Tough to compete in this Arena

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CLEVELAND (AP) – Bruce Arena is gruff, intimidating and sarcastic. He is smart, deliberative and incisive. And, above all, he is American.

When the cameras and microphones are on, he paints the United States as the Rodney Dangerfield of soccer, saying the sport’s longtime world powers treat his team as a weak outsider, not the fifth-ranked unit on the globe. He has belittled the level of Major League Soccer, angering the team’s financial backers and leading to a forced apology for the tone of his comments.

In the recesses of the locker room, he inspires his players with profanity-filled praise, telling them they’re as good as anyone, and he repeatedly reminds them where they’re from, using patriotism to motivate them to greater heights in the name of the red, white and blue.

“We belong to the greatest country in the world, men,” he told players before their 2002 World Cup opener against Portugal. “Have a lot of pride.”

By advancing to the quarterfinals of the 2002 tournament before a 1-0 loss to Germany, American soccer finally started to get some respect.

Arena praises the players. Many of them credit their coach, a 54-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native with a sharp mind and tongue, and a concentration so focused on each immediate task that he never bothered changing U.S. dollars into Korean won during his team’s 30-day stay in South Korea four years ago.

With the World Cup two weeks away, he’s the longest-serving head coach in the 32-nation field, hired in October 1998 after America’s last-place finish at that year’s tournament in France. He hasn’t ruled out staying for another four years, and no matter what appears likely to be remembered as one of the most pivotal figures in the history of American soccer.

Before Bob Contiguglia replaced Alan Rothenberg as U.S. Soccer Federation president that summer, it appeared a non-American would succeed Steve Sampson. Rothenberg seemed to be enamored of the peripatetic soccer swamis who bounce from country to country collecting seven-figure checks at each stop.

When Contiguglia attended his first USSF annual meeting in 1980, he introduced a resolution stipulating the national team coach be American.

“If we’re going to compete and show what we can do as a country, we needed to show that an American can do the job,” he said. “I was shot down.” In 1998, when the Colorado kidney doctor had become the boss, he got to make the pick. After a five-hour interview in Denver, he chose Arena over Carlos Alberto Parreira, currently coach of defending champion Brazil, and Carlos Queiroz, now Manchester United’s assistant manager. In Contiguglia’s mind, foreign coaches “have to be treated like royalty, they wanted limousines.” Arena has professionalized the national team to a level undreamed of in the 1980s, when it was playing in rickety stadiums that wouldn’t have been suitable as training grounds for world powers. Now the Americans travel by chartered plane. Assistants scout opponents, and Arena views tons of video.

“We’re clearly not at a disadvantage compared to any team in the world,” said Sunil Gulati, who succeeded Contiguglia as USSF president in March.

Arena has a self-confidence that he doesn’t hide, the result of five NCAA championships at the University of Virginia and two Major League Soccer titles at D.C. United. Some players have called him a genius.

“The last thing I’ve been ever accused of is being a genius,” he responded when asked about that label. “I think I’m a good coach because I know how to put a team together. In terms of a genius, tell me why apples fall out of a tree. I have no idea. A genius could tell you that.”

An All-American lacrosse player at Cornell, he also was on the Big Red soccer team. He made one appearance for the U.S. team, as a substitute at Israel in November 1973. His talent was more as a teacher and a motivator, skills honed during 18 seasons as Virginia’s head coach.

“I actually learned a lot from playing under him,” U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu said. “He’ll pull you to the side and talk to you, what he thinks you did right or what he thinks you did wrong. It’s up to you to take away from that what you want. My experience is that overseas a lot of coaches will not say anything to you and expect you to figure it out yourself, and I don’t necessarily think that’s the right approach to do it.”

Some players initially didn’t know what to make of him. Before U.S. players took the field for the 2002 quarterfinal, he told them: “Germany is no better than us. The only reason Germany looks down upon us is because they’re all 6-2, 6-3.”

“Yeah, it takes time,” said U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who played for Arena in college. “Some of the guys here don’t really understand him sometimes and don’t know whether he’s joking or not.”

On very rare occasions, Arena goes public with criticism of a player, and they appear to be efforts to get across messages that haven’t been fully heard. At the 2003 Confederations Cup in France, Arena took aim at U.S. star Landon Donovan.

“I think he’s a little tired, and maybe mentally he’s probably experienced a whole lot of success, and it’s gotten to him a little bit, so it’s hard for him to stay motivated all the time, and I think that impacts his performance on the field,” Arena said then. “Hopefully, he rekindles his enthusiasm to play more, which I think he will.”

At first, Donovan didn’t understand.

“At times it was like, why? I’m not that good,” he said. “He believes that I can be that good, and you have no choice but to believe it. Now it’s up to me to do it.”

While he has different methods of motivating different players, Arena thinks repetition of routine plays is a big part in success.

“He understands it’s the players that need to be in their comfort zone,” assistant coach Glenn Myernick said, detailing a daily schedule that emphasizes “keeping things the same, keeping things even keel, no surprises.”

AP-ES-05-27-06 1208EDT

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