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So far, so good: Rating the first phase of the Bruce Arena era.

By Robert Wagman

SAN DIEGO (Monday, March 15, 1999) -- When United States national team coach Bruce Arena took over in November he counseled patience. "This is a two year effort leading up to World Cup qualifying," he said. "We are going to be looking at a lot players, especially the younger players to try to determine who can and who canít play."

After the loss to Mexico, he was still sending the same message. "Sure we wanted to beat Mexico, but there are a lot of players who were not here today and our younger guys are still learning. We are looking ahead a year from now when we will have everything in place."

Even with the loss in San Diego, the initial four months of Arenaís tenure has to be considered a success. He has brought in the next generation of national team player and has begun integrating them into the program. Over these five matches since November we have discovered a number of young players like Eddie Lewis and C.J. Brown, and rediscovered players like Tony Meola and Jovan Kirovski.

But probably Arena biggest accomplishment has been to reunify all the players and to reestablish credibility in the national program.

To a man, every player in the national team pool who has been brought into any of the training camps since Arena took over canít say enough good things about him. They use words like "fair" and "straightforward" to describe him. Brian McBride typifies the comments when he says, "Before every match he tells us we have to be confident, aggressive and smart. He coaches soccer thatís exciting to watch and fun to play . . . With Bruce, you know what he wants of you, you always know where you stand, and then he lets you play. He is a terrific coach."

The fact that this initial four months has to be viewed as a success, does not mean there have not been some minuses to go along with the pluses, and that there are not still a number of question marks. Here is my personal view of the pluses, the minuses and the remaining questions.


Claudio Reyna: After last summerís showing in France, and then his benching at Wolfsburg in Germany, there were a series of question marks behind Reynaís name. He has erased them all. He is now the man in the middle for the U.S., though he is clearly more comfortable not having all the play move through him. Now his renewed confidence has spilled over to the Bundesliga, where he is again starting and scoring for Wolfsburg.

Brian McBride: Has established himself on the front line and should now be a mainstay in the lineup from this point on. This is not to say the U.S.ís forward problem has been solved (see minuses).

Chris Armas, Carlos Llamosa, Eddie Lewis and Ben Olsen: In November there were questions about whether the four could raise their MLS-based games and be effective on the international level. The four have clearly erased that concern. Each needs to improve aspects of their games, but they represent the future of the national team.

Jeff Agoos: This veteran who sat on the sidelines during the World Cup has proven the most dependable defender over the past five matches. Arena has gone out of his way to praise Agoos after almost every match. There is still life in these 30-year old legs.

Jovan Kirovski: As with Reyna, Kirovskiís inconsistent play on the national team was a concern. But in these last five matches he has shown he belongs, even though he still tends to disappear for portions of matches.


Frankie Hejduk: Bruce Arena puts it bluntly. When asked if Hejdukís game may have regressed since he has gone to Germany Arena answers simply: "Yes, it probably has." Basically Hejduk is not match fit, and in trying to style his game to what he thinks they want of him in Germany seems to have lost some of his flair. He played much better against Mexico, but he is going to have to work very hard to gain a regular spot on the U.S. side.

Eddie Pope: All winter Pope has been bedeviled by a series of nagging injuries to his back and legs. He has tried to play through them, with only moderate success. Against Mexico, he played despite being ill before the match. But Arena indicates that he is not worried. "I know what Eddie can do," he says.

The forward line: The search for a target forward continues for the U.S. McBride has established himself on the front line, but as more a withdrawn forward, and he is clearly more dangerous with his head that with his foot. Roy Lassiter does not appear to be the answer, nor is Cobi Jones as effective on top as attacking out of midfield. So the search must continue for a forward with a good first touch, and an equally good finish.

Consistency: Early on, Bruce Arena said one of his concerns was whether some of his less experienced players could deliver the level of consistency that is needed in international play. That has proven to be a problem; witness less then outstanding effort of both Zach Thornton and C.J. Brown against Guatemala and then when Thornton was thrust into the Mexico match. Arena says he is not worried, that consistency should come with experience.

Question Marks:

European players: Arena still has not had a chance to look at a number of his European-based players such as Ernie Stewart, John OíBrien, Gregg Berhalter and, to an extent, both Tony Sanneh and David Regis -- although both were in camp for short periods. Arena will need to use the training period preceding this summerís Confederation Cup to get a better idea how these foreign based players will, or will not, fit in.

Veterans: Donít assume that veterans like John Harkes and Alexi Lalas are out of the picture. Arena has said repeatedly that he has used this first phase to look at as many of the younger players in the pool as he could. He says that as far as the veterans are concerned he will judge them on their play in MLS and that any or all might still have a future on the national side.

So Arena will spend the next few months on the road, visiting and watching his European based players as their seasons end, and then will closely monitor the progress of his MLS-based players. The then second phase of the Arena-era will start with the Iran match in June, and the Confederation Cup

Robert 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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