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Arena speaks out on MLS, D.C. United and American soccer in general.

By Gary Davidson
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, October 21, 1997) -- Wherever D.C. United coach Bruce Arena has gone, success has followed. After his Virginia teams dominated the college world with an unprecedented four straight NCAA titles (1991-94), his Major League Soccer club, after posting the league’s best record in 1997, stands ready to sweep a second consecutive MLS Cup before a sold-out throng at RFK stadium Sunday afternoon.

Arena took 30 minutes Friday to discuss the state of his team, MLS and other matters relating to soccer in the United States. Following is the text of that interview.

Soccer Times: Can you talk about your sense of satisfaction, you're in MLS Cup for the second straight year, what you work all season for?
Arena:
No question about (a sense of satisfaction). I'd like to say the second time is easier. I don't think it was any easier. In some ways it was more difficult, therefore there's great satisfaction and accomplishment.

ST: Given the difficulties that you had, is it your nature to solve problems and go forward? It seems the season was one problem after another.
Arena:
That's what coaching is: solving problems. There's always a problem. When things are going well on the field, there are problems off the field. When things are going well of the field, there are problems on the field.

ST: When these problems are happening, did you ever wonder if things weren't going to work out or did you always figure you'd be here (in MLS Cup '97)?
Arena:
I never figure on making it to the final. When you make those conclusions early, you don't get there and I think you always have to have your guard up and realize there are a lot of obstacles along the way. I basically safeguard against that as much as I can within the organization and the team.

ST: I know you've had some difficulties with MLS.
Arena:
(interrupting) I've had no difficulties with MLS. Actually, it's been a great relationship. It doesn't mean you can't voice an opinion.

ST: You're still pretty bullish on the league?
Arena:
Oh, yeah. A lot of the people in MLS; the only reason I'm in this league is because of Sunil Gulati and Alan Rothenberg. If it weren't for those two gentlemen, I don't think I'd be here. You'd add Kevin Payne to that. Their optimism and their strength of character is what impressed me into making this move.

ST: Obviously, this is a much more stressful job. How hard is it coaching at this level as opposed to the college level?
Arena:
The coaching isn't any different. I think the time you need to put in to the team and the number of months - D.C. United's become a 12-month-a-year job. It's very strenuous, coupled by the first year I was involved with the Olympic team. I can't imagine it's a job I'd recommend to a whole lot of people. Obviously, the benefits are you coach at the highest level. I'm compensated well. It's challenging. It's draining on you mentally and physically. It's something at this point in time is difficult because we're limited with the resources within the league. We're limited with the resources e have with this club. It's a real blue-collar job, really. We come to work with our lunch pail every day. It's a tough job but it's a good job. At my age - and I don't consider myself old, but I don't consider myself young either -- I think it takes it's toll.

ST: I was wondering if you could assess some of the things you like about the league.
Arena:
What I like about the league is we have a league. I think I like that a lot.

ST: If you were living in Washington and weren't coaching D.C. United, would you buy a ticket and see a game?
Arena:
I would. There's no question in my mind. Now we need to convince other people of that fact. In year three, we need to do a better job of the community support of our team.

ST: Is that a league-wide thing, obviously?
Arena:
It's obviously a league-wide thing, but even moreso in D.C. because we are clearly one of the teams in this league that have brought a great product on the field and we try to do things the right way. We have a great stadium, great field and a great tradition now, We need support. People wanted this league badly and now they've got to demonstrate that by getting in the seats.

ST: If there's one thing that bothers you about the league, what would that be?
Arena:
We're young, really, in a lot of ways, young and inexperienced, and the only way to correct that is by growing. We'll make mistakes. We've got to learn from those mistakes. And that is players. That's coaches, general managers. That's ownership, MLS headquarters. We have to learn from our mistakes.

ST: Do you have any indication that things will change for the better for next season?
Arena:
I know they will. I can't tell you exactly. I think things changed from year one and they'll change going into year three and I'm confident of that.

ST: Given that you would like more people attending games. . .?
Arena:
(interrupting) Having made that statement, I want you to know we've exceeded the expectations I had with this team and league already. We thought year one was 10,000 a game and year two was 12,000 a game. We got a little crazy in thinking that everything would grow in leaps and bounds every year. We learned that's not the case.

ST: You also learned, given the right marketing, you could have a good crowd for every game?
Arena:
You can't have a good crowd for every game. Given some of the things we did this year, it would be difficult to have a good crowd every game, given the number of games we scheduled at home in August and September. Having a national team game, having the MLS Cup final here. We made a major error in being too good too early, people just have expectations of our team and that's not just outside, but inside. They're (D.C. United) just going to be there in MLS Cup final, they're just going to win in the playoffs, they don't need any support in the last couple of regular season games, We've created a bit of a monster.

ST: Given the number of games you've had to play, do you have any suggestions on how to alleviate that problem?
Arena:
That's clearly been stated. Those suggestions have been made and they've all been printed. One solution is larger rosters. Another solution is fixed dates for (U.S.) Open Cup. A third solution is a better relationship with U.S. Soccer in scheduling World Cup qualifiers and that's only going to happen once every two to three years, And also, doing a better job of in our league scheduling our games. That can all be done and I don't think that's a major problem. We'll learn from the first two years.

ST: I know this is a topic you may want to avoid, but what do you think about the refereeing in this league from year one to year two and what has to be done in the future?
Arena:
I think it's a little bit better. Is it a lot better? No. But I think it's definitely better. I think the lines have been better this year, clearly better. I joke with my team all the time when I tell them who the referee is, I say he's middle of the road in the league and it seems everyone I see is middle of the road, but we clearly developed three or four pretty solid referees and that's a big plus from year one.

ST: Not looking just at people going to the games, but overall what do you think the MLS' perception has been in this country? Do you find a lot of people don't know about it?
Arena:
I find a lot of people do know about it. Now we have to convert that into people in the stands and into television ratings.

ST: When the league started, did you find yourself having to explain to a lot of people what you were doing where that's not the case any more?
Arena:
Year two has been better in terms of the visibility of the league. Obviously, year one wasn't easy, but I think really the World Cup created a great awareness of soccer in this country and although we didn't start until '96, people were aware of the league and aware of the sport. I think now it is accepted as a professional league in this country. Now the challenge is can we really boost our standing in terms of our position among professional sports.

ST: Do you ever worry that this league isn't a permanent fixture in the U.S?
Arena:
I'm not worried because I don't plan on doing this the rest of my life. I've had my good runs in soccer in terms of coaching and I don't expect to be doing this a real long time. I'm not worried about it for me personally. For the sport, yes. But it will be around. One thing this league has is tremendous ownership, people with great vision. I think what Lamar Hunt has done in Columbus is fantastic. I think the injection of new ownership in the league in Fort Lauderdale is tremendous. That gentleman is one of great vision. We also have great resources. In time, this league is really going to piece itself together.

ST: Any suggestions of what would make the refereeing better in year three than year two?
Arena:
I still would like to see some international referees. But I think it's a very similar situation to young American players. The one's who started in this league in year one are better in year two. They're going to be better in year three. That will be the case with referees as well.

ST: How would you describe the quality of play in this league?
Arena:
In comparison to what? We're not Serie A. We're not the premier league. We're not the Spanish League. We're not the Bundesliga. We could be competitive with a number of the Mexican teams. I think we can play in the Dutch League. We could play in a number of the South American leagues.

ST: Instead of comparing it to other leagues, what about the fan who has to pay for the ticket?
Arena:
If you told me $40, $50, $60 to go to an NFL game, an NBA game or a Major League Baseball game, I'd say (MLS has) a pretty damn ticket price.

ST: So you think the fans at RFK have been pretty well entertained?
Arena:
Our fans have. I can't speak for fans around the league. We've had 16-some-odd games at RFK and it's pretty good entertainment.

ST: You also played 16-some-odd games at other stadiums. What's your reaction?
Arena:
The playoff game in New England was a great game to watch. The last one in Columbus was very exciting. Other games during the year were pretty damn good. There were bad games, no different than any other sports. There are nights when you go to an NBA game and there's a bad game. There's bad football games. There's bad baseball games. It's impossible to ask athletes game inand game out to play their best. It's difficult. You have peaks and valleys in every sport.

ST: (U.S. national team coach) Steve Sampson when talking about MLS players coming up to the national team, criticized the speed of the (MLS) game; players from MLS are not used to the speed of the international game therefore their experience (in MLS) does not necessarily translate into success as far as his using these players. Do you agree with that?
Arena:
No, I don't. Are any players on our team capable of playing international soccer? Let's use any example: Eddie Pope. He came out of college, played for me on the Olympic team. All of his professional experience is with D.C. United. He's probably the best defender on the U.S.team. How can he play at those fantastic levels?

ST: You don't see the need to improve the speed of play in this league?
Arena:
It's a statement that needs some detail. If you're playing soccer in the month of June, how fast is the game going to be. The game the other night in Columbus was a fast game. The weather conditions dictate the pace as well. Field conditions, the size of the field dictate. I've seen some bad international games the U.S. has played in and I've seen some very good ones. The sped of play principle doesn't hold. It does nothing to develop national team players. The experience necessary to play at the international level is important.

ST: What about the creativity of play in the league?
Arena:
Again, it depends on the quality of the league. One thing that is interesting about the league is you see some unique styles from one team to another. If you're in the Bundesliga, I think you see a lot of teams that are very similar. In the Premier League, for years there was a pretty standard way of playing but that's changed with the influx of a lot of foreign players. In this league, there are clearly very creative players - Valderrama and Etcheverry - It will get better, but those are very special players. We don't have 10 players of that type in the league. Every team doesn't have a Etcheverry and Valderrama and that would be the case in leagues around the world. It terms of creativity, that's a by-product of a lot of things.

ST: Can MLS help American soccer by developing this area, by giving players an opportunity to hone that part of their game?
Arena:
They're given that opportunity but all in the framework of the team. Who would you say the most creative player in the NBA? Would Michael Jordan be a fair statement. Did anybody create Michael Jordan? Do you think the Chicago Bulls created Michael Jordan? Sometimes those players are born. There's always a period of development where players emerge. We'll see players in this league develop, special players that are American players. And we'll bring in some special players.

ST: What about defense in the league, that against the attacking mentality? Do you think defense is sometimes secondary because MLS believes the fans need goals?
Arena:
I've read that in the paper, but I don't think there's a coach or player in the league who believes that's how they're supposed to play. 1-0 soccer games can be fantastic games to watch and very entertaining. I don't think we set us as an objective for anyone saying we have to score goals in order to bring fans. I think if you play good soccer and have a good standard, the rest will take care of itself whether you score a lot of goals or not. That comes out of marketing, those theories. It doesn't hold when the whistle blows and you need to compete. We're all in it to try to win and be successful with our teams.

ST: What do you think of the term "attacking mentality?"
Arena:
I think most soccer teams around the world attack. It's not as if we've come up with a new notion on how to play soccer that's attacking soccer. Most games I watch around the world, teams are attacking and trying to score goals unless it's the end of the game and they're trying to protect a lead or they need a tie or whatever. Most soccer players go out to score goals.

ST: What about tactics in this league? Do you think there is one prevalent style or one prevalent tactic?
Arena:
No. And that's the beauty of the league. I wouldn't say there are 10 different styles, but there are enough different styles that it makes it pretty interesting to watch.

ST: How would you describe your team?
Arena:
I think it's a good passing team, a team that's become a better team defensively in the last half of the season. . . If you look at it from a statistical point of view, we score goals. We score goals in every game and we led the league in scoring. In (Jaime) Moreno and (Raul) Diaz Arce, we have goal scorers, we have a legitimate playmaker in (Marco) Etcheverry, damn good defenders, among them, obviously (Eddie) Pope. We're a good team going forward and we've developed a pretty good personality defending as well as of late and that's why we're back in the MLS Cup final.

ST: Do you have any short-term recommendations that would help this league?
Arena:
Nothing different than you've seen in the papers. The schedule is important. How we set up the rules of our expansion draft is important. We don't want to dilute our product. The next group of foreign players coming into our league have to make a difference. The salary cap needs to go up and I think we need to continue to invest on the players side to continue to develop a better product. That's what we're doing. The announcement of the television package with ABC and ESPN is another step.

ST: How about for the long-term?
Arena:
In the long-term, I think we want to have soccer stadiums. I think we're even a little ahead of schedule since we have a facility in Columbus (scheduled to be built), San Jose's going to renovate their facility, it is my understanding. Tampa Bay goes into a new stadium next year. Fort Lauderdale has a nice soccer stadium. The MetroStars are looking at another facility. One of our areas we did need to improve on was our stadiums and our fields.

ST: Is the television contract among the best news you've heard?
Arena:
I think so, to get on a major network and have a game of the week. I know our games have been picked up around the world on a limited basis and that's a real plus. After the World Cup, in 1999, a lot of players are going to want to come here.

ST: Two years into the league, is there any way you could have imagined the way things have worked out?
Arena:
First of all, I would have never imagined the team I was with would be in the MLS Cup final the first two years. Watching the league grow has been interesting, None of us really knew how it was going to take off or the direction it was going. And we're learning every day. That was the excitement of being a part of it.

Portions of this story previously ran on the Gannett News Service.