By Paul Gardner
Sadness and weariness ... those were my feelings as I watched the despairing video* of Bruce Arena trying to say something meaningful about the Galaxy's abysmal showing against the almost equally abysmal Colorado Rapids.
To see the man who has done so much for American soccer and for American players blurting out a groveling apology is not funny.
I suppose some will find it so, or at least will get pleasure out of it -- enjoying the sight of a proud, even arrogant, man being decisively humbled. I can't see it that way. American soccer owes Arena great deal. The debt started in the 1985-1995 decade when Arena showed, at the University of Virginia, that college soccer could be worth watching, that it didn't have to be merely a boring bustle of athletic endeavor, that it could look like real soccer. And of course, that his version of it could win -- he took five Division 1 NCAA titles.
He got no thanks from anyone in college soccer for that. Maybe he was better off without the thanks of Lilliputians who could not see where he was trying to lead the sport. Of course, hardly anyone followed. Arena left to become, almost at once, one of the most successful coaches in MLS history. His D.C. United set a standard that, to my eye, has not been matched since.
After that came the logical pinnacle, the U.S. national team and the splendid 2002 World Cup. Since then ... nothing. But that job, coaching the U.S. World Cup team, was deceptive. For Arena it was hardly a step upward. It was, in many respects, a step backwards, back to college soccer.
Of the 23 players on Arena's 2002 roster, 17 had come through college, and in 2006 it was 16. But not many of those had played four years of college. In 2002, nine players had graduated, in 2006 the number had fallen to seven. And by 2006, obviously, the number of players on the team with plenty of pro experience in Europe had increased substantially.
A new mentality was being born on the national team. There is, I think a connection to be made. Arena was successful, in 2002, with what was, perhaps, the last "college generation." By 2006 pro experience, and foreign pro experience at that, was what mattered, and Arena was much less successful with such players.
That trend has carried over to his MLS involvement with the Red Bulls and now the Galaxy. There even seems to be a wish -- and it begins to look like a death wish -- to bring back the college generation. Or at least, players from a previous generation. On his arrival at the Red Bulls, Arena -- in no time at all -- had signed up Claudio Reyna, his star college player from 14 years earlier. Two more over-30s quickly followed, plus a 36-year-old Dutch goalkeeper. After 14 indifferent months, Arena was history at the Red Bulls.
Similar signs are surfacing in Los Angeles. I mean, Eddie Lewis? Dema Kovalenko? Tony Sanneh? And now Gregg Berhalter. This looks more like an attempt to roll the clock back than to move the Galaxy forward.
In the video that I found so painful to view, Arena did what he has done before -- accepted responsibility and then invited his players to share the blame. He named no names, and certainly, no one came out of this fiasco looking good, certainly some of the youngsters made calamitous errors.
But it wasn't the youngsters who really let Arena down. That honor fell to one of his prized veterans, arguably the most experienced player on the field. And if Arena wouldn't name him, I will: Dema Kovalenko. His red card at a crucial moment of the game effectively finished the Galaxy. And for Dema's insane behavior Arena should indeed accept responsibility. Arena brought Kovalenko to the team, knowing full well his reputation as a midfield pit bull -- one that has left two MLS opponents with broken legs.
Is that really the sort of player Arena wants on his team? I'll broaden the question: what sort of player does Arena want? I fear he is living too much in the past, cherishing those college generations that have by now almost vanished. Arena worked wonders with them on the national team. But that is not where the future of U.S. soccer lies.
For Arena, I would hope that a change in outlook, a broader vision will manifest itself. It would be sad, greatly sad, to see the man who has been one of the great pioneers of the sport in this country, one of the few true originals, reduced to irrelevancy by a refusal to move with the times.
* VIDEO of Bruce Arena's L.A.-Colorado postgame comments.