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Coach Bruce Arena is able to steer Galaxy into making the turn

Arena rallies players after extremely shaky start to season, taking them from brink of elimination to Saturday's MLS Cup final. His communication and motivational skills, in particular, draw praise.

November 27, 2012|By Kevin Baxter

The season was only three months old when Major League Soccer paused for its international break in June. Yet for the defending-champion Galaxy, the season appeared all but over.

The team was last in the Western Conference standings, had gone five weeks without a win and played its final match before the break without its starting goalkeeper, its best defender and its top two scoring threats in Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.

But rather than throwing up his hands, Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena rolled up his sleeves. And what followed was perhaps the league's most surprising turnaround since … well, since the last time Bruce Arena did that.

"I've been in this these situations before and you've got to kind of work at it and you've got to keep as positive as you can," says Arena, who took his first MLS team, D.C. United, from a 1-6 start to a league championship. "Not that it was all peaches and cream around here, believe me. But we slowly got ourselves out of it."

In the last six months, Arena and his team have gone from the brink of elimination to Saturday's MLS Cup final against Houston, in which the Galaxy can become only the second team in 15 seasons to win consecutive titles.

And if you ask his players, that's a journey none of them would have made without Arena.

For Donovan, the comeback began with a series of frank early-summer meetings Arena had with some of the team's key players.

"One of Bruce's biggest strengths is communicating and certainly motivating, just letting people know what's expected of them," says Donovan, the team captain.

What Arena expected was for his players to perform with more urgency, overcoming what some around the team called a "hangover" from its championship the year before. And if anyone didn't want to sign on to that, then Arena could find someone who would.

"He doesn't beat around the bush," Donovan says." [And] once we started winning it became a habit again."

Winning has long been a habit for the 61-year-old Arena, the U.S. national team's most successful coach and one of the best coaches is MLS history even before he was hired to rescue the Galaxy midway through the 2008 season.

The team hadn't had a winning record in three seasons despite a roster that included Donovan and David Beckham. Or maybe they hadn't won because of that roster, since the two superstars were barely on speaking terms — and few of the Galaxy's other players seemed cut out for the supporting roles Beckham and Donovan required.

So Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, the Galaxy's parent company, sacked general manager Alexi Lalas and forced out coach Ruud Gullit, replacing both with Arena.

"We knew where we had to go," Leiweke says now. "He's a guy the players respect, the players listen to and understand. Bruce has done a very good job of not wearing it out. He still is very creditable."

Of the team Arena inherited, only Donovan, Beckham and defender Sean Franklin remain. In his first seven months as general manager, Arena added defenders Todd Dunivant, A.J. DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez, midfielder Mike Magee and goalkeepers Josh Saunders and Donovan Ricketts, all of whom wound up playing key roles in getting Arena, the coach, to three of the last four MLS Cup finals.

"He was given, really, carte blanche to do what he wanted. And in this league that doesn't happen very often," Donovan says. "He's very good at the Xs and O's, the soccer side of it. But he's [also] very good at the management and dealing with the salary cap and finding good players.

"Bruce has a real eye for that and he had a way of getting those things done. Really, when you think about it, it's been borderline miraculous."

But Arena, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame two years ago, may have performed his greatest miracle this summer, when the Galaxy stormed out of the international break by going 12-3-2 in their next 17 games, clinching a postseason berth with five weeks left in the season.

Then once there the Galaxy rallied again, overcoming deficits in each of its first two playoff series to advance.

"He's a leader," says Dave Sarachan, the Galaxy's associate head coach and an Arena confidant for nearly three decades. "A little compulsive. A decent balance of when to step on guys and when to back off. He knows how to manage.

"When you add up all these components, you get Bruce."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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