Arena Takes an Old Formula to a New Job

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The press conference to announce Bruce Arena’s appointment as the coach of the New York Red Bulls started 45 minutes late. In the time-honored tradition of such occasions, Arena then proceeded to tell us nothing we didn’t already know, while refusing to divulge any information about his salary or the length of his contract or who he would be bringing in as his assistant coach.

I interested myself by trying to track down the snacks, specifically the tuna rolls. I was told they had all been eaten. So was there any point at all in turning up? Oh yes, because Arena has become surpassingly good at these events.They are not exactly non-events, but like virtually all of Arena’s press conferences, going back to his days with the University of Virginia in the 1980s, they are pseudo-events.Arena controls them, no one asks any hard questions, no voices are raised.Maybe we get some mild sarcasm, but there’s always some genuine humor to offset that.

I first met Arena in 1972. Cornell University had surprisingly advanced to the Division I college soccer final four in the Orange Bowl. I went to talk with their coach, Dan Wood, in his hotel room.Wood was not alone. He sat primly at the little desk, while on the bed, lounging with a knowing smile, was the team’s goalkeeper, Bruce Arena. I expected him to leave. He didn’t; he even joined in the discussion occasionally, though I don’t remember anything that he said. What did stick in my mind was his self-assurance, how he seemed to be present by right, totally comfortable as the uninvited guest.

And of course I found it irritating. But not any more. Far from being uninvited, Arena is now usually the center of attraction. He still has the easy manner, the mildly mocking smile, but he’s no longer a youth lounging on a bed.He controls his press conferences masterfully, he doesn’t ramble, his answers are to the point, except when he chooses to be vague or teasingly evasive.

That’s what we got one week ago at the Red Bulls’ conference, the Arena who handles the far-from-tigerish press smoothly.

What we’re now looking for is the Arena who — as in his stints with the University of Virginia, D.C. United, and the national team — can produce a team that can win something. This is a feat that, in their 10-year history, the former MetroStars, now the Red Bulls, have failed to achieve. Not even close — the team has been awful, unfailingly awful. It has gotten through nine head coaches and an army of players, and none of them has been able to conjure up a trophy.

Arena is taking over what looks suspiciously like a snake-bitten team. “There are some good players here,” said Arena and that was not guff. There are some good players here — that’s the frustrating thing. There have always been good players here, but merely putting on the old MetroStars jersey seems always to have reduced them to soccer imbecility.The Red Bulls have changed their colors — they’re an attractive red and white now — so maybe the jersey hex has been scotched.

Coming in two-thirds of the way through the current season, Arena’s immediate task is to ensure a playoff berth. That shouldn’t be too tall an order, because eight of the MLS’s 12 teams qualify. But Arena’s bigger goal must be to turn the Red Bulls not just into a winning team, but into a New York team.A team that has people talking, a team that wins with style and swagger.

It’ll take time. The fierce MLS restrictions on salary caps and roster size make it virtually impossible — however much the new Red Bull owners want to spend — to buy an all-star team. But there is evidence that the league, well aware that it needs a star attraction or two, is willing to relax the regulations. The Bulls have already tried to sign the Brazilian goalscoring legend Ronaldo — and can anyone doubt that his salary alone would be more than the rest of the team put together? (The MLS maximum per team salary is $1.9 million for a roster of 18 players.)

In the meantime, Arena will have to rely largely on the current roster. Among them is the Honduran Amado Guevara, and it was significant that Arena singled him out as “one of the best midfielders in the league.” It seems likely that Arena will want Guevara to be the team’s key player.

This would be in line with the make up of Arena’s best teams: a Latin-American playmaker at the center of the action.At UVA, it was Claudio Reyna who led the team to three Division I championships. Reyna was born in America and learned all his soccer here, but the influence of his Argentine father was clear, for Reyna had ball skills and soccer intuition way above those of the typical American college player.

When Arena moved into the pros with DC United he found that MLS had assigned him a player, the Bolivian Marco Etcheverry, who was 100% pure Latin-American in his playing style, and Arena balked, letting it be known that such a player was not to his liking. Etcheverry was not an all-action workhorse, he had none of the gung-ho mentality that Arena was used to in his college players.

But Etcheverry stayed . . . and Arena was won over. He would later heap praise on Etcheverry as the man who made DC United’s two MLS championships possible. Etcheverry provided subtlety and artistry and leadership. Arena, greatly to his credit, gave him freedom of action.The DC United team of 1996 and 1997 is remembered as the most stylish team yet produced by MLS.

Can Guevara fill that role for Arena at the Red Bulls? He definitely has the skills, but his temperament is the question mark. Though loaded with talent, Guevara suffers from alarming fluctuations in form. A goal-scoring game-winner at his best, capable of moments of sheer soccer brilliance, Guevara can turn into a plodding, hardly-interested player who mopes around the field contributing nothing.

This looks like Arena’s first big Red Bulls test. To apply his celebrated ability to establish close relationships with his players and coach — or is it coax? — Guevara into being a consistent highlevel performer.

The New York Sun

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