Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Mundial: Estados Unidos

U.S. Rises Up Under Arena
No men's soccer coach has done more for the national team's success, and the confident Americans are ready to take another step forward.
By Grahame L. Jones

June 6, 2006

HAMBURG, Germany — How does a lacrosse coach from New York take a soccer team to the quarterfinals of the World Cup?

Basketball, that's how.

To understand the connection, drift back in time to the University of Virginia, circa 1982:

Bruce Arena is the Cavaliers' assistant lacrosse coach, but he also coaches soccer on the side. One of his soccer assistants is Bob Bradley.

The old soccer offices in University Hall are right next to the visiting basketball team's locker room. The walls have ears. So do the young soccer coaches.

"We could sit in the soccer office before games and at halftime and hear the ACC basketball coaches talking to their teams," said Bradley, now the coach of Chivas USA in Major League Soccer.

"So we would all slip in there at halftime, not to spy or to get information but to hear the way Dean Smith spoke to his team and to hear the way Mike Krzyzewski spoke, and Jim Valvano and Bobby Cremins.

"Bruce has always learned from what's around him."

By the time he had won four NCAA soccer titles at Virginia and shared another, Arena was ready to move on. The launch of MLS in 1996 gave him that opportunity, and he made the most of it. In his first two years as coach, his D.C. United team won two MLS titles and a U.S. Open Cup.

Again, something higher beckoned, and in the fall of 1998, Arena, a one-time goalkeeper from Brooklyn, became coach of the U.S. men's national team.

American soccer has not been the same since.

No matter how the U.S. does at this World Cup, which begins Friday when host Germany plays Costa Rica in Munich, Arena's place in the history of the American game is secure.

No U.S. men's national team coach has ever done as well. Against all odds, he took the team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan — the Americans' best showing in 72 years.

He has won the CONCACAF Gold Cup — the regional championship for national teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean — twice, and the CONCACAF Champions Cup for club teams once.

He has the best winning record of any U.S. men's coach, at 69-27-28, heading into the team's World Cup opener Monday against the Czech Republic.

Arena is fiercely competitive, to the point that it extends beyond soccer and onto the golf course.

"He can motivate you by getting under your skin," said Chicago Fire Coach Dave Sarachan, an assistant to Arena on the 2002 World Cup team.

"He always tries to rattle you and throw you off your game to give him an advantage. He likes to golf. He's taken to it quite a bit. It used to kill him when I used to beat him because everybody else would get rattled when they played with him, but I wouldn't let him get to me.

"Sometimes, even when you're his partner, he'll root against you, just because he's so competitive."

Arena always seemed destined to become a coach rather than a player. On the soccer field, his background was modest.

He was an All-American at Nassau Community College in both soccer and lacrosse and in lacrosse alone at Cornell. In the days when U.S. Soccer was pretty much an amateur outfit, he made one national team appearance — against Israel in 1973, when he came on as a substitute goalkeeper in a 2-0 loss at Beersheba, Israel.

He played one season of lacrosse for the Montreal Quebecois and one season of soccer with the Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League.

As a coach, however, he has made his mark.

"In the early days of MLS, he was always on the cutting edge of moving the game forward," said former MLS coach Thomas Rongen, now coach of the U.S. under-20 national team.

Since becoming national team coach, Arena has crossed swords on occasion with MLS — but only because he has a vision of what the league can be and should be and is impatient for it to fulfill its promise.

Arena, 54, does not suffer fools gladly, and while he has a dry sense of humor, he also can be short, caustic, sarcastic, and, according to Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan, even downright angry at times.

"Lack of effort," Donovan answered when asked what riles Arena.

"If Clint Dempsey gets the ball in the final third and tries to dribble by someone who steals it, fine, no problem. If you fail to make a play because you're being lazy, if you fail to make a play because you're not thinking, that's when he gets angry."

Such moments are few and far between, however, and Arena's greatest gift has been to earn and keep the loyalty of his players. They respect him and appear to genuinely enjoy playing for him.

"Even though he's a serious guy, he finds a way to soften the mood so that the pressure is off the players," Sarachan said. "That's what's so key with Bruce."

His management of the team in South Korea four years ago offers a good example.

"He made sure the families were there [in Seoul]," Sarachan said. "He made sure that the players had access to the city. Anything to take the pressure off them.

"And if it meant him taking the heat, he would do it."

Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones was there in 2002, just as he had been when Steve Sampson coached the 1998 World Cup team and when Bora Milutinovic coached the 1994 World Cup team.

"I think he definitely gives players the confidence," Jones said of Arena.

Just as it will this time around against the Czechs, the U.S. opened against a top European team in 2002, with Portugal widely expected to win.

"Everyone knew that we were going into an intense situation where we had to bring our A game when we went out there against Portugal," Jones said.

Arena still managed to keep things calm.

"He could relax the team," Jones said.

The U.S. ended up winning, 3-2, to start its run to the quarterfinals.

According to Donovan, Arena has not only mellowed in the four years since but has also come to expect more of his players, to insist that they play the game, as opposed to merely being in the game.

"I've gained a tremendous amount of respect for Bruce because he just gets it," Donovan said. "He understands everything about soccer. He understands everything that needs to go into it. He's thinking so far ahead about things that just make your job so much easier as a player.

"He's gotten more comfortable, more relaxed and he's gotten more confident.

"Four years ago, it was fight and find a way to get results out of the game. That's kind of always been the American mentality going into big tournaments.

"In the last year, he's demanded that we play more. Open up and play. We're good enough soccer players to play, and he believes that. He's trying to pass that on to people."

Having succeeded on the national level, Arena, although he has not yet pursued it, could become the first American coach of a recognized club in Europe.

"He's a guy that loves a challenge, and if there's one out there, that would be it," Sarachan said.

Rongen says he believes Arena could have an impact even at the highest club level.

"I think he can cut it anywhere," he said. "I know there have been some European clubs that have shown interest in him and they will continue to do so."

Arena no longer gets his lessons from ACC basketball coaches. These days, he said, he is listening to, watching and reading about the likes of Liverpool's Rafael Benitez and Chelsea's Jose Mourinho.

"One of his great qualities as a coach is that he's always growing and he's always learning and he's always looking for ways to do things a little better," Bradley said.

Arena's almost seven-figure contract runs out in December. The World Cup could determine whether he is offered another. As for Europe, the call might never come, but that would be Europe's loss, according to some.

"Just like our players are being looked at more often, I think now our coaches will get more chances," Rongen said. "I hope he stays, because we need him in this country for another four years."


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