Bruce Arena never had any doubts about his own ability to move smoothly and successfully from the college game to the pros. I did. I thought the change was altogether too fundamental, too demanding. It looked to me like a change that, even supposing it could be made, would need time.
In no time at all, Arena proved me to be quite wrong. He had everything that was needed to coach pro players, who came in a much greater variety of styles and ages than anything Arena had seen in college. His achievement was immediate and unarguable, as he led D.C. United to the first-ever MLS championship in 1996.
An obvious area where Arena’s expertise would prove inadequate, I had thought, would be in handling Latino players. He had, admittedly, done a great job with Claudio Reyna at the University of Virginia, but Reyna was young, and an American product. What would happen with an experienced player from Latin America?
The question was not academic. In that first MLS year, Sunil Gulati, as the league’s Deputy Commissioner, was busy signing up star foreign players whom he judged would give sparkle and prestige to the league. Having signed the players, Gulati would then allocate them, somewhat arbitrarily, to an MLS club. Among Gulati’s signings was Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry. He was on his way to D.C.United.
So, like it or not, Arena was to get his first experience with an experienced Latino star. Arena did not like it. He let it be known that he didn’t want Etcheverry and requested that he be traded for another player. Gulati said no.
I had closely followed Etcheverry’s career since his early days with the Bolivian youth club Tahuichi. I knew the sort of player he was, very skillful, very creative ... and not, definitely not, a player who relied on that college staple, hustle.
So Arena’s reluctance to accept Etcheverry, of course, confirmed my fears. Arena knew only the parochialism of college soccer, he would try to import that to the pros, and it wouldn’t work. Of course he wouldn’t want anyone as disruptingly exotic as Etcheverry.
Etcheverry, supposedly the star of the team, didn’t get to start regularly in D.C.’s early games. Arena believed he wasn’t in good shape, but was quickly impressed by his skills. Soon Etcheverry was starting. And then he was running the show. His brilliance was not to be denied -- least of all by Arena, who made no secret of his new-found admiration for Etcheverry’s skills, calling him “the heart and soul of this team and the heart and soul of this league.”
That early indication of Arena’s pragmatism, his readiness to change direction and take on the challenge of the new, was vastly encouraging. Halfway through the 1996 season, Jaime Moreno, another Bolivian, was added. With Raul Diaz Arce, Arena now had three Latinos on his team. It seemed to indicate that Arena would be a friend to Latino soccer.
I’m not sure that things have worked out that way. Pragmatism remains the key to Arena’s strengths. Pragmatism allied to canny insights into the sport. Arena’s subsequent career has not exactly been Latino-friendly. When he took over the Red Bulls in 2006, his first move was to ditch Amado Guevara, the team’s MVP.
Two years later, on joining the Galaxy, Arena quickly traded Carlos Ruiz to Toronto.
Arena, then, cannot be said to have shown either great friendliness or hostility to Latino players. In an ideal world, that is as it should be. But the current situation in the USA is anything but ideal. The Latino game is being snubbed. It needs a leader who will stress its importance in the American scheme of things, someone who will make sure that it gets a fair deal.
I cannot see Arena being that man. On his World Cup teams in 2002 and 2006, the Latino presence consisted, essentially, of one player -- Reyna. At the Los Angeles Galaxy, there have been Latino players -- notably the Brazilian Juninho, a pretty permanent midfield presence between 2010 and 2016. But among Juninho’s strengths were an admirable work rate and his rustic tackling. He was no Etcheverry.
There remains a Latino presence on the Galaxy: Giovanni Dos Santos, much closer to Etcheverry, to the true Latino style. But in 2016, Arena’s final year at the Galaxy, his pragmatism took on a bizarre, rather alarming aspect. Juninho, age 26, was let go and the Galaxy midfield started to fill up with decidedly physical players. Steven Gerrard had arrived from England, robustly skillful but with a penchant for thigh-high tackles. Next came American Jeff Larentowicz -- a certified enforcer whose presence guaranteed that the Galaxy’s midfield foul rate would prosper. Then the unthinkable -- the signing of Dutchman Nigel De Jong, a breaker of legs and a disher-out of karate kicks, known to all and sundry as the sport’s No. 1 bad guy.
And that’s where we are, with Arena’s current view of the game focused on a rough-house midfield. This can hardly be seen as good news, for Arena is now the man who will take the USA into the 2018 World Cup. Is he preparing to do that with an overtly physical midfield? If so, than we can forget about expecting any sympathy from Arena for the Latino cause.
Which leaves this matter, so vital to the healthy future of American soccer, apparently unrecognized, largely undiscussed and, of course, glaringly unresolved.
I am led, regretfully, to a conclusion that I have long dismissed as unacceptable. That the Latino impasse will not, can not, be resolved by an “Anglo” (i.e. non-Latino) coach. That it will take the appointment of a Latino coach to a position of high authority for the necessary changes in practice and in mindsets to be made.
The Anglo coaches seem willing to accept one, even two Latinos on their teams. But rarely more. That will not work. A stylistic decision is required. The sudden brilliance of Nicolas Lodeiro with Seattle is remarkable -- but how much more remarkable would it be if Lodeiro were supported by players with a full understanding, a feel for the Latino game? How many? I don’t know, it would depend on so many different factors. I would say at least two more, to provide the creative element of the team. That is not a Latino takeover -- something so many Anglos seem to fear -- but it would mark a decision, a stylistic decision, to play a Latino-oriented game.
We have seen this happening at FC Dallas, where it took a Latino coach, Oscar Pareja, to bring it about. His mixture of Latino and non-Latino players has been highly successful, not only in the results column, but also in playing lively, attractive, attacking soccer.
Pareja, then, could be seen as the future, the man to take over from Arena. But I think there is a better candidate. I have already mentioned him, pointing out that he is the only one of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s men's coaches who is Latino: Tab Ramos.
Now that the damaging Klinsmann influence has been banished, it is to be hoped that Ramos will be allowed to spread his wings.
Scandalously, Ramos was denied the Olympic coach position when it was given to Andi Herzog. Ramos is now 50, yet his coaching experience goes no further than the U-20s. Sitting on Klinsmann’s bench, taking notes, has been a criminal wasting of Ramos’s talents. That talent seems formidable to me.
On March 3, 2013, in the Concacaf U-20 final in Puebla, Mexico, Ramos’s USA team put on a magnificent performance -- the best I have ever seen by any U.S. national team, at any age level. The soccer was exciting, stylish, at times quite superb. The Mexicans won the overtime game 3-1, but Ramos had made a huge point. Americans could play cohesive, stylish soccer. As it happens, eight of that U-20 team were Latinos. Ramos assured me he had not gone looking for Latino players. He wanted players who were “not afraid of the ball.”
Most of them turned out to be Latino.
Then came the Klinsmann influence, with Ramos fading into a bench-dwelling note-taker. He needs to be re-vivified, and he has some catching up to do. If he is not given a top U.S. appointment, he should go seeking an MLS job. He has so much to contribute to the future of the American game, and to what is going on right now. His voice is the voice that needs to be heard to bring together the contrasting elements of Latino and Anglo soccer, to work out an everybody-wins solution to the soccer culture clash that complicates the American game.
• The Klinsmann Interlude (Part 1): A Sorry Experience for American Soccer
• The Klinsmann Interlude (Part 2): Total Failure to Acknowledge Latino Presence