Saturday, June 01, 2002

Bruce Arena: America's funny, caustic World Cup coach

AP Sports Writer

Bruce Arena, the U.S. soccer team head coach, looks out the window of a U.S. Army helicopter as the pilot, left, prepares to take off from Camp Liberty Bell following the team's visit to the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea Friday.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        SEOUL, South Korea — In Brazil, the national soccer team coach feels the weight of his nation.

        In Italy, too.

        The United States is, well, a little different.

        “The weight of a youth soccer club in Rhode Island, perhaps,” Bruce Arena said. “That's the good part of coaching the U.S. team. Our challenge is very different, because we don't have a great soccer culture in our country.”

        Arena can be funny, caustic and irreverent — all in the same sentence. At first, players have trouble reading his sarcasm, usually signaled by a roll of his eyes.

        “He's the same old Bruce. He says what's on his mind. He doesn't hold back anything,” said U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who played for Arena at the University of Virginia from 1991 to 1993. “He still has that brash New York attitude. That's never left him.”

        Arena, 50, was born in Brooklyn, but moved from New York a quarter-century ago. He has the most impressive resume of any U.S.-born soccer coach, winning four NCAA titles and sharing another, winning the first two Major League Soccer titles with DC United, and now leading the Americans to their fourth straight World Cup appearance.

        And then there is his bluntness. Since arriving in Seoul a week ago, he's avoided talking about his lineup or his tactics. Just about anything else is OK.

        His answers catch some off-balance. During one interview, he was asked about the Korean rainy season, which starts in June.

        “The clouds are going to notice the difference between May 31 and June 1?” he said.

        Arena, hired in October 1998 to succeed Steve Sampson, already is the winningest coach in U.S. national team history, going 31-16-13. While some players sniped at Sampson during the Americans' 0-3 finish at the 1998 tournament in France, these players seem to have a high level of respect for Arena. He consulted the veterans over many of the details of the World Cup experience, including where to stay and where to put the families.

        “He has a vision of what he wants to do and how to get there,” said defender Jeff Agoos, another national team member who first played for Arena at Virginia.

        Arena was an All-American in soccer and lacrosse at Nassau Community College and in lacrosse at Cornell. He was a goalkeeper who played one game with the U.S. national team — as a substitute in a 2-0 loss at Israel in 1973, He also spent one season playing lacrosse with the Montreal Quebecois and one season playing soccer with the American Soccer League's Tacoma Tides.

        In 18 seasons at Virginia, he established one of the premier programs in the nation. At DC United, he set the standard for the new league. Yet for all the success, it's hard to tell what he thinks is a job well done.

        “I don't think I enjoy winning as much as I should, because I think how can you do it again — which is a stupid approach,” he said.

        He knows soccer's place in the United States. And he knows its place everywhere else. Unlike some in American soccer, he doesn't shy away from reality.

        “This is different than any sport in the world,” he said. “The magnitude of this event is not understood by the American public.” Then he cautions himself. “If I say anything, it sounds like sour grapes.”

        He knows the U.S. program has made progress. But it still has far to go. He would like to see vast farm systems, like in baseball, to allow more players the chance to push their way to the top.

        “We're still behind in terms of soccer culture. We don't have enough Landon Donovans and DaMarcus Beasleys in the system,” he said. “We're light years away from where we need to be.”

        After Arena led the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, which was eliminated in the first round, the U.S. Soccer Federation started “Project 40,” an attempt to get more than three dozen elite players to skip college and turn pro in exchange for a salary and future tuition.

        “It has never had 40 players in it,” he said. “It should be called "Project 20.”'

        He bristles at simplification and misimpression. At the same time, he is incredulous about searches for hidden meanings in his words and actions. Korean media repeatedly asked him if the United States was taking the tournament too lightly because it only trained once most days, and he had to hold back from giving any answers that might seem rude.

        He also doesn't like it when people repeat that the 1998 team finished 32nd among the 32 teams, a distinction caused by goal differential.

        “What hit home with Americans was that we finished last, and we don't like finishing last,” he said. “Then we get the Dream Team together and play (against) amateur basketball.”

        In the last week, he's often used examples from other sports, talking about how his father took him to two Yankees games a year — one in box seats, the other in bleachers — and how he cut class to go to Shea Stadium in 1964.

        “I'm not a fan of professional sports,” Arena said. “They're different, with all the money.” Players, he said, “used to be our neighbors, now they're different. That's the nice thing about soccer in the United States — they're like our neighbors.”

        He's learned a lot in this job, the mixing and matching during qualifiers, when players have games in Europe on Saturday or Sunday, then fly home to play Wednesday, then go straight back.

        It's not like coaching a club that plays in a league.

        “They're completely different jobs, yet they're the same job,” he said. “So figure that one out.”


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