IF A DUMB ex-jock
like Sam (Mayday) Malone understands how hard it is to win the World Cup, you'd
think most Americans could follow suit. Four years ago, in a wager for charity
on the website longbets.com, Cheers actor Ted Danson bet $1,000 against the
following proposition: "The U.S. men's soccer team will win the World Cup
before the Red Sox win the World Series." Two years before the Idiots'
moment of glory, Danson was insightful while sounding exactly like Sam Malone.
While the Red Sox really had to beat only the Yankees, he wrote, "in the
World Cup you have the whole world against you." � Somewhere, presumably,
Bruce Arena smiled. Finally, a mainstream American sports fan who gets it.
"We have the greatest challenge in sports," says Arena, the U.S.
manager whose Yanks will compete in their fifth straight World Cup starting
June 12 in Germany. "We are trying to be the best in the most global of
sports. There's nothing else that comes close to it." � Hang around the
54-year-old Arena for, oh, five minutes, and you'll hear your share of
pronouncements. He believes the U.S., despite its inflated No. 4 world ranking,
is a sleeping f�tbol giant. He believes he could coach at the elite level in
baseball, basketball or football. And, not least, he believes his U.S. team's
quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup was a sporting accomplishment "close
to, if not equal to or better than" the Miracle on Ice at the 1980
Olympics. Beating the Soviets "was a fantastic feat," Arena allows,
"but how many teams in the world played hockey in 1980?" � Let the
record show that Arena's Yanks finished eighth in 2002, ahead of 187 other
nations ( Argentina, France and Italy among them) that participated in the World
Cup and its qualifying rounds. It was the finest hour for a coach who has won
five NCAA titles at Virginia, two MLS Cups with D.C. United and more than twice
as many games (69 and counting) as any coach in the history of the U.S. men's
team. "I call him the John Wooden of soccer," says George Mason
basketball coach Jim Larranaga, Arena's friend from their days at Virginia.
Unprompted, veteran U.S. players Landon Donovan and Eddie Pope use the term
"genius" to describe Arena.
"He's such a
great motivator," says Senate minority leader Harry Reid, whose son Key won
three NCAA rings under Arena at Virginia. "He always got more out of those
kids than he should have."
Nor do Arena's
admirers pigeonhole him as merely a soccer savant. "I believe that Bruce
stands among the elite group of coaches in his generation in any sport,"
says D.C. United president Kevin Payne. "He should be thought of in the
same way as Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Parcells or Phil Jackson."
Eight years after
taking over a U.S. team that had finished last at the '98 World Cup, Arena will
be the longest-serving national-team coach in the 32-team field in Germany, an
achievement that he'll likely extend into a third term through 2010. How did
this happen? How has a loose-cannon former lacrosse coach shown the staying
power of FDR in a job that usually has less stability than a third-world
currency? "A bit of luck, some hard work, a good group of guys to work
for," says Arena. "The other part is, everybody likes a winner, and I
am a winner. I know how to make a team."
When the U.S.
begins play next month in one of the World Cup's scariest first-round
groups--with the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana--it will be led by a man whose
toughness was forged by two sports-loving older brothers in a blue-collar
Italian-American household. A man who owes his work ethic to his father, a
butcher, and his mother, who was back driving a school bus soon after
undergoing a radical mastectomy. A man who lost his twin sister to the breast
cancer that has ravaged his family. And a man who traces his coaching worldview
to the masterminds of ACC basketball and Ivy League lacrosse.
The first thing to
know about Arena as a coach is that his strength lies not so much in his skill
as a tactician as in his ability to enter his players' psyches. "Bruce is
partly a psychologist," says U.S. Soccer's new president, Sunil Gulati.
"He understands the way players feel and how to motivate them, because he's
worked with them at every level."
U.S.'s stunning 3-2 opening-match upset of Portugal in the 2002 World Cup.
"Bruce had a cockiness that took the pressure off us," recalls U.S.
defender Frankie Hejduk. "Before the game we weren't thinking, God, we're
going to get punked by one of the best teams in Europe with the world player of
the year [ Luis Figo]. Bruce made us feel like we could win. So we were like,
We're going to punk these guys, and before you knew it we were up 3-0."
The Yanks went on
to lay a historic 2-0 second-round beat-down on archrival Mexico, and Arena
will always wonder what might have happened had the U.S. been awarded a penalty
kick when Torsten Frings handled a ball on his goal line during Germany's 1-0
quarterfinal win. "If we had gotten the call, there was a good chance we
could have won that game," Arena says. "Having said that, we had our
chances to score, and we didn't." But the Americans earned the world's
respect. "The U.S. was the better team in that game," says current
German coach J�rgen Klinsmann.
are as varied as the games he grew up playing. Richie Moran, his lacrosse coach
at Cornell, showed him how a unified team could win despite having inferior
talent. At Virginia, where Arena spent 18 years as the soccer coach (and seven
as a lacrosse assistant), he would eavesdrop on the pregame and halftime
speeches of Dean Smith, Coach K and Jim Valvano through the air ducts of his
office, which adjoined the visiting basketball team's locker room. "I could
hear how they managed their players and got through to them," Arena says.
"It was a fantastic education." Nor is it an accident that Arena's
soccer teams play the sort of full-field pressure defense you see in basketball
combines Valvano's humor, Krzyzewski's Wall Street CEO approach and elements of
Smith's famous Tar Heels family. Over the years Arena has even let a handful of
D.C. United players live in his house in Fairfax, Va. "I have many
children," says his wife, Phyllis, even though she technically has only
one, their 25-year-old son, Kenny.