Bruce Arena’s stance on foreign-born USMNT players remains problematic

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Dual national players have been a hot topic for the United States national team for years. What makes an American? It's a messy question and one that has a pretty simple answer: American citizenship. That's the FIFA definition too. But as the national team deals with players who have the option to play for other countries or were even born in other countries, the rhetoric has gotten more unwieldy and, at times, downright problematic.

Bruce Arena, who was just hired to be the U.S. manager on Tuesday, was immediately asked his thoughts on dual nationals.

“I embrace all players that are eligible to play,” Arena said.

That was the easy answer and, frankly, the right one. It also jibes with his time as the national team manager from 1998-2006, when he made foreign-born players like Earnie Stewart, Carlos Llamosa, David Regis and Pablo Mastroeni regulars in the squad. But then Arena qualified his comment.

“Just want to make sure their hearts are in the right place,” he added.

Now that gets more complicated. How do you measure a player's heart or commitment? And it's a metric that will almost always be applied to foreign-born players.

It also comes after a slew of comments from Arena over the last few years that aren't exactly consistent.

“Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans,” Arena told ESPN The Magazine in 2013. “If they're all born in other countries, I don't think we can say we are making progress.”

Now that quote looks bad at its face. But it lines up with a comment he made to the New York Times a year later that has little to do with foreign-born players and is more about the need for the U.S. to develop their own players domestically.

“I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture.”

So Arena isn't against foreign-born players. He simply thinks that the key for the national team taking the next step is their own player development. Fine.

But Arena still can't separate that from players needing to be “American” and what the definition of that means.

“I'm a big believer in the American player and producing them out of our system. I think that ultimately is what will develop the sport in our country, not on the field but with the consumer,” Arena said to USA Today in 2014. “When they can recognize our players and who they are and where they came from, they'll be more supportive of the sport, and that's a big plus in terms of marketing. When we do it with randomly selecting people from all over that really have no connection, I don't think it hits home with people we want supporting our sport and our national team.”

And just like that, we're back to not really knowing if this is about development, marketing, connection or American-ness. At best, it is sloppy.

Earlier this year, while managing the LA Galaxy and not in the frame to be the U.S. manager for a second time, he was asked about dual nationals again, this time on Alexi Lalas' Mutant Gene Podcast.

“If you hold a passport, you're eligible to play for the national team. And I understand that and I have no problem with that. In this day and age — our country's a melting pot, so to say that you need to be born in the United States to play for the national team is a ridiculous point of view. But, having said that, I think that if you play for the national team, regardless of your background and how you got that passport, it's gotta be important to you. You have to play with pride and to me, that's an important characteristic to have as a national team player. You care about your country. You care about how your team is represented on the field, and it means everything to you. And if you're short on that, whether you were born in Kansas City or you were born in Berlin, to me that's critical.”

Most everyone can agree that they want players who represent their national team to give their all and be committed to it. That's fine and Arena wanting all of his players to be entirely invested in the national team is completely fair. But again this can be problematic.

These conversations about American-ness and whether players should play for the national team are only brought up with regards to foreign-born players, no matter what “whether you were born in Kansas City” qualifier is added. And it asks the question “who is American enough to play for the national team?” And on top of that, it is left to the manager — be it Arena or every U.S. manager that has preceded him and had dual nationals — to decide on their American-ness.

Arena has walked the line and even jumped back and forth on both sides of the line. The problem is that there is a line, that it is drawn by whoever the manager is at the time and that it only applies to certain people. Will Arena actually keep foreign-born players out of the national team or take any unfair action? It's supremely unlikely, but words do matter.

If only all of this could have been stopped at “I embrace all players that are eligible to play.” Because that's the answer to all of this and it doesn't need anything more.

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