Bouquets and Brickbats for Bruce Arena

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?

21 comments about "Bouquets and Brickbats for Bruce Arena".
  1. tim francis, January 28, 2012 at 5:08 a.m.

    Thanks for the balanced deft cutting-edge constructive/critical analysis, Paul. Arena, perhaps like some of his cronies and the rest of us natives, does seem to have many moments of brilliance as well as some of perhaps arrogant/frustrated lack of circumspect?

    Here is something culturally-related to ponder: Brazil and the US both began their road to world dominance of futebal(soccer) and basketball while recruiting from 'white' middle/upper class players, then gradually figuring out that the superior artistry developed in poor and blue class 'other-cultured' neighborhoods. The USSF/MLS might finally grasp that developmental clue, but then there are other challenges: How can skilled latino players and other immigrant talent be enticed to play with the currently relatively low-skilled national pool that relies on grueling fitness devt., but can't keep the ball? While national recognition and pay is good, isn't it also a kind of 'soccer hell' to play in for those who CAN play?

  2. Brian Something, January 28, 2012 at 8:24 a.m.

    The obsession on fitness is curious. Because for all its other deficiencies, the one thing the American player has never lacked is proper fitness training.

  3. jordao jordao, January 28, 2012 at 8:27 a.m.

    Paul, as mentioned above, good job.
    HOWEVER, I, and most of us worked 50 weeks per year all our lives. I made less than 50k when their age and busted my butt for it. I have worked my way to 100K and busted my butt for it and my family. You say it is okay for players to commit to a few years, for hundreds of thousands, to millions of bucks per year and have 4 months off? Are you insane? Let them be like teachers then, who do much more for the world, get summer off, though they all work thru it out of the goodness of their hearts, and let these babied players get paid like they are. Pffft. We pay their wages. Get these lazy butts out to work, give them a couple of weeks off like the rest of us. Let them have 3 months off when they retire, like me, and see good for all their hard work.

  4. Walt Pericciuoli, January 28, 2012 at 10:59 a.m.

    Paul you are right on. In Bruce's own words, players should have 6-8 weeks off. Too me; that means a 10-10 1/2 month season.Just about what the rest of the world does.The elite players are always taxed when they have to fly all over the world to play in extra matches like the WC,Gold Cup, qualifiers,friendlies etc. In addition, MLS is on a different schedule than most of FIFA and they only play 8-8 1/2 months.So if Jurgen uses only MLS players in his Jan. camp and friendlies, they come when the players have been off already for a month or two.I can understand Jurgen's concerns.Bruce is just wrong on this one.As to the American style,it will only develop when US Soccer decides what it should be and coaches are rewarded for looking for and developing that style.As for me,I just want my team to play entertaining soccer.Winning would be great,but I do understand that there are very few National sides that ever get to lift the Cup, In the meantime,I could be content by having a team I enjoy watching.

  5. Karl Ortmertl, January 28, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.

    Paul, I'm a Bruce Arena fan, but you your analysis of Bruce's comments was spot on as a commentary of what's been wrong with the American soccer establishment over the past couple of decades. To add a bit to this, I think that, for whatever reason, the US coaching establishment has been suffering from England-worship. Considering that England hasn't won a word cup in going on fifty years, that's a stupid thing to worship. The attitude on style of play and the lack of respect for latin soccer are symptoms of this misplaced worship. The MLS is a goon league similar to the EPL. The problem with US soccer compared to England is at least England does develop some creative players and some players that are comfortable on the ball while playing their goon style crossing pass brand of soccer. All the US has developed in that regard are Dempsey and Donovan and, for the life of me, I can't figure out how those two broke out of our ugly mold and got creative

  6. Delroy Wallace, January 28, 2012 at 12:04 p.m.

    Can anyone list the names of Arena's sucessful DC UNited Rosters? Who played Striker? Who played Attacking Mid-field?
    The proof is in the "pudding".

  7. Russell Gray, January 28, 2012 at 1:01 p.m.

    Soccer remains a sport that is out of reach for poor players above the recreation level. I know that many clubs have aid for poor players but that isn't really where they recruit. It remains a sport of middle class white kids. When the clubs have their own feeder system like the foreign clubs do you will see change. Right now they use the model the other Pro sports which funnels players from the college system. The disadvantage that you have there is that soccer is not a sport where you can get a full scholarship. What sports do you think the kids from a disadvantaged background are going to aim them for if they want to go to college? The fact that our national teams have been coached by ex college coaches only perpetuates this system. I remember when Klinnsman became the coach of the national team reading that he was surprised by the amount of influence that the colleges have in our system. The NHL would be a better example of how our system needs to work. Several layers of teams where players percolate up to the top.

  8. R2 Dad, January 28, 2012 at 2:16 p.m.

    My take on this Arena/Klins comparo is that Arena is defensive about what has transpired over the past 15 years and doesn't want to look bad if Klinsmann is in fact successful in turning around the USMNT program. There is a difference between training in the offseason vs playing games in the offseason. Shea got to train with Arsenal, to learn how top sides do it. Learning from better coaches, players and processes. He wasn't playing competitive games, risking injury, playing all-out, and there's a big difference. So training in the offseason for a couple of weeks, staying sharp, has great benefits. Playing extra games, probably not so much. WRT US hispanic players waiting in the wings, where are most of them going to go after highschool and U18? Not the MLS. Few MLS coaches have wanted to bring on smaller skilled players, just to get ground down in the defensive-minded MLS. Which is too bad, because the USMNT desperately needs smaller, quick/creative players to compete on the world stage. If they aren't given a chance in the MLS, where will they be allowed to train and prosper until they do? The answer is, Nowhere. And that's why Arena hasn't seen them, though I doubt he's ever gone looking. Cabrera seemed to bring more hispanics into his camps, so they are out there. My favorite U17 team is a small hispanic side (not a club, as hispanic coaches are rarely given that opportunity and typically don't want the accountability anyway) and is never included in the most desirable groupings at tournaments, but they play by far the most attractive soccer. Too bad their most creative kid will not make it to college, and will probably drift off into trouble somewhere. No one cares about him, and that's why Arena never sees kids like him. But I wish Arena could have seen this small kid, playing target man at the top of the box with a huge CB on him, receive the ball, flick right while going left, round the CB and beat the keeper 1.v.1. That's not something Brek Shea, in all the opportunities he has been given, will ever be able to do.

  9. Leland Price, January 28, 2012 at 3:53 p.m.

    Paul Gardner forgets that Klinsmann was roundly criticized in Germany for bringing in "American style" fitness. Let's also note that Klinsmann speaks as a former player, whereas Arena does not have that level of playing experience.

  10. Kent James, January 28, 2012 at 4:50 p.m.

    My guess is that Bruce Arena gets a bit defensive about all the criticism leveled at the MLS and the American soccer structure, since he's associated with both programs. His comment about the dearth of Hispanic players on the US MNT is really aimed at those who've suggested that American coaches, especially those associated with college soccer (Bradley and Arena) are at fault for the lack of success on the world stage because they are either unable or unwilling to see the Hispanic talent we have in the country. I think a more accurate assessment is that the structure of youth soccer in this country (the pay to play system) is what prevents the US from fielding more Hispanic players at the top, not the inability of the coaches to see talent (though I think this is a problem at the lower levels). While a not so stellar win/loss record under JK is not particularly troubling, the inability to score goals gives a little cause for concern. I'm a little concerned by JK's search for talent amongst the Germans w/American citizenship (since most are not good enough for the German national team); these players don't seem bad, but (not surprisingly) they're not the type of skillful player that the US needs. And PG's concerns about JK's focus on fitness I think are appropriate; perhaps such a focus in a winter camp when most of the players are out of season may be necessary (remedially), but more fitness will not take the US to the next level.

  11. Paul Bryant, January 28, 2012 at 7:27 p.m.

    I believe Klinsmann emphasizes fitness because in order to play the type of up-tempo, attacking soccer he envisions, you need superior fitness. We in America overlook the fact that the best "pure athletes" in South America, Europe, and Africa are soccer players. The best "pure athletes" in America play professional sports other than soccer. As far as an "American" style, I don't know if we will ever develop one. Men's soccer is one of the few team sports in which the rest of the world isn't trying to emmulate us. Instead, we are trying to emmulate the rest of the world. I believe "Banal Bob" Bradley produced the closest thing to an "American style" of soccer. If Klinsmann gets the USMNT beyond the quarter finals of the WC, then I believe his brand of soccer will trickle down to the rest of the U.S. soccer community.

  12. James Froehlich, January 28, 2012 at 7:39 p.m.

    Totally agree with Paul B and Leland regarding the issue of US fitness. Just look at the effort that Real Madrid had to expend to handcuff Barca into a @ - 2 tie. Paul ------ you're late!!! I posted the following several days ago on the original SA story: One of my biggest disappointments in observing the US soccer scene for the past 30 years has been the failure of Bruce Arena to develop and evolve in his coaching philosophy. In fact it would be nice if he even bothered to tell us what his philosophy is and what he sees as the US style of play. When the history of US soccer is written Arena will more than likely be seen as the US coach who most effectively used the predominant US traits of athleticism and physicality. Unfortunately Bruce never bothered to use his "bully pulpit" to attempt to improve the development of skillful players. Now a foreign coach (always bad because they don't understand the US player)has the audacity to try to develop a new style based on skill and possession. And more importantly, that foreign coach even takes the current player development structure to task for failing to develop skillful players. Now we finally hear from him. And what type of constructive criticism does our soccer sphinx provide? “The American style is what we’ve always said it is and it hasn’t changed. It’s always been that." How enlightening!! Now all you youth coaches go forth and develop! Bruce Arena should have and could have been the one to take us to the next level. Unfortunately he has been too busy to come down from his mountain.

  13. Jack Niner, January 28, 2012 at 11:15 p.m.

    Sorry folks, I consider Arena one of the Huckster's in the game - He's taken a lot more from the game than he's ever contributed. His comments are almost meaningless.

    Here's a style of american soccer if left to it's own tendancies - big ball, scoring on counters primarily, with a great deal of emphasis on defense and physicality. Ugly stuff.

  14. Jens Rehder, January 29, 2012 at 12:16 a.m.

    Paul, as usual, you've got it pretty much spot on. My only point of contention would be that the beginning of American style has emerged, and yes part of that style is at times overly physical and has been created by chosing to select mainly athletes rather than soccer players, and now JK seems to be continuing down that same path. However, this emerging style also has a "never say die" component which I think was shown magnificently in the Italy game in 2006, in the Confed. Cup, and in the WC 2010. These attributes are not a terrible foundation to build a "style" on. With the addition of positive influences through Hispanic players, especially those have influenced by the great things that are happening in Mexican soccer right now would be another step in the right direction towards an American style. However, I hope that style will also be influenced by other more global example like Barcelona and Spain for example. And how did that "style" in Barca develop? A club started by a gentleman from Basel, a style refined by a Dutchman in Spain, embraced by Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Brazilians, and finally "perfected" by a brilliant Argentinian. An evolution of style that has a very "American" look in its confluence of input from various cultures.

  15. James Froehlich, January 29, 2012 at 12:16 p.m.

    I seem to be the only one who thinks that JK has indeed begun to institute a new style -- I emphasize the word "begun". FIRST of all, JK has been using his initial months on the job (he's 4 months into his term) to work through the existing pool of known players from the Bradley/Arena era. SECOND, he has begun to insist on carrying the ball out of the back and trying to use short quick passing to move through the midfield. Has that been successful? From the standpoint of actual execution, the answer has to be, "No". However, are the players TRYING to execute that plan? To that I have to personally say a resounding, "YES". The problem is that very few of the existing players are able to execute that effectively, or certainly consistently. The one bit of evidence from the recent games has been the number of times that we actually played out of pressure situations with a series of short, quick, passes. Of course, we failed numerous times but the crucial thing is that JK is getting the players to try --- rather than immediately resorting to the blast. I would also ask the more statistically minded to take a look at the number of long balls from the GK's versus quick passes to the defenders and also the number of passes from defenders to midfielders, rather than balls over the midfield. (Geoff Cameron appears to be the new type of defender who can actually pas, and wants to) Additionally, Torres was injured and it appeared that he had been on JK's short list for the creative midfielder slot. Without a creative midfielder any attempt at a possession game will be cut short. One final thought: changing the style of play is not a small thing and would challenge countries with far better players than the US. In addition, JK must do this while winning and at the same time trying to somehow find those hidden jewels that have been overlooked for years. If he pulls this off, we should make him king.

  16. Thomas Peterson, January 29, 2012 at 4:57 p.m.

    Gardner's comment about "barely worth watching" is kind. The USA men's team is NOT worth watching--unless you are trying to go to sleep.

  17. tim francis, January 29, 2012 at 11:12 p.m.

    The above shows yet another boost in intelligent comments, save one, again. Maybe a clue to Arena's lack of clue on latino style, is that his personal game was lax: where he DID learn to be one of the original soccer coaches to encourage poised possession/probing soccer at UVA and DC United. Too bad he couldn't appreciate the need for youth-began individual skill development, or perhaps he gave up due to, as an above comment noted, the dominance of english-style coaching that ignored instruction in moves. I had one National coach say years ago that moves were something you had or didn't have--so why try to teach them?

  18. G Benjamin Hernandez, January 30, 2012 at 9:57 a.m.

    Typical Bruce. To answer his question on where they are, however:

    Bocanegra, the captain by the way (his father is from Mexico), Bornstein (his mother is Mexican), Agudelo (Colombian), Castillo (Mex-Am), Gomez (Mex-Am), Torres (Mex-Am).

    Just off the top of my head, Bruce. All the above, sans Agudelo and Castillo, played a critical part in WC qualification for 2010 and were part of the world cup team.

  19. Warren Mersereau, January 30, 2012 at 11:58 a.m.


    Your lack of objectivity in your recent column (January 28), “Bouquets and Brickbats for Bruce Arena”, is surprising.

    You praise Bruce --- “Will anyone be prepared to argue with that?” --- for stating: “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.”

    But, you then fail to look at how Bruce actually manages the LA Galaxy schedule:
    · January 24, 2011 --- LA Galaxy pre season opens with one week of medical/fitness tests and fitness training
    o January 31, 2011 --- LA Galaxy begins training on the field
    · February 4 – March 2, 2011 ---1 pre season match against a college team, 5 pre season matches against MLS teams, 1 exhibition match against Tijuana
    · March 15 – November 20, 2011 --- Regular season
    o 34 MLS regular season matches
    o 4 MLS play off matches
    o 2 exhibition matches --- presumably per Bruce’s description: “ . . . for revenue purposes. . .”
    o 2 US Open Cup matches
    o 6 CONCACAF Champions League matches
    · November 30 – December 6, 2011 --- 3 exhibition matches (Asia Pacific Tour) --- again, presumably per Bruce’s description: “. . . for revenue purposes . . .”
    · January 23, 2012 --- LA Galaxy pre season opens with one week of medical/fitness tests and fitness training

    So, Bruce gave his players 6 weeks off, which is required by the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement. During the 10 and a half months Bruce worked his players, he scheduled exhibition matches before, during, and after the season. Was this to benefit the players or, as he accused other clubs around the world of doing, was he running his players into the ground “for revenue purposes”?

    In addition, Bruce allowed his top players --- Donovan, Beckham, Keane, Gonzalez --- to train and in some cases even play for foreign clubs during the off season.

    Consequently, I would suggest that before you praise Bruce for his approach to managing his players’ annual calendar, and before you use Bruce’s comments to lead into criticism of Juergen Klinsmann for emphasizing the need for fitness and extended training opportunities, you need to recognize that Bruce does what other coaches around the world do in terms of their players’ annual calendar and he, like Klinsmann, also, employs medical and fitness testing each pre season to establish benchmarks and goals for his players.

  20. Werner Roth, January 30, 2012 at 2:16 p.m.

    American players have had a soccer fitness problem in the pro's from day one, specifically anarobic (without oxygen) interval fitness which allows heart rate to go back to rest in the shortest time. This is mostly due to the lack of effective (time and type)developmental training leading into the pro's. US college, semi-pro's and youth development deficiencies are the primary cause, as is the lack of playing experience on the part of our soccer gurus including Paul Gardner and Bruce Arena. You play like you train and we just don't train hard, smart or long enough.
    And ultimately who are you going to believe, Paul and Bruce or Klinsman and your lying eyes.

  21. James Froehlich, January 31, 2012 at 11:25 a.m.

    Bless you Warren Mersereau for highlighting the hypocrisy rampant in the statements of Bruce Arena. The man who started out as the new look coach has turned into a shill for the old guard, coaching establishment

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