- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

You always hear about a coach's "competitive juices," but Bruce Arena has something more like lava bubbling and boiling inside. That, along with his laser-like focus and supreme self-confidence, might make him the last person you would expect to say his U.S. soccer team will not win the World Cup.
But two other traits are synonymous with Arena intelligence and honesty and he is neither an idiot nor a liar. When Arena left Major League Soccer's D.C. United to become coach of the national team, he immediately dismissed the outlandish notion of winning the Cup. Four years later, with the 2002 competition starting Friday and the Americans set to meet Portugal on June 5 in South Korea, he has not modified his position.
"I don't think we're going to win," he said recently.
Arena, Ivy League-educated and respected for his keen mind, has a notoriously low threshold for impatience when dealing with reporters and other lesser intellectual beings. He seemed irked that someone even brought the subject up.
"Let me ask you this," he said, turning to face a lesser being. "If I said we're gonna win the 2002 World Cup, what you would say to that?"
Ummmm. Before getting his answer, Arena said, "I don't think we're gonna win it, because we're not a good enough team to win the World Cup at this point."
At this point. Conventional wisdom says if the United States gets to the second round, it would not only represent a marvelous achievement but an important stepping stone to 2006, when Arena really hopes to conduct serious business. And even if the Americans can't escape Group D, which also includes South Korea and Poland, this might actually be a case of it isn't whether you win or lose but how you play the game.
"No one ever implied that if we didn't win the World Cup we'd be a failure," Arena said. "There are a lot of things you can do in a World Cup beside win it and still be successful. We think there's a lot out there we can do and make a lot of progress."
When it comes to American soccer, it's all about progress. And patience. Arena quickly noted that only seven countries, period, have won the 16 previous World Cup competitions since the first in 1930. All are located in Europe and South America, where soccer, or futbol, is an essential part of the culture, if not daily life itself. As opposed to here. When it comes to the international game, the United States is a developing nation. No American team had qualified for the Cup until 1990 (although it is a sign of progress that the United States has made the last four tournaments).
At the very least, the 50-year-old Arena hopes to improve upon the effort, or lack thereof, of 1998, when a dysfunctional American team coached by Steve Sampson, marred by bickering and infighting, scored just one goal and lost all three of its games.
"We're going to make believe [that] never happened," Arena told reporters after naming his 2002 roster. Despite some early skepticism in the disparate, stratified and highly opinionated environment of global soccer, there is now consensus the Americans found the right guy to erase those nasty memories.
"He was head and shoulders my first choice," said former MLS commissioner Doug Logan, who gave a hearty recommendation in '98 despite publicly butting heads with the outspoken Arena more than once. "And he continues to be to this day."
Born in Brooklyn in 1951 less than three weeks after the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson broke Dodgers' fans hearts by hitting the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," Arena grew up in Franklin Square, Long Island, with his older brothers, Paul and Mike. Both were quarterbacks. Arena naturally wanted to follow their path but was still a shrimp by the time he reached high school. "It was pretty obvious I wasn't going to be a football player," Arena once told the New York Times.
Arena compensated for his lack of stature (he would eventually grow to be 6-foot-1) with quickness, aggression and smarts and instead turned to lacrosse and soccer. He attended Nassau Community College and then Cornell, playing both sports and earning All-America honors in soccer. After a brief, undistinguished professional career, he coached at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and Cornell before being named coach at Virginia in 1978. During 17 years Arena built a soccer dynasty (while also helping coach lacrosse until 1985), winning five national championships and churning out such All-Americans as Tony Meola, Jeff Agoos, Claudio Reyna and the current Cavaliers coach, George Gelnovatch. Arena compiled an .808 winning percentage at UVa.
Like all great coaches, Arena constantly seeks an edge. Part of the lore is how he listened in on Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and other ACC basketball coaches through the air vents leading from the visitor's dressing room. "Yeah, I overheard them talk," he said. "You learn things."
Arena's college success made him a natural fit for a new endeavor called Major League Soccer and its Washington franchise, D.C. United. With Arena as coach and led by the likes of Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno and Eddie Pope, D.C. United won the first two MLS Cups in 1996 and 1997 and lost in the championship game in 1998.
That would be Arena's final MLS competition. Following the disaster in the '98 World Cup, Arena was hired by U.S. Soccer to give the American team a kick in the rear. Despite his track record and seemingly obvious qualifications, the world soccer community was skeptical.
"The question mark always was whether he could succeed on the international stage," Logan said. "There was talk that yes, he was the best coach in the United States, but would that serve him well competing [internationally]? And what the team needed was a good international coach. But I think people did not understand his great knowledge of the game, his sensitivity to it and the way he worked to keep himself informed on a global level."
Arena's work habits are legendary. He endlessly views tape at his Fairfax home, keeping tabs on players worldwide, and has been known to jump on airplanes on short notice to check out somebody. A visitor a couple of years ago noted that Arena had six television sets and two satellite feeds.
"He watches more film than anybody I know," Logan said. "He can tell you the characteristics of some obscure midfielder in central Europe. He is constantly watching soccer, and he is extraordinarily intelligent."
Still, Arena's resume would not have been complete without his MLS experience.
"It was an absolutely essential progression," said Dave Sarachen, Arena's assistant with D.C. United and now with the national team. "It allowed him to open up globally and get a broader sense of the game. It put him in an environment with professionals."
Arena, said Logan, has a quality that can be neither taught nor learned.
"I spent some time in the military and under war conditions, and there's something to be said for a person born with inherent leadership skills who encourages others to follow them toward a common goal," Logan said. "Those are intangibles. You can ascribe them to General Patton, Vince Lombardi, you can go on and on.
"Some criticize him for being a bit on the intimidating side. Part of that is theater. He uses that element of leadership theatrically. Beyond that is an extraordinary loyalty to his players. You rarely find him doing anything but constructively criticize them. And he is the best prepared coach I've ever seen going into a competition."
Said Sarachen: "It's not that Bruce knows that much more about the game than any other guy, but there's a feel a coach has that allows a person like Bruce to constantly gauge the temperature of that team and the individuals on that team. You can't teach that. It's a certain feel, and you either have it or you don't."
Eddie Pope, a defender on the 2002 team, said other coaches have asked him about the secret to Arena's success.
"It's hard to put your finger on it," Pope said. "To me, he kind of has a total picture of the way he wants his team to be. And I think maybe he rewinds and puts the pieces back together. I don't think a lot of coaches do that. I think a lot of times people just pick and choose and just throw things together. But I think he has a vision and executes it perfectly."
With Arena, there are no mixed signals, no garbled transmissions.
"Your assignments and what he wants from you are always made very clear," Pope said. "There's no mistaking it. It's not confusing. You know what you need to do. You know what he wants from you. It's very cut and dried."
Meola, a reserve goaltender who has had a brilliant MLS career and is playing in his third World Cup, calls what Arena excels in "man-management."
"It's his honesty with people," Meola said. "Knowing when to kick someone in the [rear] and knowing when to pat him on the back. There's a way of doing it. He never tries to embarrass anybody. You know, every coach says they don't try to embarrass anybody, but a lot of coaches do. It's just the bottom line. But he does a pretty good job of not doing that.
"Another thing is, he makes it real clear: This is the way we're gonna do it, and if you do it my way and we lose, I'll take the blame. And he puts the blame on his own shoulders. But if you do it a different way and you lose, it's your fault."
Agoos, another defender, said, "He's got a competitive spirit, he's got a vision of where he wants to take American soccer and he brings that every day to the training. He puts you in environments where you have to compete, and that's what the game is about."
Despite his accomplishments, Arena is known as much for his temper, ego and belief, like most smart people who are good at what they do, that he is almost always right. He reportedly was known as "Lips" at Cornell. Rarely, it seems, does Arena feel an emotion he does not express, as Logan will attest. The two had a rather spirited relationship while involved with MLS. Arena was a frequent critic of league policies, and Logan, no wallflower himself, answered right back.
"Contrary to what people think, we had a wonderful relationship," said Logan, who now has his own sports marketing business. "We had disagreements over several issues, and a lot of it became public, but I've always had the highest respect for him as a coach.
"Look, we are both passionate about what we do, and sometimes there were conflicting agendas that were aired out. He has a demeanor where he will just not yield. He is an immovable block. And that is a trait that is extremely attractive."
Logan said he thinks so highly of Arena that he describes him as "Bill Parcells, without the baggage."
Or try this one on: Bob Knight, without the self-destruction thing.
Meola said Arena has mellowed somewhat since his chair-kicking, chalkboard-shattering days at Virginia. But if Arena is less physical than before, he remains in top verbal form. Railing at injustice, real or imagined, at personal slights, actual or perceived, Arena has jousted with the American and international soccer establishments, women's soccer, the U.S. Olympic committee (he coached the American team in 1996), game officials, other coaches and the media.
Usually, the result is so much sound and fury, such as when he called an English club coach "an absolute jerk" for not allowing Eddie Lewis to attend training camp and blamed the MLS' New York/New Jersey MetroStars for Clint Mathis' lack of conditioning. Perhaps speaking for others, MetroStars general manager Nick Sackiewicz told a reporter, "Bruce Arena has a history of commenting about things when he knows nothing about them."
But occasionally Arena crosses the line. After a 2000 qualifying loss to Costa Rica, he berated an official and said his team was "cheated," all of which resulted in a two-game suspension. Arena later apologized, calling himself an "idiot coach."
While with D.C. United, Arena said he wondered if his sledgehammer approach might eventually keep him from coaching the national team. "I am actually not that outspoken," he said back then. "What I am is honest, and that's the killer for most people."
More recently he told the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, "Sometimes in our society people are brought up falsely. They're being told things that are good for their egos or that are nice to hear. But they're not necessarily true. What they really need is to be told the truth."
As with most public figures, the truth about Arena is not always accessible. Logan calls Arena, whose son, Kenny, plays soccer at Virginia, "a wonderful parent."
Sarachen said much about Arena is misunderstood. "He's not a dictator," Sarachen said. "It's not my way or the highway. I think there's been a lot of give and take. It's been important for him to listen to the players, to understand some of the issues that arose from the past."
And yet, Arena "says things I wouldn't say publicly," Sarachen said. "But that's Bruce. That's him. But unless you're on the inside, you don't ever get a true picture of Bruce.
"People who don't know him feel he's arrogant and self-centered and that kind of stuff. We all are to a degree. What people don't see is the softer side, the loyalty he shows to people he's been around. And he has a sense of humor. He can be quite engaging. But he is an enigma. As well as you think you know him, there are times you scratch your head and don't think you do."

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