The relief in the Los Angeles Galaxy locker room Saturday night after their 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls was palpable. The win itself had come about rather cheaply -- a linesman's call on a handball violation on New York led to a penalty kick that Landon Donovan put away. Yet the Galaxy weren't in any position to be particular about the details of their victory -- it was their first of the 2009 season.
As triumphant music blared over the speakers, players talked about how the match was a "must-win" and how frustrated they had been with the winless start.
While the Galaxy reacted to their win like hungry jackals thrown a bit of meat, coach Bruce Arena was more subdued, perhaps not wanting to get caught in a vigorous celebration over a result that lifted the team to an even 1-1-4 record. Or perhaps he didn't want to get that excited about helping to keep New York, his former team, at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with only five points on the year.
"I built that team," Arena said a couple of days before the match about his 16 months in charge of New York. "I brought Juan Pablo Ángel to the U.S."
Red Bull management, however, didn't seem to be happy with Arena's work, which yielded a 16-16-10 record. Though Arena had two years remaining on his contract, the two sides "agreed mutually" (at least, that's how former managing director Marc de Grandpre put it) to part ways after the team was eliminated from the '07 playoffs.
The signs pointed to Arena being pushed out, especially as the club quickly hired Juan Carlos Osorio. Apparently, New York management wanted better than the team's break-even record under Arena. Osorio, of course, helped lead the club to the '08 MLS Cup.
Arena subsequently took over for the departed Ruud Gullit at the Galaxy last August, compiling a 2-5-3 record in L.A. Despite his mediocre results in New York, Arena was granted remarkable power and control in the Galaxy position with dual titles of coach and general manager.
Tim Leiweke, who calls the shots for Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Galaxy's owners, must have a long memory. After all, it was back in '02 when Arena's coaching was last lauded as he helped guide the U.S. national team to a quarterfinal berth at the World Cup.
Maybe it's Arena who never moved on from that notable achievement, or maybe it's Leiweke who hasn't, because it can't be Arena's more recent World Cup that inspired such confidence. Even in '02, Arena showed certain weakness for nostalgia, which explains his tendency still to rely on players who are clearly past their prime.
In '02, it was defender Jeff Agoos, who single-handedly almost derailed the entire U.S. effort. In '06, Arena, who had allowed Claudio Reyna to take time off from the U.S. team during the qualifying matches for the tournament, set up the whole squad around Reyna's orchestration in midfield. He then watched the team flounder badly, seemingly bereft of creative ideas and chemistry. In desperation, Arena turned not to some young, untested talent to save the day, but to John O'Brien. Perhaps the most technically precise player for Arena in '02, O'Brien showed four years later that he shouldn't even have made the roster, as injuries clearly had debilitated his skills.
After returning to his native New York to coach the Red Bulls in '06, Arena made the colossal blunder of making the oft-injured Reyna his first designated player. The midfielder managed only 27 games over two years and never scored a single goal. His $1 million salary strapped the club from making moves for other potentially more effective players. Though he outlasted Arena's tenure at New York, Reyna played only six games in '08 before retiring from professional soccer.
Given Arena's preference for days of yore, it's perhaps not surprising that the Galaxy's roster now features a number of World Cup alumni from Korea/Japan '02: Eddie Lewis, Tony Sanneh, Gregg Berhalter and, of course, Donovan.
It's a testament to either Arena's accomplishments in '02, or perhaps his promotion of those feats, along with his titles in the early years of the league, that his reputation as a coach still exceeds that of MLS coaches who regularly have beaten his teams and led their clubs deep into the playoffs.
Nothing Arena has done recently in the league would seem to justify either his salary (rumored to be the highest in MLS) or his unprecedented control over his club. For the Galaxy, however, the club may be so desperate to return to the postseason that it has hung great hope on Arena's blustery confidence in his ability to help the team turn things around.
"We've only lost one, so it's not like we are in a major crisis," Arena said after the win over New York, spinning the Galaxy's low position in the table as positively as possible. "We are starting to get better; we've seen progress over the last month."
It's a bleak world for the Galaxy when having as many wins as losses and a number of draws is considered major advancement. But that's how far the team has fallen. Whether Arena is the right man to lead them further will be revealed by the rest of the season. At some point, the memories of '02 will fade in the harsh light of the present and Arena will be judged on what he can bring to the here and now.