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Complete archive of Robert Wagman's It Seems to Me.

It Seems To Me . . .

Arena will miss the midfielder he left behind.

By Robert Wagman

(Tuesday, November 17, 1998) -- The words were spoken almost a year and a continent apart, but they were strikingly similar. Commenting on the United States’ 0-0 draw with Australia here in San Jose in his first outing as national team coach, Bruce Arena said "we need to find a midfielder who can hold the ball and who can create. We were missing that tonight."

Last February, at Miami’s Joe Robbie (oops ProPlayer) Stadium, after his national team had been drubbed by Belgium and Holland in successive outings, then-national team coach Steve Sampson, spoke of the same need, using almost the exact same words.

Basically what Sampson was searching for, and now what Arena badly needs, is a Marco Etcheverry in the middle. In this opener against Australia, there was very little quality play coming from the midfield.

A few times there were individual runs by Joe-Max Moore or San Jose's Eddie Lewis. But completely absent in San Jose, as it had been in February in Miami, was any kind of controlling play by a midfielder; the kind of play Etcheverry gave Arena for (Washington) D.C. United, the kind of play that is key to the ball control style that has been so successful for Arena in Major League Soccer.

Interestingly, out of necessity, Arena seems to be arriving at the same potential solution as did Sampson -- Claudio Reyna. Arena is determined, however, that the result will not be the same

After Miami, Sampson came up with the idea of using five midfielders with Reyna linking the defense to one forward and two attacking wingers. He also came to the conclusion that John Harkes could never play along side Reyna as the link, so Sampson jettisoned his captain in a move that, I believe, came back to haunt him.

A central problem for the U.S. in France was that Reyna proved not to be an Etcheverry-style midfielder. He constantly lost the ball under pressure from the quality midfielders marking him. The result was a U.S. attack that sputtered and never got off the ground.

Arena realizes the importance of a midfielder who can control play. He can also look around to see that there are really no Americans except Reyna, who can fill that role. Certainly there are none playing in MLS, with the possible exception of Brian Maisonneuve, who also did not have a good France, but on whom the jury is still out.

Reyna has followed up his mediocre World Cup performance with an even worse start at Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. In fact, he has been stripped of the team captaincy, and has been benched. Since then his team has won three straight. Reyna’s days in Germany may well be numbered.

So Arena’s first major task is the restoration of Claudia Reyna. "It's important we get Claudio into camp with us and we start working," Arena said. "He is the key, he has the skill, and he can do this job." Arena coached Reyna for three years at Virginia, and if anyone can restore his confidence it is likely Arena.

As for the Australian match itself, not much really can be said. As Arena himself said "this is an international friendly. It is not life and death."

The two sides were fairly evenly matched, and on a field in as pitiful condition as football weary Spartan Stadium is, the result was probably to have been expected. The best player on the field was Australian striker Mark Viduka, about to become a $10 million transfer to Celtic.

Chicago Fire goalkeeper Zach Thorton deserved the player of the match honors. The defense, which was United’s defense of Pope, Llamosa, and Agoos was solid, with Agoos probably the next best U.S. player. United striker Roy Lassiter showed more pace than any U.S. attacker in France, and made it clear that he should have been on the World Cup squad.

This match, and the week long training camp that preceded it, was a time for Arena to send some subtle, and not so subtle, messages. The least subtle was sent to striker Eric Wynalda, who watched the match from the press box having not been invited to training camp even though the match was being played on his Clash’s home field. "Few players in America have Eric’s skills," Arena said. "Eric must get to the point where he becomes a good player in MLS. How you perform domestically gives one good reason to show why you should be on the national side."

Another message Arena sent with his player selection and then who he dressed and who actually started is that players will have to play their way onto the national side. In some cases it was clear that certain players were not invited to camp because Arena knew them well and wanted a look at the youngsters. But the absence of others seems aimed at motivating them to greater effort than they might have showed in MLS this season.

January is going to prove the first real test for many of the players hoping to make the national side under Arena. A larger camp will be held and will include most of the European players as well as the older players who were absent in San Jose.

Now that the Confederations Cup has been moved to the summer, Arena says that the U.S. will hold a training camp and will play at least two, and possibly three, international matches.

MLS commissioner Doug Logan can’t be very happy. He has stressed that next season all MLS clubs would have all their players for the first time. Now, however, MLS will lose not only its U.S. national team players but also those from Bolivia and Mexico during the two-week competition July 28 - August 8.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.

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