Thursday, September 14, 2006

In Limbo: Bruce Arena - Man, Myth, Legend

by Tim Froh

Former U.S. National Team coach, and current head coach of the New York Red Bulls, Bruce Arena stands out as a man of tremendous vision as well as of tremendous ego. His recent interview with Jack Bell of the New York Times does nothing to dispute this claim. In it, he lays out a unique vision for improving MLS and the American game as a whole. However, in it he also chastizes his "friend" Sunil Gulati while also refusing to take responsibility for the United States' failures in this year's World Cup, instead heaping blame on the USSF, MLS, his players, everyone but himself. What emerges is a portrait of a man very much in love with himself and his ideas, but whose ideas nevertheless ought to be taken with a seriousness that befits our own desire to soccer in America succeed. I for one will take his ideas seriously no matter how preposterous I find his view of the 2006 World Cup. Here are ten of Arena's ideas and thoughts that demand commentary:

1. Environment affects performance.

In Limbo: In the context of MLS: false. Certainly, the more infinite confines of their specially designed stadia have helped the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chicago Fire among others. However, the long term importance of Soccer Specific Stadia has less to do with on-the-field performance than it does with financial viability. It could also be that Arena is referring not to stadia but to training facilities. However, that's a bit of a wash, when you consider that the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cup winning San Jose Earthquakes trained at a local community college field that lacked so much as a single bathroom.

2. Certainly to improve rosters and the product in the league is going to mean more dollars and more quality foreign players in the league.

In Limbo: Fact. This is a pretty non-controversial statement that I think anyone would agree with. However, what Arena means by quality foreign players is clearly at odds with league's marketing strategy (read, "Beckham rule"). Later in the article, Arena names names, and they are more along the lines of Christian Gomez than David Beckham.

3. "We have a number of people in decision-making positions that think the answer to everything is Hispanic {Sunil Gulati, the new president of U.S. Soccer, has often mentioned a need to find Hispanic players from the grassroots}."

In Limbo: Arena is looking at this from a performance perspective, which is wrong. The USSF isn't looking at this from a fan's perspective but from a business perspective. They're thinking is that if there are more Hispanic players on the U.S. National Team then more Hispanic fans will cheer for the U.S. This is flawed thinking at odds with the many fans who continue to root for the national teams of their ancestral homes, but there's nothing wrong with them trying, and Arena recognizes this as well.

P.S. Gulati's right. The USSF currently does a piss poor job of finding and developing talent at the grassroots level, particularly minorities, no matter what Bruce says.

4. The U.S. did not take a step back with their performance in the last World Cup.

In Limbo: Fact. Yes, the team failed to live up to lofty expectations, but if anything, their failure on the international stage not only pointed out many of the weaknesses, not only of our talent, but of the USSF itself. The performance was poor, but it not only increased media scrutiny, but will only move the program forward in the future. To call the performance a failure, while true from a results standpoint, is to miss the point completely.

5. "We finished like we should have finished {the U.S. was eliminated after the first round in Germany, tying one game and losing two}. It’s probably an accurate representation of where we are in the world."

In Limbo: False. We did not finish where we should have finished. In fact, the United States was in a position to advance out of the group had they beaten Ghana. Yes, Ghana was a solid team, but had the U.S. instead gone with two strikers and a more attack-minded gameplan, a victory would not have been out of the question. Bruce's tactics, and the players' unmotivated performances are solely to blame. Does that performance though, bear out where we are in the world? Yes and no. Yes, we are not a top ten, or maybe even top twenty team, but neither is Ukraine, Switzerland, or Mexico (according to Bruce), all of whom advanced to the next round of the World Cup.

6. A good organization equals a good team.

In Limbo: As it concerns MLS, this is patently false, and the results bear this out. Was the Earthquakes organization that presided over the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cup winning teams a good organization? No. The New England Revolution is hardly a model organization and they've been to the MLS Cup final two times in four seasons, and in 2003 and 2004, advanced to the Eastern Conference Championship game. So while this is often true, it's not always true, and especially not in MLS, where anyone can win given the right coach.

7. An improved MLS will only increase our chances of winning the World Cup.

In Limbo: Thanks Captain Obvious, but that doesn't quite jive with your "our players need to go to Europe" sentiment in the wake of the World Cup. That statement was itself incredibly perplexing given that most of our European players had disastrous Cup performances.
8. Opportunities evolve at the ground level, not by committee.

In Limbo: Fact. Do I really need to discuss this one? I'll just put what Arena said in its entirety:

"[Our players overseas] are not good enough. Or they’re secondary players on generally not very good teams. It’s a natural process. How do Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley emerge out of that group? It wasn’t because of a plan. It just happened they had opportunities. They were talented people that were given good opportunities, who had a good environment, for us anyway, in the Bradenton thing. We will have thousands of kids playing soccer if we create a better environment; players will surface. It’s a natural evolution. It’s not going to be from a plan, it’s not going to be a committee ¬ that’s the next U.S. Soccer stuff, it will name committees, to win the World Cup, committees to do this, committees to do that. But it’s really done at the ground level. People just busting their ass and creating better environments for their kids. More players will surface over time with this league, but this league has got to get better."

9. American players are unmotivated and not dedicated enough.

In Limbo: Fact. Arena's justification that American players are settled into a middle class income bracket is fascinating. He suggests that while the players are motivated enough to make money doing what they love, they're not motivated enough to keep pushing to make (as in other American sports) or to achieve more because in MLS there is a limit on how much you can make and achieve, and the ceiling is not nearly high enough.

10. The next coach of the National Team ought to be American.

In Limbo: False. As I tried to demonstrate in my satirical riff on Jeff Bradley's article, it's silly to single out candidates for any reason. Hire the most qualified, most talented available candidate, no matter his nationality. Period. End of discussion.

I have tremendous respect for Arena despite my frustration with his coaching and tactics in the 2006 World Cup. I hope he can turn things around with the Red Bulls, and best of luck to him with his team's push towards the playoffs.

Comments on "In Limbo: Bruce Arena - Man, Myth, Legend"


Blogger scaryice said ... (4:09 PM, September 14, 2006) : 

Arena never fails to entertain. Good analysis.


Anonymous CPRoyale said ... (8:55 AM, September 15, 2006) : 

Thanks for calling Bruce out on his comment that we finished like we should have. That was such a patheticlt fatalistic statement, it is no wonder he conservatively fielded such an un-motivated group of players against Ghana. I was there in the stands, and that game alone defined a "regression" of the USA national team. We have always been in the mold of lesser talented, but yet scrappy and full of hustle. We lost our hustle that day.


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