With the U.S. Men’s National Team revving up for the next stretch of the Road to Germany 2006, we sat down for a phoner with the de facto dean of American soccer. But instead of grilling him about the semi-final round of qualifying, we picked his brain with 15 questions about everything from the state of MLS, to the state of his golf game, to the state of the union.
Center Circle: We'll start off with some softies. You looked like you were having fun coaching the MLS World Stars against the MLS USA '94 squad before the All-Star Game a few weeks ago. What was it like coaching all of those legends, and in a sense, against the U.S. Men's National Team?
Bruce Arena: “Well, that was just a fun exercise, to welcome back players from the league. In all fairness, that game was not played in that much of a serious manner. It was just a friendly game, an enjoyable game that was really dedicated to those players and to thank them. It wasn’t something that I’d put at the top of my coaching memories in the sport, however, it was certainly an honor to have around guys that played for me such as Etcheverry or guys like Valderrama, Campos and other great players.”
CC: With MLS missing some of the legendary playmakers like Valderrama, Etcheverry, Cienfuegos and Preki that helped make the league what it is, do you think MLS is suffering at all from a lack of creativity and/or attacking standpoint in 2004?
BA: “Sure. The MLS now is a league for young players. It’s a league where there’s a lot of running, a lot of battling, and obviously when you don’t have players such as a Valderrama or an Etcheverry, games are going to get a little more hectic, and that’s probably like the league is right now. It’s a fast league, it’s a running league, it’s an aggressive league. In time, as Americans keep developing, I think the league will be altered, and I think the league will be bringing in other quality foreigners.”
CC: With the loss of more and more top Americans to teams in Europe, do you think there are enough good young American players to fill out another two teams and keep the level of play in MLS on the up and up?
BA: “I think there are definitely enough good young American players. I don’t think that will be an issue. I think the league is going to continue to move forward, because it’s beginning to turn the corner somewhat financially, and it will allow them to reinvest in players. We’ll see next year that the quality won’t drop off at all.”
CC: Who has impressed you in MLS play this season that you have yet to call into a MNT camp?
BA: “I think two of the young players that are in our camp now – Eddie Johnson and Eddie Gaven – have done very well. I think Chad Marshall of Columbus continues to grow as a player. I think Clint Dempsey has had an outstanding year and is probably the lead candidate for Rookie of the Year. He’s a guy that I think could have a future with us. I think a young player like Justin Mapp in Chicago continues to show that he’s a player that will continue to get better and perhaps challenge for a position on the National Team. I think every team in the league, as you look around, are developing good young players. Another player that has blossomed as of late is Mike Magee of the MetroStars. I just think there are a lot of good young American players and the future is bright for the league, and hopefully, the future is bright for the National Team.”
CC: How many years in MLS will it take before Freddy Adu is one of the top players in the league?
BA: “I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s important that he moves along at the right pace. I think the expectations were too great in the early going, and as the pressure has subsided, he’s had a chance to breathe a little bit and been able to get on the field and be a little bit better. But at this point in time, he’s clearly behind a lot of players in the league on a physical side. Technically, he’s a good player, but tactically, he’s got a ways to go. I’d like to believe that in a short period of time he’s going to develop into a pretty good player. The time frame, whether it’s a year, two years, three years, four years, in the end, Freddy’s going to surface into being one of the better players in the league.”
CC: Which two teams do you think will end up in the MLS Cup in November?
CC: I’m sure you saw in a recent Soccer America column where Paul Gardner stated that the current environment at U.S. Soccer is such that there is no fear you might lose your job if the team suffers a stretch of poor results. How off-base is that notion?
BA: “I didn’t read it that closely; I skimmed through it. I think he’s trying to say that there’s no pressure here. The pressure in this job is different than it would be in a higher-developed soccer country. It’s true. For whatever reason, our National Team hasn’t gotten its due respect by sports fans in the United States, and therefore, there’s a smaller media following and smaller fan following, and it tends to create an atmosphere that’s not as intense as it’s going to be in another countries in the world. When the National Team plays in a lot of countries, everything stops and all the focus is on the National Team. Obviously, that’s not the case in the United States. I think that’s what he meant.”
CC: What was the single best memory of your first four years as U.S. MNT coach? Maybe a specific game?
BA: “Certainly, the 2002 World Cup. I don’t think there was one game more important than the other. Just getting there, one, and then playing like a team that belonged there, and certainly capping it with a tremendous effort against Germany in the quarterfinals.”
CC: Who is the most talented player that has worn a National Team jersey in your tenure?
BA: “It’s not one particular player. Certainly our current captain Claudio Reyna would have to be up there. Our goalkeepers are talented, our young ones like Beasley and Donovan are very good. There’s so many good players. Eddie Pope has been a rock for U.S. Soccer for many years. In all due respect to the players, I don’t think you can single out one over another.”
CC: Which MNT player do you think is primed to have the best season overseas?
BA: “I think Beasley will do well at PSV. I think the league and the way it’s set up, obviously with PSV and Ajax clearly being the cream of the crop, that’s going to help DaMarcus and his transition there. I think Claudio is going to have a breakout season with Man-City if he stays healthy, and I think Bocanegra should have a very good second year at Fulham. Cherundolo is captain at Hannover, and that says a lot for him. All of our guys are now very experienced and proven professionals in Europe and there’s no reason to believe they can’t all have good years.”
CC: How many hours of soccer do you think you watch in an average week?
BA: “I would say….between 30 and 40 hours.”
CC: Who was or is your biggest influence as a coach?
BA: “It’s not any soccer coaches in the world, and not any particular coach, but clearly I’ve been influenced by coaches in all sports in our country: the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, college basketball and college football. I could name 10-15 coaches that are outstanding professional coaches in their sport, and those would be the people. Like a Bill Parcells, like a Mike Kryszewski, like a Larry Brown, like a Pat Riley, like a Joe Torre. Those types of coaches I’ve followed and tried to see how they run their team, and whether any of that stuff is relevant to what I do. A lot of the top professional coaches in this country have been role models for me.”
CC: Now switching to the personal side of things. What's the best and worst thing about the game of golf?
BA: “The best thing about the game of golf is hitting a good shot and getting a birdie. The worst is having a nightmare. I mean, talk about a range of emotions in sport. It’s like that in every sport, but golf is certainly, for amateurs like myself … it can be a wide range of emotions on each and every shot. But hitting a clean shot, striking the ball perfectly with a particular club, there’s not a better feeling. Certainly, a birdie is what every golfer lives for.”
CC: How many times in an average round of 18 holes do you get that clean fairway drive?
BA: “I’ve actually had days where I’ve hit the fairway, when you exclude the par 3’s and have 14 opportunities to hit the fairway, I’ve had days where I hit the fairway 10 or 12 times…and the second without any trouble, but I’ve had those moments. Not a lot. In fact, if I had a lot I wouldn’t be coaching soccer.”
CC: What's an ideal night out with Phyllis?
BA: “An ideal night out with my wife would probably just be having dinner somewhere. At our age, we like our ideal nights at home.”
CC: How long will Howard Stern be around on national airwaves?
BA: “I would think he’d be around for as long as he wants. I don’t think any of these issues with the FCC are going to hold. I think it’s a violation of freedom of speech. I think with his popularity and him being number one in most major markets, certainly his company is going to want him on the airwaves and I don’t think anything with the federal government is going to amount to anything. He’s going to be on the radio as long as he wants to be.”
CC: And you’re going to be listening for as long as he’s on?
BA: “Yeah, I think so. He’s on in my office every morning.”
CC: And finally, who do you think will be our next president?
BA: “I don’t know. I think it’s going to be an election that’s going to go right down to the wire. Whoever has the momentum in the last couple of weeks will win. Certainly the issue with the war and the economy are going to be factors in those last couple of weeks. It’s that simple, and it’s going to be that close.”