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Mar 21, 2006

The spotlight's on Arena

Dortmund, Germany -- In a sport in which the mortality of National Team coaches has reached a crisis point, U.S. coach Bruce Arena is an aberration.

To appreciate what Arena has accomplished during his near eight-year tenure, you have to remember that he is only one of two coaches who has retained his job on a continuous basis since the 2002 World Cup. England's Sven-Goran Eriksson is the other and he'll become history after the competition in June or July, thanks to his attraction to controversy and scandal.

Of course, Arena doesn't face the same pressure or expectations as Eriksson or other coaches have been forced to endure. So whatever pressure he faces, it doesn't wear him down.

So, what is the possibility of Arena directing the U.S. National team to a third cycle after Germany 2006?

It's not that farfetched. He is the most successful coach in American soccer history, having directed the team to the quarterfinals in 2002 and into the World Cup this time around (and forget about his battles with the media; it ain't about us, it is about how well he gets the team prepared for the ultimate soccer tournament).

Bottom line: Arena is the best American coach for the job. He has gotten more out of players and most out of a team collectively than any other American coach. His ability to move players in and out of a lineup that had been decimated was a work of genius.

After a foreign writer at Tuesday's press conference claimed Arena was a coaching guru, he quickly shot down that remark.

"Not at all," Arena said. "I don't think so. I don't think there are too many coaches in Europe who are looking at me and are very impressed, believe me."

As far as the U.S. team has come under Arena, it still has a ways to go.

"We realize the respect we have at this time is small," he said. "Whatever we earn on the field, fair enough."

But Arena didn't dismiss the possibility of coming back for more.

"I'd consider it," he said after U.S. practice at Signal Iduna Park.

But then he quickly added there was nothing on the table.

"It's a little early to talk about it right now," he said. "I'm not ready to give you an argument one way or another at this point."

Of course, he has to want it. Depending on what transpires here in June, Arena might say enough is enough or feel he might turn stale in the job and search for a new challenge, perhaps helping MLS or returning to a coaching position.

"After I finish in the World Cup, I have to make some plans," he said with a partial smile he seemed to have on for most of the press conference. "I have to do something after the World Cup. I need a job. I might become a sportswriter."

Don't bet on it.

Before Arena is in a position to make it three in a row, a lot has to happen. That means anything from playing well and not moving to the second round to repeating what transpired in Korea four years ago. Of course, the latter is much easier said than done.

Not many American-based coaches have the credentials to lead the National Team. The very, very short list has coaches with impressive resumes, including Columbus Crew's Sigi Schmid and even Bob Bradley, whose sheen lost some luster after he was fired as MetroStars coach last year. (But he could start regaining some of that momentum unless Chivas USA becomes a power to contend with in the MLS Western Conference or even beyond that.)

They might have to wait, though.

In the modern era, only two coaches have coached through three consecutive World Cup cycles with the same country: German coach Helmut Schoen, who guided teams at the 1966, 1970, 1974 and 1978 tournaments, finishing second, third, first and out of the money, respectively; Alf Ramsey, who directed three English cycles -- 1966, 1970 and 1974, who won it all in 1966, was eliminated in the quarterfinals four years later in Mexico and did not even make it to soccer's promised land in 1974.

So, if Arena and new U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati work something out, Arena certainly would he scaling rare heights.

Given what German coach Juergen Klinsmann has endured over the past three weeks in the wake of the 4-1 debacle to Italy, it is quite ironic to talk about extending Arena's contract of the coach of his rival in Wednesday night's game (ESPN2, 2:25 ET).

There has been talk that if Germany doesn't beat the U.S., Klinsmann would be out of a job 80 days before the World Cup kickoff against Costa Rica in Munich on June 9. If the German Football Federation pulls the trigger, Germany would become the first host country to fire its coach so close to the World Cup.

"I think talk like that is just foolish," Arena said. "That's an overreaction. We have to understand in this business that the fans are going overreact and the media is going to overreact. Inside teams you have to have stability and calmness."

Calling Klinsmann a friend, Arena threw his support Juergen's way.

"They're less experienced, they have a young team," Arena said. "That is one of the areas Juergen has had the patience -- to give them a chance. That's one of the things he has done -- to give young players an opportunity, knowing that by doing that results aren't going to be favorable."

Wednesday's encounter should be a weird one. On one side of the pitch is the desperate Germans, who need a good result, any kind of good result, to restore professional pride and end all those Klinsmann rumors with the World Cup so close. On the other end is an American team that is missing its three most important players -- midfielders Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Claudio Reyna -- yet is very loose.

Arena admitted he wasn't going to lose any sleep over the game.

"I cannot convince my team that [Wednesday's] game is the most critical game of the year," he said. "It doesn't make sense.

"I need a result from the Czech Republic, Ghana or Italy, not Germany."

If Arena does get that result, then returning as 2010 coach might not be that farfetched.

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for the New York Daily News, also is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at Soccerwriter516@aol.com.