Taking on the World

The coach who led the U.S. to its surprise World Cup run four years ago is at it again, using psychology and ACC hoops insights to ready his team for a killer first-round Cup group
April 30, 2006

IF A DUMB ex-jocklike Sam (Mayday) Malone understands how hard it is to win the World Cup, you'dthink most Americans could follow suit. Four years ago, in a wager for charityon the website longbets.com, Cheers actor Ted Danson bet $1,000 against thefollowing proposition: "The U.S. men's soccer team will win the World Cupbefore the Red Sox win the World Series." Two years before the Idiots'moment of glory, Danson was insightful while sounding exactly like Sam Malone.While the Red Sox really had to beat only the Yankees, he wrote, "in theWorld Cup you have the whole world against you." ¶ Somewhere, presumably,Bruce Arena smiled. Finally, a mainstream American sports fan who gets it."We have the greatest challenge in sports," says Arena, the U.S.manager whose Yanks will compete in their fifth straight World Cup startingJune 12 in Germany. "We are trying to be the best in the most global ofsports. There's nothing else that comes close to it." ¶ Hang around the54-year-old Arena for, oh, five minutes, and you'll hear your share ofpronouncements. He believes the U.S., despite its inflated No. 4 world ranking,is a sleeping fútbol giant. He believes he could coach at the elite level inbaseball, basketball or football. And, not least, he believes his U.S. team'squarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup was a sporting accomplishment "closeto, if not equal to or better than" the Miracle on Ice at the 1980Olympics. Beating the Soviets "was a fantastic feat," Arena allows,"but how many teams in the world played hockey in 1980?" ¶ Let therecord show that Arena's Yanks finished eighth in 2002, ahead of 187 othernations (Argentina, France and Italy among them) that participated in the WorldCup and its qualifying rounds. It was the finest hour for a coach who has wonfive NCAA titles at Virginia, two MLS Cups with D.C. United and more than twiceas many games (69 and counting) as any coach in the history of the U.S. men'steam. "I call him the John Wooden of soccer," says George Masonbasketball coach Jim Larranaga, Arena's friend from their days at Virginia.Unprompted, veteran U.S. players Landon Donovan and Eddie Pope use the term"genius" to describe Arena.

"He's such agreat motivator," says Senate minority leader Harry Reid, whose son Key wonthree NCAA rings under Arena at Virginia. "He always got more out of thosekids than he should have."

Nor do Arena'sadmirers pigeonhole him as merely a soccer savant. "I believe that Brucestands among the elite group of coaches in his generation in any sport,"says D.C. United president Kevin Payne. "He should be thought of in thesame way as Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Parcells or Phil Jackson."

Eight years aftertaking over a U.S. team that had finished last at the '98 World Cup, Arena willbe the longest-serving national-team coach in the 32-team field in Germany, anachievement that he'll likely extend into a third term through 2010. How didthis happen? How has a loose-cannon former lacrosse coach shown the stayingpower of FDR in a job that usually has less stability than a third-worldcurrency? "A bit of luck, some hard work, a good group of guys to workfor," says Arena. "The other part is, everybody likes a winner, and Iam a winner. I know how to make a team."

When the U.S.begins play next month in one of the World Cup's scariest first-roundgroups--with the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana--it will be led by a man whosetoughness was forged by two sports-loving older brothers in a blue-collarItalian-American household. A man who owes his work ethic to his father, abutcher, and his mother, who was back driving a school bus soon afterundergoing a radical mastectomy. A man who lost his twin sister to the breastcancer that has ravaged his family. And a man who traces his coaching worldviewto the masterminds of ACC basketball and Ivy League lacrosse.

The first thing toknow about Arena as a coach is that his strength lies not so much in his skillas a tactician as in his ability to enter his players' psyches. "Bruce ispartly a psychologist," says U.S. Soccer's new president, Sunil Gulati."He understands the way players feel and how to motivate them, because he'sworked with them at every level."

Consider theU.S.'s stunning 3-2 opening-match upset of Portugal in the 2002 World Cup."Bruce had a cockiness that took the pressure off us," recalls U.S.defender Frankie Hejduk. "Before the game we weren't thinking, God, we'regoing to get punked by one of the best teams in Europe with the world player ofthe year [Luis Figo]. Bruce made us feel like we could win. So we were like,We're going to punk these guys, and before you knew it we were up 3-0."

The Yanks went onto lay a historic 2-0 second-round beat-down on archrival Mexico, and Arenawill always wonder what might have happened had the U.S. been awarded a penaltykick when Torsten Frings handled a ball on his goal line during Germany's 1-0quarterfinal win. "If we had gotten the call, there was a good chance wecould have won that game," Arena says. "Having said that, we had ourchances to score, and we didn't." But the Americans earned the world'srespect. "The U.S. was the better team in that game," says currentGerman coach Jürgen Klinsmann.

Arena's influencesare as varied as the games he grew up playing. Richie Moran, his lacrosse coachat Cornell, showed him how a unified team could win despite having inferiortalent. At Virginia, where Arena spent 18 years as the soccer coach (and sevenas a lacrosse assistant), he would eavesdrop on the pregame and halftimespeeches of Dean Smith, Coach K and Jim Valvano through the air ducts of hisoffice, which adjoined the visiting basketball team's locker room. "I couldhear how they managed their players and got through to them," Arena says."It was a fantastic education." Nor is it an accident that Arena'ssoccer teams play the sort of full-field pressure defense you see in basketballand lacrosse.

Arena's stylecombines Valvano's humor, Krzyzewski's Wall Street CEO approach and elements ofSmith's famous Tar Heels family. Over the years Arena has even let a handful ofD.C. United players live in his house in Fairfax, Va. "I have manychildren," says his wife, Phyllis, even though she technically has onlyone, their 25-year-old son, Kenny.

One of thoseformer live-ins, U.S. midfielder Ben Olsen, says that most of Arena's playerscan do impressions of his sarcastic Long Islandese speech. "With Bruce Ican make jokes about him, and he makes fun of me," says midfielder DaMarcusBeasley. Pope tells a story from his days at D.C. United when the coachesthought forward Jaime Moreno had sat out too many practices with a minorinjury. Arena sauntered into the players' lounge and dropped a gem: "I wantto announce that Jaime's retiring next week. He won't be playing anymore."Says Pope, "Everybody laughs, Bruce walks out, and Jaime's in training thenext day."

Yet for all hisquips and pronouncements, there are some topics that can turn Arena as silentas a stone. "Bruce keeps a lot of things inside," says his brotherMike. Foremost among them is the death, at 37, of his twin, Barbara. "Thathad a huge effect on Bruce, but I don't know what that is," says his oldestbrother, Paul. "It's something he doesn't talk about."

A bouquet of adozen miniature pink roses arrived in the hospital room of Barbara Staak onSept. 21, 1988. It was the twins' 37th birthday, and though Barbara was inconstant pain from the breast cancer that would claim her life, she picked upthe phone and called Phyllis Arena.

"Thank you somuch for the beautiful roses," Barbara told her, assuming Phyllis had sentthem, since she always handled the family's birthday presents.

"Barbara, I'msorry," came the mortified reply, "but I forgot to send youanything."

Silence. "Oh,my gosh," Barbara said. "The card said, 'Love, Bruce.' I don't know ifhe's ever done that before."

The Arena twinswere hardly inseparable growing up. Like a lot of siblings in bigItalian-American families in Franklin Square, N.Y., during the 1950s and '60s,the three sons and one daughter of Adeline and Vinnie Arena split theiractivities rigidly along gender lines. While Barbara learned to sew and cookand socialized with a gaggle of aunts and cousins, Bruce spent nearly all hisfree time with his older brothers playing baseball, football and lacrosse inthe schoolyard across from their house.

"Bruce was alittle, fat kid, like a bowling ball almost," says Mike, and even when helost his baby fat, the older boys were merciless. Paul recalls one regulargame, taken from fight scenes in James Cagney movies. The boys would all yell"Alley beating!" and Bruce would run until they caught him and pounced."That's one reason he became so fast and elusive as an athlete," saysPaul.

Mike followed Paulas the starting quarterback on the Carey High football team, but Bruce droppedfootball after his freshman season, not least because he was a 5'3",110-pound signal-caller. Bruce wrestled on the varsity for three years, andafter a growth spurt he began holding his own as a midfielder on the lacrosseteam. "He was a great face-off man," recalls Mike. "He'd hold theother player down and turn his big Arena ass into the guy and scoop the ballup."

Soccer was never asignificant part of the neighborhood's sports culture, and Bruce joined theCarey soccer team as a midfielder only in his senior year. "In the firstgame our goalkeeper got red-carded, and our coach asked if anyone could play ingoal," says Arena, who volunteered and never left his spot between thepipes. He went on to become an All-America in lacrosse (at Nassau CommunityCollege and Cornell) and soccer (at Nassau) and the most valuable defensiveplayer of the 1972 NCAA soccer finals. "I always told him soccer is astupid game, nobody plays it, and you're never going to go anywhere withit," says Paul. "And of course I still tell him that."

For 50 yearsVinnie Arena worked six days a week as a butcher, yet there was never anyquestion who the boss was at home. It would be a compliment to Adeline'syoungest son to say that he manages the U.S. national team with the sameenergy, sharp humor and multitasking efficiency that she managed the Arenahousehold. "She could do anything," says Bruce. The daughter ofsouthern Italian immigrants, she expounded on any topic, sewed veils forcousins' weddings and produced oil paintings from family photographs. Up at 5a.m. daily to do laundry, Adeline somehow found time to cook breakfast, drive aschool bus, ferry the boys to sporting events and make pizzas from scratchwhenever they brought friends home from school.

She did all thosethings despite undergoing two radical mastectomies (in 1960 and '63) andmassive doses of radiation therapy. "I was only eight when my mother hadher first surgery," Bruce says. "They removed not only the breast butall the muscle tissue around the area. They basically ripped my mother apart.But she always had that quiet toughness." He pauses, then gathers himself."My mother had five sisters. Four of them died of cancer, and a number oftheir daughters did too, including my sister."

During Barbara'sfinal years she and Bruce developed the close relationship that they'd neverhad as children. In the mid-1980s Barbara took a job as a post-office worker,became an officer in the union and married a colleague, Frank Staak. A year anda half after the wedding she was gone. "I was so proud of the things shewas doing and how happy she was in her marriage," Bruce says."Barbara's death was an awakening to me. It forced me to be more committedto what I did and to being the right kind of person."

Adeline died 14months later, her heart finally quitting after so many years of inflammationfrom her radiation treatments. After Vinnie's death from lung cancer in 2004,his sons went through his effects and found an old newspaper article on Bruce'scoaching success. In the margin Vinnie had scribbled, mommy would have beenproud.

"You canaccuse me of a lot of things," Arena says one day, "but I am morehonest than anyone I come across." It is an honesty that can amuse,instruct or outrage, an honesty that has won him friends and enemies. Arena isa devoted fan of Howard Stern, another middle-aged Long Island native whocracks wise with equal-opportunity zeal. Yet even Arena's friends point outthat unlike Stern, he isn't paid to say outrageous things, and his publicdiatribes have often left soccer officials shaking their heads.

"Bruce has theability to be not just a great coach but a legendary figure for Americansoccer," says MLS commissioner Don Garber, "and to do that he's goingto have to think about what he says and how he says it. I think that's thedifference between being good and being great."

Despite Arena'sremarkable success on the field, he came close to being fired only 19 monthsago. Once again, the culprit was his mouth. In a New York Times article onSept. 28, 2004, Arena called MLS "insane" for scheduling games duringWorld Cup qualifying, said most MLS regular-season games "mean nothing"and blasted MLS and U.S. Soccer officials for not having "any soccerskills, in terms of knowing the game."

It hardly matteredthat Arena's criticisms were largely correct. By the end of the day Garber hadfired off an angry letter to Bob Contiguglia, then president of U.S. Soccer,that shot back at the U.S. coach and demanded to discuss the course of actionContiguglia would take. Arena was summoned to an emergency meeting with hisbosses. "There was a lot of pressure from MLS owners to do something, butwe didn't," says Contiguglia, adding that Arena's dismissal "was close,but I stood in the way."

Arena read hisforced apology in a teleconference a few days later as if he were in a hostagevideo, expressing regret for the "spirit" of his comments but notretracting anything. "The tone was wrong," he concluded. "Thecontent was not."

As long as Arenaavoids another major faux pas or a 1998-style disaster, he'll probably stickaround through 2010. "Bruce has done an extraordinary job," saysGulati, an Arena ally who will make the final call. "We'll sit down afterthe Cup and figure out what happens next."

Arena alreadyappears to be trying on an unprecedented third U.S. term for size. "That, Ican assure you, would be the last four years," he says, though he's proudof his longevity. "It might even be on my tombstone: THE LONGEST-TENUREDNATIONAL TEAM COACH IN THE WORLD."

Arena smiles anhonest man's smile. As epitaphs go, it's not bad. Not bad at all.

SI.COM

For more on the World Cup from Grant Wahl, and forprofiles of all 32 teams, go to SI.com/soccer.

Arena, says D.C. United's Payne, "should be thoughtof in THE SAME WAY AS Mike Krzyzewski or Bill Parcells."

"You can accuse me of a lot of things," Arenasays, "but I AM MORE HONEST than anyone I come across."

PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyU.S. FLAG BACKGROUND BY CHRISTIE'S IMAGES/CORBISON THE BALL Arena knows the U.S.'s current No. 4 world ranking is misleading, but he intends to justify it by the end of the competition in Germany. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE ARENA FAMILYCARRY A BIG STICK As an All-America at Cornell, the future U.S. soccer manager got lots of ideas from Ivy League lacrosse coaches. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE ARENA FAMILYNETWORKING After college Arena patrolled the goalmouth for the Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League, here in 1976.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)