- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

Last week in an interview with the New York Times, U.S. men’s coach Bruce Arena took pot shots at almost everyone involved in American soccer. To some, his comments were worthy of a red card and early shower. Days later, he was handing out apologies left, right and center.

Ten years ago, Arena was a coach in the hills of Charlottesville earning a college coach’s pay. Today he is coaching the No.11 ranked national team in the world, earning a fat salary and presiding over a roster busting at the seams with talented young players.

The American team is backed by a growing pro league, soccer-specific stadiums springing up like daisies across the land and a guy called Freddy Adu who’s out there putting a name on the game. These are the best and brightest days American soccer has ever seen. Arena should be dancing for joy on the penalty spot and swinging from the goal posts.

Compared to other national team coaches, the pressure on the Fairfax-based coach is minimal. He faces no probing tabloids, and if the U.S. team failed to reach the World Cup, it would be a one-day story, albeit devastating for soccer fans here. In Europe if his team failed to qualify, he would be figuratively hung, drawn and quartered and referred to as a vegetable in the media.

Arena’s main beef is with Major League Soccer playing games while the U.S. team is involved in World Cup qualifying matches. He hates dealing with nagging MLS coaches who are missing their players. The American team is in action at El Salvador tonight while MLS games will go on with depleted teams.

Arena wants to know why America can’t be like the rest of the soccer world. We all agree Bruce, but give it time. Look how far we have come.

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, has put aside special dates for qualifying games, and most of the major leagues in the world suspend play when their national team is in action.

Arena’s frustration is valid, but is it practical for a fledgling league like MLS to shut down for a number of weekends? The cultural appetite for weekly soccer is a fragile thing on this side of the pond, and long pauses in the season could kill soccer’s short roots.

This is the second-to-last game in the MLS season and some teams, but not all, will be without players due to World Cup qualifying.

D.C. United will be missing just one player — defender Ezra Hendrickson, who is the captain of St. Vincent and the Grenadines — when it faces the full-strength New England Revolution tonight at RFK Stadium.

Rather than close down the whole league, wouldn’t it be wiser for an individual club to plead with the league to reschedule a match?

Arena’s gripe with MLS echoes those of former U.S. coach Steve Sampson that the poor quality of league play affected his 1998 World Cup team.

“Most of the [MLS] regular-season games mean nothing,” Arena told the Times. “The players are not motivated, and in reality the games don’t mean a lot until the last month of the season.”

Meaningless games! Unmotivated players! I’m sure that didn’t go down well with some folks in MLS.

Arena later said he regretted his comments, adding, “The passion and commitment I have for the game tends to cloud my judgement and apparently destroys some of my brain cells as well.”

Arena is the best soccer coach American has ever seen. He’s either way ahead of his time or just a little impatient.

As for tonight’s U.S. game at El Salvador and Wednesday’s match against Panama at RFK, the stakes are high. This is the halfway mark of the six-game semifinal round of qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. The Americans are in first place in Group 1 with a 1-0-2 record. A tie in El Salvador and a win over Panama would almost guarantee the Americans a spot in next year’s six-team final qualifying round.

MLS roundup — Four teams remain in the playoff hunt, but the Revolution (7-12-9, 30 points) must defeat United (9-10-9, 36 points) to keep out the Chicago Fire. United claimed a playoff spot this week courtesy of Chicago’s midweek loss to the Columbus Crew. With that win the Crew captured their first Eastern Conference title and set a 19-game unbeaten record.

In the Western Conference, the Dallas Burn (10-13-5, 35 points) and the San Jose Earthquakes (9-10-9, 26 points) are battling for a spot.

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