- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The U.S. soccer team had finished practicing on a steamy afternoon in Nashville a few weeks ago, the day before playing Morocco in an exhibition game. The World Cup loomed in the distance and the team remained a work in progress, not yet ready for prime time.

But coach Bruce Arena, as always, was in top form.

The man responsible for turning American soccer into a viable international entity stood on the turf at the Coliseum, the same field used by the Tennessee Titans, facing a group of reporters. It was a mismatch: The press never had a chance.

When a reporter asked about a supposed ankle injury to midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, Arena stared at him as if he were wrapped in a Brazilian flag.

“No ankle injury,” he snapped. “You read that in the paper?”

The writer began explaining that he read it on the wire when Arena interrupted.

“Well, that’s one of the problems you have,” he said, smiling.

But what really upset Arena were all the subsequent questions about their first game of the World Cup — Monday against the Czech Republic. The reporters wanted to know who would start. Arena refused to look that far ahead.

“I’m not working on my lineup for the Czech game,” he said. “I have a game tomorrow in Nashville against Morocco. We all might get hit by a bus after the game.”

Arena continued in the same vein until finally, he looked at a familiar writer and asked, “Do you drink a lot of alcohol?”

He paused.

“If not, I’d advise you to start,” he said.

Everyone cracked up. It was vintage Arena, who, despite his peevishness, seemed to enjoy or at least tolerate the sparring. He can be a funny guy. He also is cantankerous, combative and sarcastic and doesn’t suffer fools. This all gets transmitted in a Long Island accent. It punctuates the effect, hones the message.

The former D.C. United coach is frequently described as “honest,” which might be another way of saying “blunt” or “outspoken.” Actually, those words have been used, too. Although diplomacy has sometimes suffered, Arena’s style has mostly worked.

John Harkes, who played for Arena at Virginia and with D.C. United and still works as United’s director of youth development, said: “I want to be a coach as well, and I learned from Bruce to always be up front and honest with your players and let them know what their roles are and how they can improve.

“He can be blunt. Very blunt. I think it’s better to be like that instead of letting things drag on. I think he softens the blow a little more now and I think he understands the effect he can have on certain players. You have to treat them as individuals.”

A lacrosse player and coach long ago, Arena is sort of a combination of Bill Parcells’ tough guy and Joe Gibbs’ players’ guy. He is a button-pushing master who knows who and when to poke or praise, and employs an array of motivational techniques.

Bob Contiguglia, the former head of U.S. Soccer who hired Arena in 1998, recently said Arena’s players “would die for him.” While no one has yet gone that far, they often play up to or beyond their abilities.

“He relates with his players incredibly well,” Contiguglia said. “It’s mutual respect. He has human qualities that often don’t show publicly. Here’s a guy who really cares about his players and their personal lives.”

Arena, who invited players to live with his family at their Fairfax home when he coached United, worked the U.S. team relentlessly during training camp in North Carolina. But he also promoted golf outings. He had the team practice the day they arrived in Germany. But he allowed his players to bring their families or girlfriends along, and rejected housing in a remote location in favor of staying in the middle of the action in Hamburg.

But Arena is more than just a master motivator. He is a master talent evaluator.

“He’s always had very good managerial and organizational skills,” said Harkes, who will do color commentary for ABC and ESPN for the World Cup. “And he has the knack, the instinct, of seeing players and putting together pieces of the puzzle.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber said: “I think it starts with doing his homework. Bruce is very prepared. He spends enormous time doing work no one sees, viewing tape and watching games, speaking to coaches, talking to players, doing all those things the best coaches do to be successful.”

Arena should know. While at Virginia, he eavesdropped on ACC basketball coaches Jim Valvano, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith. He listened to their pregame and halftime speeches, hoping to pick up some pointers.

Regardless of what happens during the next month, Arena has achieved the same stature in his own sport as the coaches he used to spy on.

Called upon to perform a complete overhaul after the U.S. finished last in the 1998 World Cup under Steve Sampson, an embarrassing and dissension-filled experience, Arena led the U.S. to a shocking eighth-place finish in 2002. He now is the longest tenured of the 32 World Cup coaches.

“Before Bruce came in, it was like, ‘They’re OK. They might win a game here or there,’” said forward Brian McBride, who will be playing in his third World Cup. “Bruce came in and said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna win every game. We’re not gonna go out and say let’s get a tie.’ He has a drive and a willingness to push players to do their best. And it really shows.”

Arena, 54, has shown himself to be the best at every level of soccer. At Virginia, he won five national titles, including four straight from 1991 to 1994. He led D.C. United to two championships in the first two years of MLS. With U.S. soccer, he has transformed America’s ability to compete internationally.

Some of his players have dared to use the g-word to describe their coach. Told that he has been called a genius, Arena predictably brushed it off.

“The last thing I’ve ever been accused of is being a genius,” he said. “They may be off a little bit. I think I’m a good coach. I know how to put a team together. In terms of a genius, they tell me why apples fall out of a tree. I have no idea. But I know how to put a team together, build a winning team.”

Arena also is an active promoter of American soccer, but has found it necessary to make a point on the subject.

The most notable occasion was in 2004, when he was critical of MLS and U.S. Soccer in a New York Times article. Despite all he has accomplished, Arena reportedly almost was fired before apologizing for the “tone” but not the “content” of the article, as he told Sports Illustrated.

Garber, whose reaction was predictably harsh, said: “Bruce is arguably one of the most influential people in American soccer and he’s earned that right, through his steering and developing our national team, of being respected throughout the world. But all of the leaders of soccer in America today need to think beyond their individual needs and desires and opinions and look at what we can achieve together.”

Arena isn’t thinking about that now. He’s thinking about the World Cup.

Although Brazil is the favorite, and the U.S. probably doesn’t make the list of top contenders, Arena aims to build momentum from four years ago.

The success of 2002 makes it “a little bit easier, but it doesn’t mean the World Cup is gonna be easier,” Arena said.

“But I think having the experience of doing this before, having the consistency, it’s easier to prepare and build your team for the final preparations than it was four years ago,” he said. “We feel we did a lot of things right, we had good players and we could beat good teams. And if we take that approach, hopefully we can do it again.”

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