Yet by winning the first two titles, United has proved that what MLS calls "induced parity" may be a well-intentioned pipe dream. "Trying to have a league where everyone is equal in a competitive sense is an impossible venture," says Arena. "You can't take the human equation out of it. You can't create a fantasy soccer league."
D.C. is favored to three-peat this year, mainly because Arena has an uncanny aptitude for recognizing and developing young talent. Shrewd acquisitions like U.S. national team defender Eddie Pope (the second pick of the 1996 rookie draft out of North Carolina), midfielder Tony Sanneh (a minor league call-up) and goalkeeper Scott Garlick (another minor league call-up) have combined with the team's allocated stars (led by midfielders Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes and striker Jaime Moreno) to produce a brand of open, attractive soccer.
No player better exemplifies Arena's skill than the 5'5" Williams, a fourth-round draft choice in '96 and one of nine former Virginia players on D.C.'s roster. Not particularly fast, not particularly strong, Williams nevertheless has become the team's most tireless worker. "In England or Italy, if you decide your right back isn't good enough, you just go out and buy another one," Payne says. "That option isn't there in MLS. You need to help your guy become a better right back, and Bruce does that better than anyone."
In this era of D.C dominance, it's hard to believe that only two years ago there were calls in Washington for Arena's head. United lost its first four games in the league's inaugural season, a slump for which Arena, who was working simultaneously as the Olympic team coach, accepts the blame. "I didn't take an active enough role in the draft that year," he says. "It was pretty obvious we had some players on the field who didn't belong in this league." His solution came three days after a 4-0 loss to the Columbus Crew on April 13. Arena released five players, and by early June, United had climbed to second place.
At the same time Arena was learning that the adjustment from college to the pros wasn't really an adjustment at all. "I was ignoring some of the things I have always believed in, like requiring discipline from every player and a commitment to train the right way," he says. "One day I decided that if I'm going to go down, I'm going down doing things almost exactly like I did them at Virginia."
In Charlottesville, Arena always emphasized togetherness on his teams. Whenever one of his players had surgery, for example, he insisted on being in the operating room, even though he twice fainted after the first incision. That loyalty has carried over to MLS. To save on expenses, D.C. players Danny Care, Ben Olsen and Carey Talley have been living in Arena's house.
With two years left on his contract with United, Arena has started thinking about a move into management, whether with an MLS team or the league office. Though Arena says he would consider coaching the national team, he isn't expecting to be offered the post anytime soon. "There's no relationship there right now," he says of the U.S. Soccer Federation, "and there hasn't been since the end of the Olympics [in which the U.S. failed to get past the opening round]. I haven't thought about it much. I've got my own job to worry about."
That means that as the MLS season begins, Arena is already issuing complaints. He's angry that salary-cap rules forced United to trade its second-best scorer, Raul Díaz Arce, to the New England Revolution during the off-season. He's angry that the league hasn't awarded his team a new foreign player in the past year and a half. And he's angry that United lost three players last winter to expansion, which he thought came a year too early.
In other words, Arena hasn't changed. To do so would violate a tradition dating back to '76, when he saw the Cornell football coach leave the athletic director's office after being fired. "So the guy walks by me," says Arena, "and I'm saying, What a loser he is."
The coach was George Seifert, who went on to win two Super Bowls as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. "Do you realize what that means?" Arena asks. "I'm in my third decade of sticking my foot in my mouth."