After kicking off the Hexagonal WC qualifying round with twin losses in November —a 1-2 loss at home to Mexico followed by a humiliating 0-4 thrashing in Costa Rica— the USMNT needed a robust jolt. That change came swiftly with the replacement of head coach Yürgen Klinsmann with Bruce Arena, clearly the most successful men’s soccer coach in US history.
The decision was a longtime coming. Since the strong performance by the US in the 2014 WC under Klinsmann, the team’s performance has been erratic. Dismal play in the 2015 Gold Cup, struggles in the earlier qualifiers and then the miserable matches in November—all littered with some eyebrow-raising lineup decisions—made it clear that the expectations that Klinsmann had brought to the US team were not going to be fulfilled.
US Soccer’s choice of a new coach to lead the team through the final eight Hex matches and qualify for the 2018 WC in Russia was made easier by Arena’s availability. The former goalkeeper has coached successfully at all levels of soccer in the US. His University of Virginia teams won five national NCAA titles and he notched five MLS championships, with DC United (1996, 97) and the LA Galaxy (2011, 12 and 14).
Between those two MLS stints, Arena managed the USMNT from 1998 to 2006, posting more wins and the highest winning percentage in the team’s history. He coached the team through two World Cups with the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea perhaps the highlight of his career. He maneuvered the men into the quarterfinals, where they lost a close and controversial match to Germany 1-0. By April, 2006, Arena had the USMNT ranked #4 in the world.
Arena’s challenge now is get the US into the 2018 WC. Starting with an 0-2 record in the six-team Hex, the USMNT has to lift itself into the top three (or possibly four) spots. Arena is the man for the job. Next games are on March 24 and 28.
Carolina RailHawks Becomes NC FC
The Carolina RailHawks franchise, the Triangle’s professional soccer team since 2007, was renamed North Carolina FC. Local owner Steve Malik announced the name change in December along with the franchise’s ambition of joining Major League Soccer.
The Cary-based RailHawks played in the USL for three years and then the temporary USSF league for the 2010 season. The RailHawks joined the Division II North American Soccer for the 2011 season. In 2017, North Carolina FC will continue in the NASL, which will field eight clubs, down from 12 last year.
MLS, the top pro league in the US currently with 22 teams, will expand to 24 for the 2018 season, 26 for 2020 and eventually to 28. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said last month that among the ten cities being considered for the MLS expansion are Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte.
For expansion clubs, MLS is looking for local ownership that is financially secure; a history of a strong fan base in a metropolitan market and an appropriate stadium, preferably soccer-specific.
It’s generally considered that an MLS stadium needs to accommodate a minimum of 18,000 fans, the level of the four smallest current MLS parks. In December, Malik announced his intent to build a 24,000-seat stadium in the Triangle in 12 to 18 months, at a cost in the $150 million range.
The current home for North Carolina FC is WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary where last season the RailHawks drew a record crowd of 10,125 fans for an exhibition match against West Ham of England’s Premier League.
NC FC also acquired Western New York Flash of National Women’s Soccer League, renamed the N.C. Courage and they will begin play in Cary in April.
FIFA Council approved WC expansion from 32 to 48 teams for 2026.
Malik, a native of Kinston, is founder of Medfusion, a medical software company in Cary. In 2010 he sold the business to Intuit for $91 million and then bought it back in 2013 for an undisclosed amount.