NEW YORK (AP) — Bruce Arena looks into the future, thinks about the possibility of the U.S. hosting the World Cup for the second time and believes the Americans could win the title.
"I think in 2026 we're going to be fully emerged into the game and a big player," the U.S. coach said Thursday. "So I think 2026 will be the time where we're going to start talking about winning a World Cup. It wasn't going to be in 1994. It wasn't going to be in 2010, but 2026 could be our time."
Continued strides in player development leading up to the event is what he figures could allow that to become reality.
The U.S. had not played in the World Cup since 1950 when FIFA voted in 1988 to have the U.S. host the '94 tournament, which drew more than 3.58 million fans and became the most-attended World Cup ever.
The Americans have qualified for seven straight World Cups, and Arena coached them to the 2002 quarterfinals, the best American finish since they reached the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930.
This week, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced it intends to bid jointly to host the 2026 tournament with Mexico and Canada. Sixty matches would be in the U.S., with 10 each in the other countries.
"Think about where we were in 1994, '98, 2000, and keep going, and just think about where we'll be with even nine more in our league, even nine more years of players developing all over the world, and then play in the World Cup in our country," Arena said.
While the joint bid is considered the favorite, Arena said he wasn't assuming the U.S. will host because "we're being politically correct in a time where you don't even need to be politically correct."
Arena coached the U.S. from 1998-2006 and was rehired in November to replace Jurgen Klinsmann, fired following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in the first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The U.S. rebounded in March to rout Honduras 6-0 at home and draw 1-1 at Panama.
Next, the U.S. hosts Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 and plays three days later at Mexico City. Mexico leads the hexagonal with 10 points, followed by Costa Rica (seven), Panama (five), the United States and Honduras (four each) and T&T (three). The top three nations qualify for next year's tournament in Russia, and the No. 4 finisher plays Asia's fifth-place team in a playoff for another berth.
"We're far from out of the woods here," Arena said. "We have, again, I think very little margin for error, so there's a lot of urgency in these two games. ... Perhaps we're not in as much trouble as we were the last time but I don't feel good about sitting with four points after four games."
The team is tentatively scheduled to reconvene May 28 ahead of an exhibition in Sandy, Utah, followed by the qualifier against Trinidad at Commerce City, Colorado. The Utah venue is at about 4,500 feet altitude, Colorado at 5,200 feet and Azteca Stadium at 7,820.
"Our game plan is already established in some ways in that we are going to go in, train at altitude," Arena said, adding: "I've had experience with this in the past, failed miserably" a reference to March training in Colorado Springs ahead of a 2-1 loss at Mexico City in 2005.
Arena doesn't expect strained relations between President Donald Trump's administration and Mexico to be a factor.
"Mexico-U.S. is such a big game I would think that that will take precedent over any kind of political issues," Arena said. "I don't think the Mexican fans are going to be pointing fingers at us because of the political climate."
On other topics:
—Arena didn't think much of the Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones partnership in Panama. "It certainly didn't look like anything special, and as we move forward we continue to look at different possibilities."
—He is following 61 players for the June games, could easily cut to 43 and then trim to 31 in anticipation of calling in 25. He doesn't expect new faces not in the pool.
—The roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July depends on the June World Cup qualifiers. "If we're in a desperate situation we may need to go with the team that we think is somewhat the team we're going to play in September. If we come out of these games in good shape, we will have a little bit more flexibility to look at some new players."
— Midfielder Christian Pulisic is not likely to play in the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea from May 20-June 11, even though he is on the Americans' 35-man preliminary roster. Pulisic, the top American player in last month's games, likely will be with the national team. Arena said he exchanged texts with Pulisic after the Borussia Dortmund team bus was bombed this week.
—Arena criticized Mexican referee Cesar Ramos for his work during the game in Panama. "I thought the referee did a terrible job," he said. "No one kind of walked away from the game and understood what happened. You have a field that's hard to play on, a little bit bumpy. You have a referee that would not issue cards or call a whole lot fouls, and it was just a rough, scramble of a game."