This is hardly a radical choice, yet by transforming a dysfunctional under-achiever that had missed the playoffs three straight years Arena has broken new ground once again.
In shoring up the league's worst defense and simply plowing through subplots such as nearly weekly episodes of "David Beckham, The Nightmare That Wouldn't Die," Arena has proven success in MLS is a matter of working within the boundaries of salary-cap restrictions and player acquisition mechanisms while making good decisions. It's also a matter of hard work, shrewd evaluation, and ultimate confidence.
Some people say he's re-established his credentials after a disappointing 2006 World Cup and fiasco in New York, but in my eyes, he never slipped very far, if at all. He suffered acute burnout in Germany and jumped too soon into an absurd situation for his MLS return. Did he make mistakes in both positions? Of course. Nobody gets it right every time, but somebody who transforms college soccer by turning Virginia into a national power and sets standards as yet unmatched in his first pro gig can't be dismissed as having lost it.
About a year ago, not long after Arena had taken over in LA, someone returned from a trip to Galaxyland disdainful of Arena's prospects. "A lot of the players don't like Bruce," he muttered. He also predicted Arena would be out at the end of the 2009 season.
I replied, "Well, then he'll get rid of them, and his contract is only for 18 months, anyway." I'm not saying every Galaxy player from 2008 no longer with the team got the boot as a malcontent. But in signing veterans he's coached in the past, he instilled a core of players familiar with him and his methods, and, most importantly, his demanding standards. The Arena Way is not for everybody but everybody knows how it works, or learns soon enough.
"He definitely did his research," says Galaxy attacker Mike Magee, who played a season and a half for Arena in New York. "He got guys he could trust. We really didn't miss a beat in the locker room and it translates onto the field. If you watch us play, there are still situations we're not sure what to do because we haven't played together that long, but in terms of everyone batting and fighting for each other, it's been second to none." In MLS, solidarity and cohesiveness can take you a long way.
Meld that with his prowess at spotting talent and acquiring it, through the draft and trades and other processes, and an attention to detail that can drive you nuts yet is essential for efficient management, and you have perhaps the only person on the planet who can keep the Galaxy organization, his staff, the players, AEG, MLS, U.S. Soccer, and the Beckham brigade moving in the right direction. I can't imagine anybody else taking last year's shambolic defense and rebuilding it with two rookies - Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza - into one of the league's best.
I'm glad to see that journalists and pundits and observers have concluded recently that Beckham's importance to winning and losing is most important. That's the standard we've applied since day one, and seeing how his antics have escalated - taunting fans, berating referees, going recklessly over the ball to stud a former teammate - this weekend's game at RFK against D.C. United presents another hostile setting and yet another chance to act up and alienate Galaxy fans and teammates. Maybe he'll drill a ball into the Barra Brava, or use the same bent-arm gesture he delivered on national TV last year, or toss a water bottle at the fourth official.
If Becks flips out in this game or next weekend before he leaves to play for England, how will Arena handle it? He'll do whatever's best for the team, not the AEG management team, not Beckham's business team, but the soccer team. For a franchise that boasts of its financial performance, it's been painfully oblivious to abject performances on the field. Getting Arena aboard has addressed that deficiency, and the dramatic changes he has wrought are without parallel in MLS this season.