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A Sad Day for Bruce Arena
by Paul Gardner, April 6th, 2009 12:22AM
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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.

  1. Paul Bryant
    commented on: April 6, 2009 at 10:26 a.m.
    I never was a Bruce Arena fan. Interestingly, I believe his success in 2002 led to his demise in 2006. After the 2002 World Cup (WC) he became full of himself, imperious, and hard-headed to a fault. I remember distinctly at the 2006 WC Arena playing a left-footed Beasley at right outside mid and playing Donavan at striker. Both players were ineffective. Beasley’s protests to Arena got him benched for the remainder of the WC. I also remember Eric Wynalda criticizing Arena so harshly on ESPN that he lost his analyst job with the network. When I read he was bringing in Tony Sanneh to the LA Galaxy, I nearly fell over. Arena should have brought back Cobi Jones and Joe Max Moore to make Sanneh feel and maybe play like a youngster. All kidding aside, Arena needs to go back and rediscover American soccer. The game is changing in our country. The very best players will not be college graduates (Altidore, Adu, Torres, etc.) as you alluded to in your article. Mr. Arena would be better served as a pundit or advocate of the game. He could certainly lobby the NCAA for more practice time and games in the spring for college players. He needs do something before his reputation becomes irrevocably tarnished
  1. Jim Ambrose
    commented on: April 6, 2009 at 12:06 p.m.
    I think your question, "what sort of player does Arena want?" is exactlly the question that needs to be asked. I thought his loyalty to the UVA boys when it national team appearances didn't serve him well. Agoos is one of my examples of this. he was painful to watch at the national team level late in his career.
  1. George Hoyt
    commented on: April 7, 2009 at 8:39 p.m.
    Arena, whether you like him or not, knows what he's about. People accuse him of being arrogant or pompus, but really, for someone who so readily admits his mistakes and encourages his players to own up to theirs, neither term really applies. Though I was glad to see Arena stepping up to the helm in LA (he may be the only one capable of the brutal honesty needed to re-direct this organization) I am surprised he took on the challenge. The problems in LA run deep right now. I can understand bringing in some known entities, Sanneh and Lewis, but Kovalenko?... I agree he's a mistake on any team. That said, I do believe Arena has a vision and a strategy- but one off season is not enough. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts this team throughout the season. Just wait. Given enough time, he'll get yet another team back on track.

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