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Op-Ed \ John Haydon

Arena’s move means major changes at D.C. United and U.S. Soccer.

By John Haydon
Special to SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Saturday, October 31, 1998) -- As Bruce Arena bids farewell to his Major League Soccer career and takes on the United States national team job, American soccer had better get used to some big changes. Arena doesn't do things half-heartedly; after all, this is a man with a vision.

Now that he has his foot in the door of the highest echelon of American soccer you can expect Arena to start rearranging the furniture. Arena is his own man, unlike his predecessor Steve Sampson, who got the job because of his longtime connections with former U.S. Soccer boss Alan Rothenberg.

When Arena wants something he usually gets it. His single-mindedness is the backbone of his success. Arena has said in the past that the national team coach "must have an influence on all soccer development in the country."

So the former United man is likely to broaden his job-description beyond just coaching the senior team. He also knows the importance of MLS, after coaching in the league, something Sampson never did.

It's hard to imagine Arena making the same mistakes Sampson made at the end of his tenure. Sampson, who resigned after the Americans went winless at the World Cup, was accused of over-coaching, and losing touch with his players. He also had a habit of airing his complaints about certain team members too the media.

Arena is said to be a "players coach" who listens to his team. You'll never see Arena wearing a suit on the sidelines.

Unlike the cerebral, Stanford-educated Sampson, who could philosophize endlessly on the merits of a 3-6 1 formation, the Brooklyn-born Arena knows that soccer is not rocket-science. "You always know where you are with Bruce," said one source. "He has a bad temper, and sometimes the players bitch about him, but every player knows where they stand. He treats them professionally and not like kids."

Perhaps his greatest gift is the ability to spot talent and mold a team together. At the University of Virginia and at United, Arena's teams were always enjoyable to watch, playing a free-flowing, but disciplined possession game.

Those on the U.S. team, who have never played under Arena, will welcome his professional attitude towards training. His practice sessions at United Park were always punctual and brief, usually from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. His chalk board sessions rarely lasted more than 20 minutes, and most days the players were on their way home by 12:30 p.m.

Arena has made enemies in his career. There are those who say he is arrogant and aloof, and United was despised by some in MLS because of its success. Sometimes the team brought on the criticism. "We carry a certain swagger," said one United official.

Arena can appear brusque at times, especially with media. He does not suffer fools lightly, and pity the reporter who asks a stupid question.

Arena and United general manager Kevin Payne formed quite a partnership out at United Park. Except for a few bad moves at the start of the 1996 season, and the Raul Diaz Arce trade, which upset a number of loyal fans, Arena and Payne failed to put a foot wrong.

Insiders say the atmosphere will change dramatically at D.C. United, because Arena's personality dominated the team so much. Whether United can carry on its winning tradition remains to be seen, but for three years the Washington area fans were spoiled by some fine soccer.

Thanks, and good luck Bruce.

P.S. -- Arena still has one last date with destiny at the helm of United, when he leads the team against Brazil's Vasco da Gama, in the two-game Interamerica Cup, starting at RFK Stadium on Nov. 14.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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