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Arena lauds MLS for its role in the national teamís recent upswing.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Wednesday, September 22, 1999) -- Major League Soccer gets hammered in many quarters for not being a top-flight league, but don't denigrate the fourth-year league in the presence of United States national team coach Bruce Arena.

"I think MLS has been absolutely fantastic for our players," he said today in a teleconference call 11 months into his reign as national team coach. "It is developing players for us. MLS is paying off dividends."

Arena was the pre-eminent coach in MLS for three years, leading D.C. United to two titles and championships in North American and South American club play. He then took over the national team following its last-place finish in the 1998 World Cup in France -- and has led the Americans to a 7-3-3 record, including five triumphs against France 98 participants.

"It's been a good year," he said, assessing the progress of the United States. "They work hard, they want to win . . . I was shocked at the press (in France last year). They looked like a group of selfish players out for themselves. I haven't seen that."

Arena observed that "being successful in 1999 doesn't translate" to similar outcomes in the key 2002 World Cup qualifying years of 2000 and 2001, but he said "the momentum" has been changed. He brought "fresh blood" into training camps and stressed there was open competition for slots on the team. In all 45 players have participated in games, 15 making their international debuts.

"We've established great depth," he said, pointing to MLS as the main reason, though he said there needs to be further development at the forward positions. "We need to be a better attacking team, create more chances. Defensively, we've done outstanding as a team. We're headed in the right direction. The results have been positive."

Arena is hopeful for one or two matches late in the year, then plans to take about 30 players to training camp in San Diego in January in preparation for CONCACAFís 12-team Gold Cup. "We're hopeful of having everybody there," he said, particularly mentioning midfielder Claudio Reyna (Scotland) and goalkeeper Kasey Keller (Spain).

He would like "two or three games" during the time leading up to Gold Cup, and perhaps "one or two" matches in March prior to the start of the Major League Soccer season.

The U.S. Cup is set for June, where it once was a fixture before MLS started. A couple more internationals are anticipated prior to the start of CONCACAF qualifying in the fall.

Other highlights:

  • On the subject of U.S. players going overseas, he said it depended on the individual. "You might make money (there), but it doesn't guarantee you'll be a better player." Part-time starters Frankie Hejduk and Tony Sanneh have improved while in Germany, but he expressed concern about Jovan Kirovski not playing, also in Germany.
  • Asked about a report that Chicago Fire coach Bob Bradley would replace Clive Charles as Olympic coach, he responded, "Clive has not indicated to me he's leaving . . . that report is erroneous."
  • He said German\Americans David Wagner and Michael Mason, who saw playing time for the United States during 1997 qualifying, do not figure in plans for 2002.
  • Mexico, which has beaten the United States twice in the past year, "is a team we can beat . . . We've had our chances . . . We haven't had our full team."
  • He said that elite players are hurt by staying in the college game, due to lack of year-round commitment, but that "most players are better off staying in college."
  • Brian McBride hasn't been hurt by Columbus playing him in a withdrawn striker role most of the season, rather than as a target player in the box, according to Arena. "He's become a better passer. He's had to face players and run at them, which will help him. . . and in the last couple games, he's been moved in closer to his more natural position (with high-scoring Stern John)."

Arena said he had 54 players listed in the U.S. pool and that he has rated them, by position. He declined to reveal details.

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

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