- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

Jeff Agoos had seen enough.
The U.S. national team had been embarrassed in the 1998 World Cup, losing its three matches and scoring only one goal. In the months leading up to the tournament, the U.S. squad had little consistency in player personnel or coaching philosophy; the team was in disarray. Agoos, a strong veteran defender on the '98 team, did not want to play under similar conditions again. Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach at the time, resigned after the tournament, but the ideal coach was needed if Agoos, as well as several top American players, were to play for the United States again.
"After '98, it left such a bad taste in my mouth," Agoos said. "There were few situations that would have made me come back. There were very few people I would play for. Bruce was one of the few."
"Bruce" is current national team coach Bruce Arena. And not only does this coaching guru have Agoos playing for him, but he has a collection of U.S. players believing in themselves and poised to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.
The Arena-led team will take the RFK Stadium pitch today against Honduras, and a victory practically ensures the United States a berth in next year's World Cup though the United States still has three matches remaining after today. This scenario could seem surprising considering the United States' exit as the laughingstock of the last tournament, but it is not a surprise, not with Arena at the helm.
Arena is a man who stands as one of the top coaches in all of American sport. At every level he has coached, his teams have dominated their competition. Not just beaten, but dominated: From 1978 until 1998, as coach of the University of Virginia and D.C. United, Arena's teams had a .774 winning percentage (386-99-38). Under Arena, the national team has already beaten international powers Mexico, Chile and Germany (twice). Still, his challenge as national team coach elevating the U.S. team to stand among the top soccer nations in the world in the next 10 years dwarfs any of his previous ventures.
In the last three years, though, he has cultivated an attitude of success, confidence and consistency in and around U.S. Soccer. He has his players so committed, "they would die for him," said Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia, president of U.S. Soccer.
The prospect of turning the United States into an international threat doesn't faze him.
"The thing that separates him from other coaches," said University of Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, a former Arena adversary, "is when he steps in the locker room, players will believe they will win. And that's a much more difficult thing to do than to say."
Arena's ability to motivate and relate to his players is unsurpassed, and players and coaches close to him agree he could be successful in any sport he coached. Arena has a certain prowess for taking a team, molding it, maximizing its strengths and making it successful.
Arena has realized success as a soccer coach, but says he derives most of his coaching philosophy from basketball and football. For example, Arena drew a correlation between a full-court press in basketball and applying pressure and attacking in soccer. In football, a coach may call more passing plays or running plays depending on the strengths of his team. Similarly, Arena crafts his style and makes adjustments according to his players' strengths.
It's not like he's a basketball coach and a disciple of Pat Riley or a football coach and ascribes to Vince Lombardi's principles. Arena views his position as the top soccer coach in the United States this way: He's a soccer coach with little successful American precedent to follow. So he's building his own legacy in a sport yet to be fully embraced in this country.
"Bruce could have been a coach in the NFL or in the NBA," said national team assistant coach Dave Sarachan, who has coached with Arena for parts of the last 17 years. "The perception with Bruce is that he's aloof and distant… . But when you're in the inner circle, you realize that that isn't really the way it is. When you talk to players that have played with Bruce, they will tell you they respect him as a coach and a leader. And that's the true mark of a guy you want to play for."
Arena hardly regards himself highly. He voices a quiet confidence and is very self-assured, but far from cocky. When asked to talk about himself and his accomplishments, Arena does not budge.
"I don't spend a whole lot of time looking at [my strengths]," Arena said in drawl that rings with remnants of a New York accent. "When you coach as long as I've coached, you do things to the point that it becomes natural. So if anyone asks me to write a book on coaching, it would probably be a sentence or two."
Arena's strong points are rooted in the way he relates to his players. He gets the most out of them because he is direct and sincere and knows exactly how to deliver the appropriate message. Sometimes he does it with just a few words, sometimes he does it with a prolonged tongue-lashing. But the point is always driven home, and there are few questions afterward.
Richie Williams has played for Arena at every level at Virginia, which Arena led to five national championships; with D.C. United, which Arena took to two MLS Cups and the 1996 U.S. Open Cup; and the national team. Williams, a midfielder, said Arena has adapted with the game over the years, but has largely remained the same.
"When you have a coach like that who's prepared, organized, knows the game, and really pushes you to do your best and wants you to do your best, that's a great thing," Williams said. "Even in college, I felt like I was a professional player because he was so competitive, he was so organized. He always made sure things were done in the right way and he's very thorough in his approach to the game. I love that."
The United States (4-1-1, 13 points) will face Honduras (2-2-2, 8 points) today at without three of its top forwards Brian McBride (blood clot in his arm), Josh Wolff (foot) and Clint Mathis (knee) are all injured. Their absences hurt the Americans, but somehow, with Arena on the bench, it seems almost a given they can overcome it, especially considering their 14-0-5 record in home World Cup qualifiers since May 1985.
"Unfortunately in our case maybe we've seen a few more injuries and suspensions than some of the other teams in competition," Arena said, "but that's never an excuse. We've been able to move forward every time we've had to deal with one."
In the nearly three years since Arena took over the reins of the U.S. program, the team has taken on his personality. The squad is comprised largely of the same players that were on the 1998 team, but now, it is a team with a steady direction pointed straight at the top.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide