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Arena grades himself a "B" thus far; hoping to improve to an "A."

By Gary Davidson
SoccerTimes

Arena HERNDON, Va. (Saturday, June 12, 1999) -- When the United States meets Argentina tomorrow afternoon at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., it marks a homecoming for national team coach Bruce Arena.

Except he never really left.

Since ending an incredibly successful three-year run at D.C. United to take over the U.S. team, Arena still maintains an office here at United Park and he lives in nearby Oakton, Va. He is a frequent visitor to D.C. United matches and functions.

The U.S. men trained at United Park this week in preparation for Argentina. After one morningís U.S. training session, Arena had the following discussion with SoccerTimes:

SoccerTimes: You said you were going to keep a close eye on MLS in the selection of the national team. Who, this year, has really impressed you?

Bruce Arena: "Well certainly Roy Lassiter has demonstrated he is a guy weíve got to look at. (Chris) Armas and (Eddie) Lewis are good players in the league. (Richie) Williams, (Robin) Fraser, (Jeff) Agoos and (C.J.) Brown, Ted Chronopoulos. And a couple others you could argue we maybe left out (for the Argentina match). Jason Kreis. Whatís really impressed me is that some of the older veteran players are really beginning to play well in MLS. Like a (Marcelo) Balboa in Colorado and a (Johns) Harkes has played well. Iím pleased to see that. So it gives us more options."

SoccerTimes: Whatís you feeling about MLS in its fourth year as in its quality of play?

Bruce Arena: "Iím not certain that the teams have necessarily gotten better. D.C. United continues to be the team that stands out, but I do think overall itís greatly aided the development of the American player."

SoccerTimes: Scoringís been down (in MLS) this year. Do you think thatís significant in that offense isnít good or defense has gotten better?

Bruce Arena: "Or maybe itís become more of a professional league where itís not Mickey Mouse and casual and sloppy and games mean something. I think as you continue to fire coaches -- once in awhile fire players the games become more meaningful. Thatís been the approach this year from the start. Try to keep it tight and get off to a good start. Teamís priorities have been on how they defend."

SoccerTimes: How about the U.S. players overseas? Who have you been really impressed with?

Bruce Arena: "Certainly our goalkeepers (Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel). I think theyíre outstanding. Theyíve demonstrated that over and over. Iím sure (Claudio) Reyna has done well. Frankie Hejduk has done real well. (Tony) Sannehís move to Germany looks like itís been a good one. This is the first time Iíve seen Ernie in person (since taking over as coach) and Ernie Stewartís a good player. Overall, I think itís been good. I think, given fair warning ahead of time, we saw the long way to go as a national team. And this just continues as another step in the process of becoming a good team. And (the Argentina match) is my first opportunity seeing some of the older players, so itís good. It helps us make plans not only for the Confederations Cup but for next year as well."

SoccerTimes: If you have a young player, would he be better developing as a player -- and potentially a national team player -- by going overseas. Or, at this point, would you rather they stay back in MLS?

Bruce Arena: "I think only time will tell. I mean Landon Donovan (the under-17 star who signed a multi-year pro contract in Germany) is a perfect example of that. And weíll see what his experience overseas does for his development."

SoccerTimes: What about the (U.S.) under-20s and how they did in the world championships (where they advanced to the round of 16 in Nigeria)?

Bruce Arena: "I was over there. Thatís why (striker Chris) Albright is here. And I would have brought (defender Steve) Cherundolo over if he could have been released from his German club. There in a little bit of a battle for promotion, so he had to say. But those two players demonstrated they have great promise with the national team."

SoccerTimes: What about the way they finished?

Bruce Arena: "I think it was good. I think they had a pretty solid team, not a great team. They didnít have a lot of great individual talent, so they really relied on being a pretty solid team. And they did that. Their showing was pretty good."

SoccerTimes: What about the under-17s (who play in the world championships in New Zealand in November)? Obviously thereís Landon -- and you might want to elaborate on his future -- but what other players from that pool really excite you?

Bruce Arena: "I donít know that team that well, to be honest with you. I know (striker DaMarcus) Beasley and I know (midfielder Kyle) Beckerman are good players. That, actually is a very talented team. It will be interesting to see what happens with those players when we get some of those players fast-tracked into professional soccer. I know (MLS) is trying to through the Project-40 (development) program to sign some of those players. Thatís a talented team."

SoccerTimes: Would you say itís fair to say that the (under-17s, who are in a full-time residence training camp) have had more resources thrown into them than any other team?

Bruce Arena: "Our youth teams in general have more resources and more training opportunities than any other national teams in the world. Thatís why we do so well in youth championships . . . The under-20s all took off their spring semester from school. So they were together. A lot of the other under-20 teams around the world just basically got together a couple of weeks before Nigeria. So we have those advantages. Thatís one plus. I donít think overall itís the greatest way of doing things, but thatís why weíve been successful at the youth level."

SoccerTimes: Whatís your recommendation if an under-20 (player) comes up to you and says, "I want to be a national team player." Would you tell him to pursue professional opportunities or opportunities overseas?

Bruce Arena: "Every case is different. Itís not a blanket statement for everybody. You have to look at each individual, where theyíre at as an individual and what opportunities they have. If they have professional opportunities to play fourth division soccer in Greece, you donít tell him to go. Every case needs to be viewed on its own merits."

SoccerTimes: So is it the same for the under-17s, to use your term, the "fast track" to get them into professional soccer?

Bruce Arena: I think if we make the Project-40 team the under-20 team, which it should be, and all those players get to train with MLS clubs and play Project-40 games (in the A-League) during the year, thatís a great introduction to professional soccer."

SoccerTimes: What about the national team? How do things look to you?

Bruce Arena: "I donít know. I donít have enough experience to tell you if weíre moving properly for (World Cup) qualification. I take it one game at a time. Iíve seen progress. I think this game on Sunday will an indicator for us as will the Confederations Cup. My goal is by the end of 1999 is to believe weíre in better shape as a national team program than it was in June of 1998. If weíre making progress as we enter 2000, we will have the confidence and the momentum to be in position to get off to a good start in qualification."

SoccerTimes: Do you think CONCACAF has gotten more difficult for the U.S. to qualify?

Bruce Arena: "I would think so. Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico. Then thereís Trinidad. I thought Guatemala was pretty good against us in the U.S. Cup. Iím sure El Salvador is going to continue to be a very difficult opponent to play on the road. Itís going to be difficult."

SoccerTimes: How much importance are you placing on the Confederations Cup?

Bruce Arena: "I think itís important just that we play well. I donít necessarily think we need to win the Confederations Cup, but I think we need to take advantage of playing against a Brazil, a Germany, taking on the challenge of having to beat a New Zealand with that real pressure. I think thatís good and again itís another opportunity to measure how our players stand with other players around the world and how our team stands."

SoccerTimes: When you were coaching D.C. United, it was a hands-on thing, your players were always around. You were in constant contact with them on a daily basis. The national team is different. Have you adjusted to that?

Bruce Arena: "Itís a different job, yes. Itís definitely a different job. Iím adjusting to it. I think being the national team coach around the world had become a very difficult job in that the club competitionís almost year-round now and thereís constant battles about getting players released and whatís good for the player. And I agree it a problem. I believe weíre going to have to have an international calendar."

SoccerTimes: How are your skills as an administrator?

Bruce Arena: "As an administrator. So-so. Not bad . . . Itís not that hard. We know where (the players) are. Itís whether we can get them released. There are always those problems."

SoccerTimes: Up to now, so far so good?

Bruce Arena: Yeah, I think we get about a B for our progress since the World Cup. We want to get an A one day, A-. They say an A is between a 90 and a 100. I guess winning a World Cup is an A+. An A for us is getting into the second round of the World Cup.

Gary Davidson is managing editor of SoccerTimes and can be e-mailed at info@soccertimes.com.

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