference.

“So that’s all a bunch of baloney. It has nothing to do with formations or not making changes. We didn’t get the job done. If we played the first half like we played the second half, there is no question we win that game or at least get a point. There’s no finger-pointing or excuses; it’s all on us.”

When asked about the phantom Panama goal that helped eliminate the U.S., Arena hit out at CONCACAF referees – a complaint he has aired before, but not one that’s really relevant in light of Tuesday’s debacle.

“That’s CONCACAF,” he said of the Panama-Costa Rica game. “If the officiating is right, probably half of those [Panamanian] guys aren’t even playing in that game because of what they did to us on Friday. They are punching people, kicking people, throwing elbows. It was ridiculous. But that’s CONCACAF. It’s all part of the exercise.”

Arena also defended Gulati, who has come under pressure in the aftermath of Tuesday’s defeat. The American Outlaws, the largest U.S. supporters group, have called for Gulati to go. So have prominent media members, including Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl. “The criticism on Sunil is unfair,” he told the Post. “Why is the president of the federation responsible for the result on Tuesday?”

Gulati himself is scheduled to speak with the media on a conference call at 11:30 a.m. ET on Friday.

Arena also defended the federation as a whole, which has been the subject of ferocious criticism as well. One of the main complaints has addressed USSF’s inability to fix problems with the youth game in the United States. Arena hit back at that argument. “Why do people think U.S. Soccer is in charge of player development?” he told the Post.

The answer to Arena’s question, of course, is that part of U.S. Soccer’s mission is, in its own words, to “develop world-class athletes.” And it has millions of dollars to spend to try to do that. And it does invest millions of dollars in player development. So why would Area question U.S. soccer’s role in it?

Anyway, Arena continued: “Players play in clubs. Why is that U.S. Soccer’s responsibility? They support the clubs in this country, they support player development, but that’s not their responsibility. They are a governing body that runs our national team programs. They have coaching education. All of that has to get better, but the infrastructure now for player development in the United States is set. There will be more players developed over the years. Every MLS club has an academy program. Everyone has done a lot of leg work and invested a lot of money to get it going.”

Arena touched on other subjects as well. You can (and should) read Goff’s full story here.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.