SI Vault
Grant Wahl
June 24, 2002
By thumping archrival Mexico, the U.S. punched through to soccer's elite eight, its best showing in 72 years
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June 24, 2002

World Class

By thumping archrival Mexico, the U.S. punched through to soccer's elite eight, its best showing in 72 years

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Yet Arena's one obvious mistake was a doozy. By starting Jeff Agoos, his former player at D.C. United and the University of Virginia, in central defense throughout the first round, Arena relied on a 34-year-old whose legs are too creaky for the game's highest level. Before Agoos pulled a calf muscle in the first half against Poland (sidelining him for the tournament), his dossier included an own-goal, a penalty and breakdowns on the five goals the U.S. had allowed. "One of our failures was never finding a younger center back to join in with our group," Arena said last Saturday in his 30th-floor aerie overlooking Seoul. "International soccer is difficult for players in their 30s. There's no downtime anymore. The fields are manicured, the balls are like lightning, the equipment is perfect. It's a fast game, a young man's game."

When Arena was hired in 1998, he brought with him five NCAA titles, two MLS crowns and a history of speaking his mind, often with ruthless honesty. "We had two concerns," says former U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg. "One, do we need somebody with international experience? And two, are we going to have a loose cannon here? Was he going to insult us as much as he insults everybody else?"

While Arena proved Rothenberg's "loose cannon" fear true during qualifying, drawing a two-game suspension for verbally abusing a ref, his candor has been a hit with the players. They appreciate the way he maintains steady communication, a rare trait among his European counterparts, and he has instilled an uncommon comfort level within the team. When the U.S. plays in Washington, Arena often hosts barbecues with his wife, Phyllis, at their house in northern Virginia. In Seoul, whenever he sees Beasley roaming the hotel in his usual attire—a gold number 7 medallion with 117 diamonds, a pair of two-carat diamond earrings and a black neoprene skullcap—he can't help himself. "Hey, DaMarcus," Arena will say, "that hat is phat"

In some ways, though, Arena's personality seems too large for this group. "The '98 team had a bunch of strong personalities, and this is almost the opposite," Arena says. "These guys don't rock the boat, which is good—that's why they're a team—but it would be nice to have one who takes on a real leadership role."

He may yet get to watch one of his young stars mature into that role if, unlike most national-team coaches, he sticks around for a second World Cup run. Arena certainly has earned the chance, having amassed the most victories (33) and the highest winning percentage (.625) of any U.S. coach. Though his contract with U.S. Soccer runs out at the end of this year, negotiations for a new one have begun. "Who the hell knows?" Arena says. Coaching a club in England "would be interesting," he adds. "I think I have a good background to do something like that."

Arena cites ACC basketball as the greatest influence on his coaching—at Virginia, he used to sit in his office before games and eavesdrop through the air vents on the adjoining visitors' locker room—and he drew on that experience for the Mexico game, the latest skirmish in a protracted border war that matches Duke-Carolina at its best. "One thing I learned was never to get too high or too low," Arena says. "You see it all the time in the ACC, where you get knocked down, and then you have to get back up again."

It wasn't lost on the Americans that against Mexico they would be playing before a friendlier crowd in Jeonju than any they have endured in, say, Los Angeles. "I'm not a big fan of the urine bags," goalkeeper Tony Meola said of the projectiles that have been hurled at him over the years by Mexico supporters. "It's happened to me in Mexico City, and it's happened to me at the L.A. Coliseum." Highlights of the rivalry include the time one Mexican player kicked Alexi Lalas in the nuts, as well as the fracas in Columbus, Ohio, last year, in which Mexico's Luis Hern�ndez clocked Tony Sanneh with an elbow. "I don't like them, and they hate us" Donovan said before the game. "They can be dirty and cheap."

In the end the two teams had collected five yellow cards each, while Mexico bagged the only red card (for Rafael M�rquez's brutal head-butt of Jones) and the U.S. scored the only direct kick to the privates (when Reyna unintentionally caught Braulio Luna there in the second half). It was one more reminder that although Reyna may wear number 10, he is not the Number 10, soccerese for the play-maker, the engine of the attack. "The last time I was a Number 10 was in college," says Reyna. "In Europe I've always played central midfield, with a lot of defensive duties. I'm just worried about defending well, doing the hard work and keeping possession. That's what I do best."

Once in a blue moon Reyna also ventures forward, as he did so brilliantly during his game-breaking run on Monday. At the final whistle, as a section of joyous Americans serenaded their vanquished opponents with �Adi�s, amigos! one could only wonder what stunning surprises, from lineups to results, the U.S. would spring next. "Bruce got it right again," Reyna marveled afterward.

So did his plucky Americans.

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