- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

CARSON, Calif. | One of the United States’ most accomplished soccer coaches was providing television commentary and preparing to teach a university class when he received an unexpected summons.

The president of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable club had just fired its coach and general manager. The team was about to implode because of losses, abysmal defense, internal turmoil and a mismanaged payroll.

Could the accomplished coach take over?

“I thought I’d come for the job interview, just have a discussion and see if it was a match that could work for both parties,” Bruce Arena said. “I came with no great expectations.”

Sixteen months later, Arena needs one victory to add a third MLS Cup to a coaching resume that includes five NCAA championships with Virginia, two MLS Cups with D.C. United and two World Cup appearances with the United States.

Arena has been pivotal in transforming the Los Angeles Galaxy from a basket case into a team that will meet Real Salt Lake for the MLS Cup on Sunday night in Seattle.

The league recognized Arena’s work by naming him the coach of the year for the second time.

“This has been one of my more enjoyable jobs in the last 30, 35 years,” Arena said. “These guys are a pleasure to work with. They buy into everything. They lead. When things aren’t going right, they get them right. They made my job a lot easier.”

Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter played for Arena in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

“He really gets the players to respect him and work hard for him,” Berhalter said. “Other coaches, demand it, demand it, demand it but somehow don’t get it out of their players.

“Bruce just gets the best out of us without making it a difficult thing.”

Transforming the Galaxy would be difficult, but Arena accepted the challenge. The Galaxy’s extensive training facilities provided a unique advantage.

“It’s something I’ve always aspired to have in coaching an MLS team,” Arena said.

Also, he received support from Tim Leiweke - president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy - and Phil Anschutz, owner of AEG.

“Tim is a guy who’s willing to stick his neck on the line,” Arena said. “Phil Anschutz has been very much a supporter of the sport and of me.

“I owe a lot to Tim Leiweke and Phil Anschutz. I may not be working in soccer if it wasn’t for them.”

Finally, Arena got the authority he needed to make fundamental changes as the Galaxy’s coach and general manager.

“I thought that in this situation with what had to be done, it was important that I had those responsibilities,” Arena said. “I thought there needed to be a radical overhaul of the roster.”

Arena went right to work. Three days after taking the job, he signed midfielder Eddie Lewis - the first of a number of veterans that included Berhalter, Donovan Ricketts, Dema Kovalenko, Jovan Kirovski and Todd Dunivant.

“He was building a team from scratch that was already here,” said former United defender Tony Sanneh, one of Arena’s acquisitions. “He’s brought in a core of veterans that bring a consistency in training, a work ethic and leadership.”

Arena made perhaps his most influential decision when he chose Landon Donovan to be the Galaxy’s captain.

“He’s pointed us in the right direction,” Arena said. “He accepted a lot of responsibility with our coaching staff and his teammates to make this team better. That requires a concentration and a commitment on a daily basis.

“When your best player gives you that kind of effort, it carries over to the rest of the team.”

Part of Donovan’s responsibility involves acting as Arena’s informal adviser, even on acquiring players. Donovan’s relationship with Arena reflects one of the coach’s basic professional values.

“He listens to people,” Donovan said. “Too often, someone with that much power would micromanage and try to do too much. But he lets other people do their roles. It gives you confidence. It makes you make decisions, and it translates onto the field.”

That approach embraces every player on the roster.

“He gives the players a lot of freedom,” Berhalter said. “We respect that to the point where we don’t try to bend the rules at all. Why would we want to mess with a good thing?”

But David Beckham’s return from AC Milan in July, combined with his simmering feud with Donovan, tested the Galaxy’s new stability.

Donovan questioned Beckham’s dedication in Grant Wahl’s book “The Beckham Experiment.” Upon his return, Beckham publicly called Donovan unprofessional.

Arena responded quickly.

“The first day that David got back, Bruce told me and David that we were going to sit down and talk about this,” Donovan said. “If it had been left to me, I probably would have waited a little bit and let David settle in.

“Bruce said, ‘No, we want to get this done right away.’ He took us into the office, and that was it.”

Beckham left the meeting impressed.

“It’s nice to be in a locker room where everyone gets on,” Beckham said. “If there’s an argument, it gets sorted out there and then. …

“When you want success in a club in any sport, you have to have that chemistry with the players and you have to have that unity. We’ve definitely got that.”

Beckham’s comments illustrate that in this Galaxy, light-years can be measured in months.

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