"I was spoiled in the early part of my career in San Jose, because we made the playoffs the first four years I was there, so I got used to that," says Landon Donovan, who won crowns with the old Quakes in 2001 and 2003 before leaving for Germany after the 2004 season and bouncing right back to sign with the Galaxy a few months later.
"Now, having not made it for the three years and the league expanding to make it more difficult each year to get in with more teams, that's how difficult it is. I think the rut we got into was that losing became a habit. Now, this year, winning has become a habit. You realize the kind of things you have to do to be successful. When you don't taste that, you don't really know what it is."
Arena was unable to guide the Galaxy into the playoffs last year, despite Donovan leading the league with 20 goals and earning the Honda Player of the Year Award, named to the outstanding U.S. international, for a fifth time. Yet both Arena and U.S. coach Bob Bradley quietly and firmly advised him that his performance as a player and a leader still lacked something.
Revamping a team that conceded 62 goals and won just eight of 30 games required a lot more from Arena than motivating his most talented player, but the former coach of D.C. United and the U.S. team knew well that much of a team's drive and direction comes through challenges, not chalk talks.
"There are a number of things we had to do but I think the starting point was Landon," said Arena, who took over in August of last year with the Galaxy mired in defeat and beset by bickering. "Once it was obvious that Landon was returning to the L.A. Galaxy [from a loan spell with Bayern Munich], he became our captain, and he accepted a lot of responsibility from our coaching staff and his teammates to make this team better.
"That's part of concentration and commitment on a daily basis. When your best player gives that kind of effort, it carries over to the rest of the team, and the locker room and the training field every day."
Pace, stamina, guile, vision and touch are staples of Donovan's game, yet inconsistency and personal angst have often plagued him. He and actress Bianca Kajlich separated earlier this year, less than three years after their marriage. He underwent therapy to deal with a sporadic, uncomfortable relationship with his father, who abandoned the family when Donovan was very young, only to resurface, very publicly, when his son started blossoming into an incredible player.
Donovan came back to the Galaxy after a failed stint with Bayer Leverkusen in 2005, and despite LA recording the ninth-best record in a 12-team league, it knocked off San Jose, Colorado and New England in the playoffs in a stunning run to a second league title. But then began a dreary carousel of coaches and losing. A lot of losing.
From 2006 to 2008, the Galaxy lost 42 league games, more than any other team, and changed coaches three times before hiring Arena.
"We've had a lot of turnaround in coaches and we had a lot of turnaround in players," recalls Donovan. "To have now Bruce here, who every day makes sure we have a way of doing things, a professional way of doing things, is a starting point, and then having players who follow that lead.
"The successful teams have a handful of good, solid leaders that make the rest of the team better. We've found not only a handful, but a lot, maybe eight or nine guys who have helped us do that. Everyone has followed that and it's made for a successful year this year."
Arena knows the value of having a strong and determined lead dog, no matter how many others are willing followers. He cut loose underperforming players and stocked his roster with proven pros from other MLS teams, and brought aboard internationals like U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter and Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. He bridged a détente between Donovan and David Beckham by challenging them both to live up to their abilities.
And Arena extracted the one element missing from Donovan's game: consistency, of effort, of performance, of self-evaluation, and of intensity. In a joking reference, Arena said he'd counseled Donovan and Beckham a la Dr. Phil, but away from the TV cameras. Seeing as how Donovan and Beckham's snarky critiques of each other had been widely disseminated, that course made sense. Arena got the process moving and let his captain, and the former captain, do the rest.
"Sometimes it's hard to look at yourself in an honest way, whether it's good or bad," says Donovan. "Sometimes people say you had a bad day and you can look at yourself and say, 'You know, I gave it everything I had.' I don't need to listen to that. Other times people say, 'You were great,' and if you can look at yourself honestly and say, 'That wasn't my best, I can do more,' that's important.
"Being aware for me has made all the difference. It doesn't mean I'm perfect, but I'm learning what my role is as a soccer player, I'm learning what my role is as a person in life, and I'm trying to get better at both of those things."