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The Arena aura examined

Posted: Friday May 31, 2002 1:37 PM
Updated: Friday May 31, 2002 1:39 PM

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  • By Will Kuhns, Soccer America

    With Bruce Arena's honesty comes some tactlessness, with his sharp wit comes a dose of acidic sarcasm and with his confidence comes a bit of arrogance: qualities that have elevated Arena to the top of soccer in this country on several levels.

    It was in 1998, Bruce Arena's last year at D.C. United, that the MLS club reached the height of its prowess. The two-time defending MLS champions dominated the regular season and despite a loss to Chicago in MLS Cup, captured the CONCACAF Champions Cup, a regional club competition. Nevertheless, Arena needled team president Kevin Payne about his eagerness to schedule the Interamerican Cup series against South American club champion Vasco da Gama of Brazil. Payne recalls when videotape of the opponent arrived.

    "Bruce comes marching down to my office after watching about 40 minutes of it and says, 'I just want you to know that you've gone to all this trouble to set up a game that we're probably going to lose three or four to nothing. This team is terrific, and they're going to kick our butts,'" Payne says. "But about a half-hour later, I go back to his office, and Bruce is still watching the tapes, but [assistant coach] Dave Sarachan is laughing hysterically."

    Arena was reeling off jokes about the Vasco da Gama coach because of the bright green sportcoat he wore for good luck.

    "For whatever sense of superiority he felt they had initially, he was already, in his own mind, kind of destroying it by making fun of them a little bit," Payne says. "As we got into preparation, all sense of getting our butts kicked went away. It became, 'We're going to go out and go after this team.'"

    United won the two-game series with a 2-0 victory in the second leg after losing the first leg, 1-0, thereby securing its most prestigious piece of hardware. As always, Arena's realism, humor and audacity surfaced.

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    Several of Arena's pronounced traits could be likened to a hefty, double-bladed ax that he, a burly lumberjack, uses to deal precise blows on the trunk in front of him. While chopping, he remains so focused that he pays little heed to anything else. Stand too close and you could get cut by his back swing. With Arena's honesty comes some tactlessness, with his sharp wit comes a dose of acidic sarcasm and with his confidence comes a bit of arrogance.

    These qualities have already elevated Arena, 50, to the top of soccer in this country on several levels. In 18 years at the University of Virginia, his teams captured five NCAA Division I titles and had 17 winning seasons. In three years at United, the team won the 1996 U.S. Open Cup in addition to its first two MLS Cups, the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the Interamerican Cup. As U.S. national team coach, a job he started in October 1998, Arena has the best winning percentage (.623) of any coach in history and has led the squad to a third-place finish at the 1999 Confederations Cup, qualification for the World Cup and this year's Gold Cup title.

    Yet the pinnacle of his career thus far is just now within reach. Arena's tenure with the national team likely will be defined more by what happens in nine days during June than by the results of the past four years.

    "If that's all they remember, then that's all they remember. Those are stupid people, then," Arena says. "[The World Cup] is the true test of where we are. If we lose three games and play well, I could live with that. If we lose three games and don't play well, then that's not good."

    CANDOR FACTOR. During the national team's recent training camp in North Carolina, Arena publicly ripped Jean Tigana, the coach of English Premier League club Fulham, where U.S. midfielder Eddie Lewis is under contract. Lewis has not played a single match for Fulham this year, yet Tigana refused to release him before the team's final match on May 11. Arena called Tigana "a complete jerk," which not only prompted Tigana to demand an apology, but according to sources, also ruffled the feathers of U.S. Soccer officials displeased by Arena's lack of diplomacy.

    It wasn't the first time.

    Just when Arena became the clear favorite to be named national team coach, he sounded off about U.S. Soccer's grandiose Project 2010 development program.

    "If the last chapter of the book is to win the World Cup in the year 2010, I think it's a bad book," Arena said.

    According to his players, however, Arena's bluntness is a welcome component of his coaching style, perhaps an essential one.

    "Everything he says and does has a purpose," says defender Pablo Mastroeni. "He defines roles very clearly for each one of his players so everyone understands what their job is without any doubt. He also just speaks when he needs to. When he speaks, everyone listens because he's got something wise to say. He doesn't waste words."

    Nor does Arena discount the words of his players. Individual meetings are a standard element of almost every national team camp. Immediately following the team's 2-0 loss in Costa Rica -- its third straight loss in qualifying -- Arena sat down at a bar with several players to gather their thoughts. One of the players was Joe-Max Moore, who went out in the next game and scored both goals in the 2-1 win over Jamaica that clinched the berth in the World Cup.

    Arena is notorious for his snide responses to the media, which seem to fly more frequently after losses. Despite Arena's abhorrence for losing, Sarachan says he's never seen Arena unleash his anger on an individual player. Mastroeni says Arena's critiques of players' performances are generally constructive. But protecting his players from his temper sometimes comes at the expense of periphery groups such as staff and reporters.

    "Bruce thinks out a lot of things," says Sarachan. "There are times where maybe he should step back and pause before making certain comments. Maybe he does jump a little quickly sometimes.... But Bruce is not a reactionary with a short fuse."

    BUSTING CHOPS. Keeping his players happy is a major priority for Arena. In contrast to some previous national team coaches, he sets very few rules for his players outside the playing field, preferring instead to give them the freedom and responsibility to make good choices.

    Another way Arena maintains an upbeat atmosphere within the national team is by taking verbal pot shots at his players. A favorite topic of these jabs are players' home towns and backgrounds. Goalkeeper Tony Meola remembers being told to go back to a New Jersey farm and shovel manure after he was late for a bus bound for Clemson during his time at Virginia.

    Arena also hones in on statements made without supporting facts. Mastroeni learned not to make that mistake in March.

    "When we were in Birmingham, I was talking about being part Native American -- South American Indian," Mastroeni says. "He asked me exactly who in my family had that background. I ran down my family tree a ways and couldn't think of anyone for sure. So for a while he was all 'Tonto' this and 'Tonto' that with me. But it's good. He's got a good rapport with his players. He might not do that every day, but if you can't laugh, you're probably not in the right place."

    While coaching the 1996 Olympic team, Arena mused to reporters about his team's tough first-round opponents -- Argentina, Tunisia and Portugal -- by joking that America was "too stupid to fix the draw." Not everyone was amused.

    Arena utilizes humor to keep players on their toes, show affection and sometimes to send a message. Nobody within his circle is off limits. At Virginia, Arena used to play pickup basketball at lunch time with other athletic department employees. Also joining the group was former NFL great Howie Long, who settled in the Charlottesville area in 1993 after retiring from pro football and is now a broadcaster for Fox Sports.

    "Of course, those of us who were involved in football would give him a heavy dose of the soccer jokes," says Long. "I got along with Bruce great. He's really a lot of fun. If there's a crack in your armor, Bruce will find it. ... He has a keen eye for what buttons to push on people."

    NO KNUTES. Moore, a 10-year veteran of the national team, notes that a contrast between Arena and previous coaches is his preparations are proactive.

    "The thing I like about Bruce is that he's tried from Day One to get us to press other teams and impose our style on them," Moore says. "Some of the coaches in the past tried to react to other teams and focused on how to cover up our weaknesses. Bruce concentrates on our strengths and he believes we can win every game."

    Arena's leisurely gait, heavy eyelids and deadpan demeanor exude aloofness. Among his common expressions are "it's not rocket science" and "I ain't losing any sleep over it." Yet never does he allow his players to underestimate an opponent or play with nonchalance.

    Prior to games, his mood turns increasingly serious. The jokes subside and in their place are face-to-face checks with each player, reviewing their duties and stressing the importance of winning the little battles.

    In the locker room before the rain-soaked MLS Cup '96, Payne says that Arena paced around the locker room reiterating that the game would be won by force of will, not by pretty soccer.

    "Bruce isn't the type to make Knute Rockne speeches. . . . It wasn't a formal address. He just kept saying, 'Whatever it takes,' and even wrote it on the chalkboard," Payne says. "You could kind of feel the intensity flowing from him into the players."

    Arena set a similar tone prior to the U.S. team's crucial game in Barbados that clinched passage to the final round of qualifying, reminding his charges it would not be easy, that it would take 90 minutes. The message stuck. Even with Arena unable to speak to the team after a tense scoreless first half because of suspension, the team emerged 4-0 victors.

    Must-win games like those, combined with the fact that 12 of his 23 players have World Cup experience, add to Arena's confidence.

    "An important aspect of playing in a World Cup is how you deal with pressure," Arena says. "Pressure is what you perceive it to be. . . . Our performance won't be hampered by any exterior factors."

    In sizing up his team's three opponents in Korea, Arena refuses to dismiss the possibility of gaining points from group favorite Portugal. His experience coaching in the 1996 Olympics, where the team went 1-1-1 but failed to advance, bolstered the value of earning points from the first game of a four-team round-robin.

    It seems feasible that Arena will cease coaching the national team after this year, regardless of how well the team performs. That his place in U.S. Soccer history may hinge on the team's World Cup showing bears little relevance to Arena.

    "I'm not really worried about my legacy in this sport," Arena says. "If I was doing something a little bit more important in life, then I would worry about it. What are people going to remember about me? Hopefully, that I did a good job and things got better."

    Will Kuhns is a senior editor at Soccer America magazine.

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