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Grant Wahl
August 21, 2006
Running of the Bulls
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August 21, 2006

Soccer

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Running of the Bulls

After being let go as U.S. coach, Bruce Arena believes he can turn a feckless franchise into a model for MLS

Why would Bruce Arena go from the pinnacle of global soccer (the World Cup) to the most hapless team in MLS (the New York Red Bulls)? The answers are complex, and they reveal a still-hungry coach who's eager to assuage the pain of the U.S.'s first-round exit in Germany. "I would not have come back in this league to any other team," Arena said last week before his debut, a 4-1 friendly loss to European champion FC Barcelona. "But [the Red Bulls] want to make the sport better in this country. They want to give you the things necessary to be successful, and I've never heard that in this league."

Arena's goal is to build, as he puts it, "a real professional club in the United States." Since purchasing and renaming the MetroStars in March, the Austria-based energy-drink company has contributed at least $75 million toward a 25,000-seat soccer stadium in Harrison, N.J. (groundbreaking: Sept. 19) and green-lighted a training center that will house the team's growing youth-development system. "I don't need to say I need X amount of dollars," says Arena, who won the 1996 and '97 MLS titles in his three seasons with D.C. United. "I'll tell them what we'll need, and we'll get it done."

Realizing any objectives at all would be a triumph for Arena's new outfit, which has never reached an MLS Cup final and was 5-6-9 at week's end. No doubt motivated to succeed where other respected coaches haven't (see Carlos Alberto Parreira, Carlos Queiroz, Bora Milutinovic, Bob Bradley), Arena will build around Honduran midfielder Amado Guevara, the 2004 league MVP. As for his former employers at U.S. Soccer, who showed him the door despite his reaching the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, Arena can't hide his bitterness. "What am I going to show them?" he says. "I've probably showed them the finest eight years of the national team they're going to see for a long time. I don't need to prove anything to them."

At a time when MLS is making gains off the field-adding teams, building stadiums, signing its first television-rights fee deals-Arena's arrival should further lift the league's profile. But as the recent sold-out U.S. tours of Barcelona, Chelsea and Real Madrid suggest, MLS owners have to invest some of their TV windfall in what matters most. "They need to get better players," Arena says. "There are people in America who are interested in seeing soccer. We're not going to have a league right now with teams the caliber of Barcelona, but we can make the product better. And the people are saying, 'Make the product better and we'll support it.'"

Arena's task won't be easy. In fact, building a successful MLS team in the nation's most sophisticated soccer market might be an even bigger accomplishment than taking the U.S. to the World Cup quarterfinals.

? More analysis from Grant Wahl at SI.com/soccer.

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