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Bruce Arena is top candidate.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, July 7, 1998) -- A foreign coach will solve everything? That seems to be the philosophy departing U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg is following in his rush to hire a successor to resigned national coach Steve Sampson. We think he's wrong.

I don't care whether the coach is foreign or not, U.S. Soccer should hire the best qualified coach - period. And that frankly is Bruce Arena.

He is not the most diplomatic person in the world, and is not liked by some within the U.S. Soccer bureaucracy. That's tough.

The national team is in tatters despite what the spinmeisters might say. U.S. Soccer, despite the Nike millions, is in a crisis as a result of the rout in France. But it cannot simply say going to an international coach will solve the problem. It didn't in Saudi Arabia, whose coach in France '98 was Carlos Alberto Parreira. It didn't in Nigeria, whose coach was Bora Milutinovic. It didn't in Portugal, which failed to even qualify in 1994, whose coach was Carlos Queiroz. Those are three names that pop up in reports circulating about the identity of the next U.S. coach.

Arena not only should be the No. 1 candidate for the national team, he should be the No. 1 candidate for the massive Project 2010 job, in which Nike's millions are expected to make the Americans a serious contender for the World Cup.

He was the top coach in U.S. collegiate soccer, establishing a dynasty at Virginia. He is the top coach in U.S. professional soccer, establishing a dynasty at D.C. United. He coached the undermanned U.S. Olympic team in 1996 to within a goal of making the second round, beating Tunisia, losing to eventual runner-up Argentina, and tying Portugal. I think that was a considerable achievement.

We also expect the D.C. United team to do well this summer in the CONCACAF Champions Cup and in the Copa Merconorte Tournament, both prestigious events.

He is demanding of his players, of himself, of his superiors. He is arrogant to some. He is aloof to some. He isn't cuddly but he can be sentimental. He doesn't suffer fools. He is organized. Look at how he handled D.C. United and the U.S. Olympic team simultaneously, though in hindsight that was too much for even him, and the MLS team suffered initially.

Do we need "international experience." Sure. The new coach should have plenty of time to acquire it, learning from mistakes, and grow. Parreira, Milutinovic, and Queiroz all are outstanding soccer men.

Parreira won the World Cup in 1994 with Brazil, and coached in three other World Cups. He also has been fired by club teams in recent years, and last we knew he was leaving in the middle of a two-year contract with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of Major League Soccer, where he failed last year to even make the playoffs.

Milutinovic also has been in four World Cups. He was not rehired by U.S. Soccer in 1995 because it wanted to expand the job beyond just coaching the national team. He took over Mexico a year later and qualified the team for the World Cup before being fired. Mexico went on, under successor Manuel Lapuente, who ditched several older players, to be the surprise team of the World Cup.

Queiroz, who won two youth world titles in Portugal, turned down the U.S. national team job in 1995, taking a new contract with Sporting Lisbon, which fired him a year later. He came to MLS, coaching the MetroStars the second half of the inaugural 1996 season. They lost in the playoffs to eventual champion D.C. United (and Arena). He then left for a position in Japan.

We don't need vagabond coaches to direct the national team unless there are no other alternatives.

Bruce Arena is more than a superb alternative; he is the best coach in the United States.

If we need to bring in an international coach to assist in the late stages of World Cup preparation, that's a possibility, and if one was needed, we would like to hope the existing coach's ego wouldn't get in the way.

But that's three-four years down the road. We need to rebuild the franchise now.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.