By Paul Gardner
Bruce Arena stands out as the coach you always want to hear from. Whatever the topic -- I’m talking only soccer here, though maybe his range is much wider -- his views, not to mention his way of expressing them, are always going to be worth listening to.
His latest comments -- succinctly expressed, as usual -- on the matter of how many games players should be playing are priceless. At last a coach has noticed that there’s a massive contradiction at large in soccer, and particularly in the strangely confused world of MLS.
The accepted wisdom on MLS is that its season is too short (though it lasts for seven-plus months), that its players therefore are left with something like four months of offseason. For the MLS critics, who evidently don’t trust the players to take care of themselves, that means four months of idleness -- lazing around and eating fast food and so on.
So Arena butts in with: “The only reason players around the world play 10 and a half months is because those clubs have to schedule that for revenue purposes. I think every club in the world would tell you ‘our players are run into the ground, they need more rest, and their time off is valuable’ ... There’s nothing wrong with a player having six to eight weeks off. Your body needs time to recover.”
Will anyone be prepared to argue with that? Apart from the gurus, I mean, the guys who make a lot of money out of fitness?
The latest soccer voice to bang on about MLS players being unfit is that of Jurgen Klinsmann, who is all in favor of them being sent to Europe on loan during those fatal off-months (basically December, January and February) to either play, or, more likely, simply train, with top teams.
Klinsmann is displaying a ferocious devotion to fitness training at the national team camps, where his favorite gurus measure just about every movement that can be measured in a functioning human body, and then ... well, I have to admit that I don’t know what comes next. But I’ll take a wild guess that all the information that the gurus gather is then fed into a computer, and -- Abracadabra! -- out comes a miraculous Gurugram telling Klinsmann everything about the players, from incipient athlete’s foot problems to the number of misplaced left-footed passes that each guy makes from his own half in the final 20 minutes of each game. When it’s not raining. And when his team is winning. And so on.
Also in there will be all sorts of wisdom about nutrition, because Klinsmann evidently feels that Americans don’t know how to eat properly (gurus, of course, do).
To me, Arena’s argument is the voice of reason. However Arena intended it, it comes over as a rebuke to Klinsmann, who, more and more, appears as an obsessive as far as fitness is concerned. Arena’s voice also reflects that of the vast majority within soccer who feel that players play too many not too few games. That is the contradiction I mentioned earlier -- that the sport relentlessly pushes forward with excessive and ever-more-sophisticated training to enable players to play games that everyone agrees they shouldn’t be playing.
Klinsmann’s obsession with fitness is worrying. Because it can quite easily be read as a key to his approach to the game. As though the thing that matters most is being able to out-run and out-last your opponent. If that is the case, Klinsmann will find plenty of takers in this country, both among the coaching and the guru fraternities. And his national team will go on looking as it has so far -- unconvincing, and barely worth watching
A team lacking any evident style. Arena had his say about that topic, too. With Arena there’s always the likelihood that when he’s unburdened himself of something worth saying he’ll soon follow it up with a clunker. This one came in the very same interview (with MLS ExtraTime radio). It did not come as a surprise to me because I’ve heard Arena on this topic before. He never makes much sense because he always manages, quite deliberately no doubt, to miss the point.
Here we go: “The American style is what we’ve always said it is and it hasn’t changed. It’s always been that. There was this kind of rumor that all of a sudden we were going to have a team with the great flavor of the Hispanic player and Mexican-Americans -- all of that. Do you see any of those on the field right now?”
And what have “we always” said the style is? Heaven knows. It’s never been defined, or definable. A hodge-podge, a miscellany, or even a mess. There is no American style. Never has been. And this is hardly surprising when you consider the array of differing ethnicities and styles that have gone into the American soccer heritage.
The opportunity presented to coaches like Arena -- indeed, he should be a leader in this -- to take a look at the mix of players and styles and come up with something clearly American -- is unique. But Arena refuses to see it. Our style is what is it, he says -- meaning what?
Then comes the obligatory Arena snide comment on Latino players, implying that there aren’t any who are good enough and, presumably never will be. There could hardly be a sillier comment than Arena’s “Do you see any of those on the field right now?” The answer is “No,” which Arena seems to think proves his point. Far from it. It merely underlines the scandal that this country’s wealth of Latino talent is underdeveloped -- even unrecognized -- and certainly underused.
And it is the coaches from Arena’s era who are responsible for that. Because they are the ones who should have noticed as they took all their badges and diplomas and licenses that the Latino influence was growing, and realized that it was going to go on growing. They should also have seen that a stylistic clash -- a soccer culture war, if you like -- was in the offing.
They saw nothing. The middle-class suburban white college kids were their staple. Plus a sprinkling of middle-class blacks. The sad thing is that Arena has always known better than that. His University of Virginia and his D.C. United teams showed what can be done.
Yet he can still come out with statements like the above, which suggest that there exists some sort of American style and that it’s impervious to change. As the first part of that argument is patently false, the second part can be dismissed as nonsense.
The intriguing and, I would have thought, challenging idea that there is something different to be done with all that diverse American talent is there to be taken up by American coaches. Fusion soccer? Maybe. Something like that. Any takers out there among the coaching fraternity?