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SOCCER INSIDER | Soccer

Arena Scores Big Points on First Day on Job

November 04, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES

What a difference a signed contract makes. Especially one that puts half a million to three-quarters of a million dollars a year in your pocket.

The Bruce Arena who was introduced to the nation's media as the U.S. national team's coach last week was decidedly different from the one who had been ducking and dodging questions about his future for the last two months.

He was lighthearted and talkative. He joked. He revealed a dimension to his personality that had been largely hidden before, at least to those who only infrequently cross his path.

Most of all, he came across as a coach who knows he has been given an immense task and is actually looking forward to it.

It was a good beginning, especially for a man whose differences with the media have stuck like a bone in the throats of both parties. Arena has not hidden his, shall we say, light regard for reporters, and they, in turn, have sometimes been scathing in their attacks on him.

But it's a new era, and the animosities of old are erased. The future curves around several bends on its way to World Cup 2002 in Japan and South Korea, and all sorts of dangers lie in wait.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Arena's first test will be Friday, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, where Australia will be the opponent. Fortunately for Arena-- unless the U.S. happens to lose the game--the Australians have elected to bring their Olympic team rather than their full national team.

None of the Australian professionals in Europe have been called in. Instead, interim Coach Raul Blanco's team is made up of 18 young players who are battling to make the roster for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

They will give it all they have, but they cannot be considered a match for even this new-look, few-veterans U.S. team.

The American starting lineup? How about this for a guess: Zach Thornton in goal, a defensive back four of Eddie Pope, C.J. Brown, Robin Fraser and Jeff Agoos; a four-man midfield with Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis wide right and left, respectively, and Richie Williams and Joe-Max Moore as the defensive and creative midfielders, respectively. Up front, the strike duo of Roy Lassiter and Brian McBride.

That would/should give Australia something to think about.

PAYNE IN THE U.A.E.

Arena knows there were others who were close to getting the national team job. One of them was former Portugal national coach Carlos Queiroz, the man U.S. Soccer hired to produce a state-of-the- game report on soccer in this country.

In fact, Bob Contiguglia, the federation president, was about to board a plane to the United Arab Emirates, where Queiroz is now national coach, when a message from Queiroz stopped him cold.

"If you don't have an offer, don't come," was more or less the wording.

So Contiguglia stayed home, and Arena, his first choice anyway, got the U.S. job.

But who gets the Washington D.C. United job he leaves vacant?

"I was going to fly to the United Arab Emirates," Kevin Payne, Washington's general manager, deadpanned, "but he told me, 'If you don't have an offer, don't come.' "

OOPS AND OOPS AGAIN

As well as Arena's introductory news conference went in New York, there were a couple of warning flags raised.

The first was that Arena twice talked about the World Cup in Japan, failing to mention South Korea, which is co-host of the 2002 tournament. That snub, although surely inadvertent, will have been noted in Seoul and is a mistake Arena should not repeat.

The other error was also minor but potentially troubling in light of later developments. It came when Arena was talking about how he will continue trying to become fluent in Spanish.

"The nice thing about this job is that I am coach of the United States national team and right now the language is English," he said.

Right now?

That might have seemed funny to some, but it is hardly the sort of sensitivity that Arena should show toward a community that supports soccer in greater numbers and with greater passion and greater understanding than any other.

Former coach Steve Sampson went out of his way to build bridges between the national team and Latino fans in the United States. It was one of the best aspects of his legacy.

It would be a shame if Arena undermined that effort, even if it is simply due to his fondness for flip remarks.

One wonders, though, why his initial roster of 22 players contained a dozen newcomers to the national team but not a single Latino player.

As Major League Soccer Commissioner Doug Logan said: "I have offered to Bruce to be his interpreter in Guadalajara in January, and I see my role as being, 'No, what Senor Arena really meant was. . . .' "

The new U.S. coach will quickly learn that while openness and forthrightness are admired, the international game requires a great deal more diplomacy in choosing one's words.

Not to mention one's teams.

ITALIAN DOUBLE

On the telephone from Milan the other day, Walter Zenga, Italy's 1990 World Cup goalkeeper, was trying to explain how a successful team is built.

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