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Friday, July 14, 2006
Just a couple of days ago I was starting to worry a bit because there had been no definite word from the USSF about Bruce Arena and his future in the American game.

To be more precise, I was worried that the US would continue along with Arena, even though it was made clear following the World Cup in Germany that it was time for a change.

Fortunately, USSF President Sunil Gulati made the announcement on Friday that the Brooklyn native's tenure would come to an end, bringing to a close eight years of Arena rule. And Arena deserves high accolades for where he has brought a program that was in disarray when he took over.

Arena is a big reason why United States soccer gained a bit of respect around the world while he was at the reins. His matter-of-fact attitude was a big factor in changing the mindset of the American player. He instilled a belief that when Americans stepped on the field, they could play with anyone.

I was one of the loudest supporters when the USSF were debating whether not to hire him, Carlos Parreira, Bora Multinovic or Carlos Queiroz.

"Hire an American!" were my thoughts. Arena had racked up titles everywhere he had been, and a winner was what US soccer needed at the time.

When he was hired, I knew they had made the right choice.

A little less than four years later, the reward was an appearance in the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, and as gift wrapped as the trip might have looked to some observers, soccer is also game of a lot of luck and we found ourselves benefiting from it in sometimes strange ways.

I don't think it was an error-free coaching performance by any means, but it wasn't dribbling skills or soft touches that beat Portugal and Mexico. It was the belief that Arena instilled in his players that it could be done.

Arena's gutsy decision to go after Portugal in the opener set the tone for the game and the entire tournament, and before anyone knew what had happened, the US were leading by one, then two, then three goals.

"First tackle. First foul. First shot."

Who didn't love that line from Arena prior to the opening match when they watched US Soccer's World Cup compilation DVD "My Way"?

His second World Cup appearance didn't go quite as smoothly however and one of the most frequently repeated things since the US went out, even Gulati said so earlier in the week, has been that Arena could not have possibly from a good to a bad coach in a just a few short weeks.

But it sure seemed like it.

Going back to the friendly against Germany in Dortmund just three months before the World Cup, I thought that the gambling Arena that had made himself famous in South Korea was still in there somewhere.

I'm still not sure what formation that was supposed to be, with three forwards, two defensive midfielders and a winger, but seeing the lineup before the game, I just had to laugh. Members of the German press asked me and colleague Chad Winger (we were two of the three Americans in the press box, so were the authority) about our first eleven.

"What kind of formation is this?" they all wanted to know.

We had no answer because we had never seen a lineup like that from Arena.

After a bit of reflection, and a crowd of anxious German reporters hanging on our expertise, we decided that it was either a 4-2-1-1-2 or maybe a 3-2-2-1-2.

Arena put out a team that played the Germans head to head for the first 45 minutes, sent the home side off the field to whistles and jeers before succumbing to a second half barrage of goals. Using a B/C team, the US showed well, despite the scoreline, against a German team who proved in the World Cup weren't so bad after all.

Fast forward to June 12th, and that team in Germany was nowhere to be found. Partly because half of the guys were either on the bench or just not selected, and partly because of a formation that was easily shutdown by a Czech team who knew that taking the wings out of the US game plan would effectively shut down the American offense.

Aside from Claudio Reyna rattling the post in the first half, it worked.

The US did bounce back and played remarkably well against eventual World Cup winners Italy (the US were the only team not to lose to the Azzurri) but it was a bit of an anomaly in that most of the game was played with one of the two teams down a man.

But when it came time for the Arena to break out of the defensive mode when the US absolutely had to win versus Ghana to advance, we saw the same defensive minded 4-5-1 that proved anemic in the first two games. Previously effective Bobby Convey on the bench. Landon Donovan still in no-man's land. Brian McBride all alone up top - where he has never been successful in the Red, White and Blue or for Fulham, his club team of the last two plus years.

What had happened to the coach who started two 20-year olds against Portugal and played Claudio Reyna on the wing versus Mexico? For that matter, what happened to the coach who went with three forwards in Dortmund?

And then there was after the World Cup matches.

Sure, the Czech Republic loss was a kick in the pants, but with two more games left to play, what exactly did Arena hope to accomplish by criticizing DaMarcus Beasley of all players, the player who he had held up as an example when criticizing Landon Donovan's desire just last year?

At the postgame press conference following the Ghana match, there was one question that really stands out, or should I say, it's the answer that told me it was time for The Smirk to be shown the door.

Arena was asked if he would do anything differently.

"I don't know. I don't think there's anything that's major that we would change," he replied. "I think the roster that we picked was about the right roster. Our preparation was about right."

Let's see.

Aside from Clint Dempsey's solitary goal, your team was just eliminated from World Cup play having managed one shot on goal which forced the the three opposing keepers into making just one save. You were outscored six goals to one. Your "star" in Landon Donovan sandwiched about four touches around one good half versus Italy. You had no replacement for Pablo Mastroeni or Claudio Reyna because you brought along John O'Brien. You brought four forwards but truly only used one. The list could go on, but the answer will always be the same.

"I don't think there's anything that's major we would change."

Even when given opportunities to reflect the days following the cup, Arena never accepted any responsibility for the team's performance in Germany and instead focused on trading shots with members of the 1998 World Cup side on national television.

Arena had been lying low for the last couple of weeks and had been reported to have been planning on asking for an extension. It's understandable that he wouldn't want to see his successful tenure come to an end with the dire World Cup showing but he won't be the first coach to have been shown the door after a poor tournament.

A major change is just what the US Soccer needs at this point, and like eight years ago when they made the right choice in hiring Bruce Arena, they've once again made the right one in letting him go.
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