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Taking on the World
May 01, 2006
The coach who led the U.S. to its surprise World Cup run four years ago is at it again, using psychology and ACC hoops insights to ready his team for a killer first-round Cup group
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May 01, 2006

Taking On The World

The coach who led the U.S. to its surprise World Cup run four years ago is at it again, using psychology and ACC hoops insights to ready his team for a killer first-round Cup group

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For 50 years Vinnie Arena worked six days a week as a butcher, yet there was never any question who the boss was at home. It would be a compliment to Adeline's youngest son to say that he manages the U.S. national team with the same energy, sharp humor and multitasking efficiency that she managed the Arena household. "She could do anything," says Bruce. The daughter of southern Italian immigrants, she expounded on any topic, sewed veils for cousins' weddings and produced oil paintings from family photographs. Up at 5 a.m. daily to do laundry, Adeline somehow found time to cook breakfast, drive a school bus, ferry the boys to sporting events and make pizzas from scratch whenever they brought friends home from school.

She did all those things despite undergoing two radical mastectomies (in 1960 and '63) and massive doses of radiation therapy. "I was only eight when my mother had her first surgery," Bruce says. "They removed not only the breast but all the muscle tissue around the area. They basically ripped my mother apart. But she always had that quiet toughness." He pauses, then gathers himself. "My mother had five sisters. Four of them died of cancer, and a number of their daughters did too, including my sister."

During Barbara's final years she and Bruce developed the close relationship that they'd never had as children. In the mid-1980s Barbara took a job as a post-office worker, became an officer in the union and married a colleague, Frank Staak. A year and a half after the wedding she was gone. "I was so proud of the things she was doing and how happy she was in her marriage," Bruce says. "Barbara's death was an awakening to me. It forced me to be more committed to what I did and to being the right kind of person."

Adeline died 14 months later, her heart finally quitting after so many years of inflammation from her radiation treatments. After Vinnie's death from lung cancer in 2004, his sons went through his effects and found an old newspaper article on Bruce's coaching success. In the margin Vinnie had scribbled, mommy would have been proud.

"You can accuse me of a lot of things," Arena says one day, "but I am more honest than anyone I come across." It is an honesty that can amuse, instruct or outrage, an honesty that has won him friends and enemies. Arena is a devoted fan of Howard Stern, another middle-aged Long Island native who cracks wise with equal-opportunity zeal. Yet even Arena's friends point out that unlike Stern, he isn't paid to say outrageous things, and his public diatribes have often left soccer officials shaking their heads.

"Bruce has the ability to be not just a great coach but a legendary figure for American soccer," says MLS commissioner Don Garber, "and to do that he's going to have to think about what he says and how he says it. I think that's the difference between being good and being great."

Despite Arena's remarkable success on the field, he came close to being fired only 19 months ago. Once again, the culprit was his mouth. In a New York Times article on Sept. 28, 2004, Arena called MLS "insane" for scheduling games during World Cup qualifying, said most MLS regular-season games "mean nothing" and blasted MLS and U.S. Soccer officials for not having "any soccer skills, in terms of knowing the game."

It hardly mattered that Arena's criticisms were largely correct. By the end of the day Garber had fired off an angry letter to Bob Contiguglia, then president of U.S. Soccer, that shot back at the U.S. coach and demanded to discuss the course of action Contiguglia would take. Arena was summoned to an emergency meeting with his bosses. "There was a lot of pressure from MLS owners to do something, but we didn't," says Contiguglia, adding that Arena's dismissal "was close, but I stood in the way."

Arena read his forced apology in a teleconference a few days later as if he were in a hostage video, expressing regret for the "spirit" of his comments but not retracting anything. "The tone was wrong," he concluded. "The content was not."

As long as Arena avoids another major faux pas or a 1998-style disaster, he'll probably stick around through 2010. "Bruce has done an extraordinary job," says Gulati, an Arena ally who will make the final call. "We'll sit down after the Cup and figure out what happens next."

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