It may not have been the smashing debut U.S. coach Bruce Arena had dreamed of, but the Americans' scoreless draw in a friendly against Australia last Friday in San Jose offered a few insights into the future. One of them occurred in the 79th minute when Australia had a six-yard indirect free kick. In a moment of unity rarely seen lately on the U.S. team, the wall held together and blocked the kick.
In the wake of America's dismal performance in the 1998 World Cup in France, which was marked by no wins, three losses, a last-place finish and divisiveness among the players, as well as between the players and former national team coach Steve Sampson, this show of togetherness was heartening. While it is too early to say who will be playing in the World Cup qualifying games starting in 2000 or what style Arena will use, it's safe to predict that any team under Arena at least will be unified.
"If Bruce's teams have a hallmark besides success, it's togetherness," says 21-year-old MLS Rookie of the Year Ben Olsen, who played for Arena at the University of Virginia and with D.C. United and who was one of several young players who on Friday made their first appearances for the U.S. "He's very loyal to his players, and his players care for each other because he stresses helping one another on the field. That goes a long way in this sport. It's tough to get 11 pros on the same page."
At first glance Arena, who was hired from D.C. United on Oct. 27 and signed to a contract through the 2002 World Cup, doesn't seem the type to worry about intrasquad relationships. In fact, his reputation for winning—five NCAA championships at Virginia and two MLS titles with United—is matched by his reputation for arrogance, but national team veterans and newcomers have found him to be refreshing. "You hear stories about how overbearing he is, but he's not like that at all," says World Cup veteran forward Brian McBride. "We had a very positive, enjoyable training camp. Bruce exudes confidence, and it rubs off on players. He demands a lot, but he makes you feel like you belong."
"I know how athletes think," says Arena, who played soccer and lacrosse at Cornell in the early 1970s. "[ Virginia athletic director] Terry Holland told me that you have to remember what it was like to be a player, and I have never forgotten that."
Arena, therefore, respects his players, doesn't micro-manage or overcoach and, when it comes to practice, keeps it short. "Each training session is just an hour or an hour and 15 minutes," says Eddie Lewis, a 24-year-old midfielder with the San Jose Clash who started on Friday. "That leaves you wanting more. Rather than being exhausted, you come to practice each day hungry. I wake up in the morning, and I'm counting the hours until I can do it again. That's a good trick."
So what kind of results can the U.S. expect with Arena at the helm? "Our main goal is to qualify for the next World Cup," he says. Beyond that, he believes it's realistic to expect the Americans to compete with the best countries in the world by 2010, even though, as he says, "there aren't any Ronaldos in the U.S." Arena says that enough Americans are playing the sport at a professional level to provide a decent talent pool and consistent improvement. "You want to give the players with potential the opportunities," he adds. "The team that came back from France was an old team. All the opportunities were given to those players over the last eight years. It's time to have a new look."
Arena's team on Friday included only five players from the World Cup squad and six who had no previous national team experience. Instead of veterans such as Marcelo Balboa, John Harkes, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos and Eric Wynalda—none of whom have been ruled out for future participation by Arena—the U.S. dressed youngsters like Olsen, a midfielder; 21-year-old Clint Mathis, a rookie midfielder with the Los Angeles Galaxy last year; C.J. Brown, a 23-year-old defender for the Chicago Fire who in 1996 played for San Jose State University; and 25-year-old Fire goalie Zach Thornton, who made three saves on Friday and was named MVP of the game.
But the biggest ovation during the friendly was for Lewis, who played 73 minutes and pleased both Arena and the crowd of 15,074, many of whom, presumably, had watched Lewis play for the Clash. "This night felt new and different," said Lewis, hitting the note that U.S. soccer was looking for when it hired Arena. "I wish I could do it again in about 15 minutes. I was just getting going."