"It's a win, and it's good," Arena said after a 1-0 shutout of Chicago (RECAP) that led to the Galaxy's clinching a playoff berth Saturday.
That sort of practical understatement illustrates how the coach has helped the squad keep an even keel during a season in which the Galaxy have dealt with the part-time participation of David Beckham (due to an extended loan with AC Milan), a bafflingly bizarre run of consecutive draws and a six-goal shellacking by FC Dallas last month that set a franchise record for goals against L.A.
Arena didn't let his players get too low after that loss, and that helped them bounce back. On Friday, the Galaxy may have been reserved, but it was hard to completely mask their glee at qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
"It's a nice feeling," said Landon Donovan, one of the few holdovers from that year. "It's been a long time for me personally and for this team, so it feels good."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the locker room, Beckham was taking questions from reporters just like any other player. That's a far cry from his first two seasons in Major League Soccer, when he was shunted away from his teammates for a postmatch press conference every game. It's indicative of a much more egalitarian situation than when circumstances denied Beckham much of a chance to linger with teammates after a result. On Friday, he seemed relaxed, with his sons playing nearby and teammates passing by, calling out, "Great job tonight."
Though he wasn't on the score sheet, Beckham turned in an excellent effort against the Fire, the same club against whom, back in his inaugural season in MLS, he'd been largely ineffective in the Galaxy's last-gasp effort to make the '07 playoffs. Needing a win, Los Angeles had rushed Beckham back from injury and the English superstar had had little impact in a 1-0 loss to Chicago. That defeat eliminated the Galaxy from postseason contention and they failed to make it again the following season.
This year, L.A. flipped the script, winning by the same narrow margin and leaving the Fire as the team still looking for life.
"This team has players that are not afraid to pass the ball and to make plays on their own and maybe we haven't had that over the last couple of years," said Beckham, comparing this playoff-bound squad with the previous editions of the Galaxy during his MLS tenure. "We've got a stronger squad of players more than anything. Of course, having Bruce know the league and know the players and know the way he wants us to play, it's working out well so far."
In an odd way, Beckham's absence at the start of the season may have been a good thing for the club. In the past, Galaxy players may have been too quick to try to force things through him, leading to a limited attack. There's no doubt, however, that the Galaxy still rely on Beckham a lot. The team is most effective when both of its main stars, Donovan and Beckham, are playing well, as they did against the Fire.
"Those guys are key players for us, there is no question about it," Arena said. "When they are focused and concentrated and working, without a doubt, it makes our team better."
Their feud aside, Beckham and Donovan mostly have been a potent combination over the past three seasons. More recently, though, that partnership has been consistent in producing results. This season is the first in which the Galaxy's two biggest stars have combined their talents to actually win games.
But it takes more than two icons to win. For the Galaxy's successful rebuilding job, Arena also credits the mix of players he assembled since taking over the team in the middle of last season.
"Landon and David are going to get a lot of the recognition and credit," Arena said. "But behind the scenes, it's the kind of quality you get in the locker room off Tony Sanneh, Eddie Lewis, Chris Klein, Gregg Berhalter and AlanGordon. Stefani Miglioranzi, there's not a better person in the game. Those kinds of players really led our team and made us a better team. Without the effort they give us every day, we wouldn't be anywhere near where we are today."
Whether it's the veteran players or the peace forged between stars, the new cohesion in L.A. points to a larger picture: that the factions and the finger-pointing of the past are over. The Galaxy have ended years of frustration by coming together and succeeding as a team.