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Jul 15, 2006

Arena era had run its course

Maybe Bruce Arena already knew his fate when he gave what will now go down as his final press conference as U.S. national team coach. Just a day after the United States' tournament-ending loss to Ghana, Arena showed up in street clothes, without a single U.S. soccer emblem on him. He spoke with his usual frankness, but also with the relaxed nature of a defendant who didn't need to hear the verdict to know what it would be. Anyone who was truly surprised by Friday's announcement that U.S. Soccer would not be rehiring Arena must not have been paying attention for the past two months. Even before Markus Merk awarded Ghana a phantom penalty, or DaMarcus Beasley's would-be game-winner was waived off against Italy, or Jan Koller's header ripped the net to start the Czech Republic's 3-0 romp over the United States, Arena's days as U.S. coach were numbered. Why? Because having the same national team coach for 12 years, no matter who the coach is, would have been far too much. Because newly-appointed U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati wanted the chance to put his stamp on the program he has been entrusted to lead. And finally, because everybody's dream replacement has become available and just returned to the United States. Gulati acknowledged that Arena's lengthy tenure, though successful, had run its course and you were left wondering if Arena's fate was determined before he even arrived in Germany in June. "We needed to wait until after the World Cup to make any decisions, to see what everyone was feeling like and to see what the results were at the World Cup," said Gulati. "Ultimately, The driving factor for us was eight years." Was Arena's long tenure already a factor working against him before the 2006 World Cup? "The answer is yes, but we have an extraordinary coach," said Gulati. "That was what the balance came down to. Under normal circumstances you wouldn't be thinking about a third run for virtually anyone." In other words, Arena was a lame-duck coach at the World Cup who would only have salvaged his job with another deep run into the tournament. Anything less than a strong showing in Germany would give Gulati the ammunition to justify replacing Arena with a coach of his own choosing. The U.S. team's disappointing performance, coupled with comments by Arena that managed to ruffle plenty of feathers in the U.S. soccer constituency, suddenly gave Gulati the opportunity to say goodbye to Arena without the risk of much opposition. The only really surprising development surrounding Arena's dismissal was Gulati's revelation that Arena still wanted the job and lobbied for it until the very end. Did Arena really want to go through it all again? Did he really want a job where nothing he would do for the next three years would matter, be it winning a Gold Cup or qualifying for the World Cup? Perhaps the tons of criticism Arena endured after the World Cup left him desperate to prove that this summer's disappointment was more bad luck than an indictment of his coaching skills. With Arena out the door, Gulati and company can now turn their attention to the inevitable courtship of Juergen Klinsmann, who quit as Germany's coach last Wednesday. Klinsmann insisted vehemently that he had no interest in taking the U.S. national team job. Fighting through tears at his farewell press conference in Germany, Klinsmann insisted that he was returning to the United States to spend more time with his family. He told Germans that he was burned out as a coach. The question now is how long will Klinsmann stay away from the sidelines. The Germany job was his first as a head coach and, at 41, Klinsmann is just beginning what could be a coaching career for the ages. The U.S. job offers the ultimate challenge for a young and ambitious coach and Klinsmann, who has lived here for eight years, is as qualified as any coach in the world to take on the unique challenges the U.S. coaching position presents. Gulati tried his best not to anoint Klinsmann as the leading candidate to replace Arena but he couldn't exactly hide his respect for the former German coach. Gulati rattled off a laundry list of characteristics he would like to see in the next U.S. coach, a list that sounded very much like a description of Klinsmann. "Does Juergen Klinsmann fit all those criteria? I think he probably does," said Gulati. "He's played at a very high level. He's now been a successful with the German team. He has a much better handle on the American soccer scene than somebody who hasn't spent time here." Will Klinsmann replace Arena? It is one of the best bets you could ever make. The man affectionately known as 'Klinsi' in his native Germany will wait the requisite amount of time before taking a new job. The delay is out of respect for the German fans and players he left behind last week, but ultimately he will take the job. U.S. Soccer will wait as long as it must, but the deal will get done. U.S. Soccer can't afford not to hire Klinsmann and must do everything in its power to make it happen. Gulati said repeatedly that the national team needs a newness, a freshness. This is very true. The team and its players need a new voice leading them, a coach with a fresh approach who will challenge every player equally and won't subscribe to the long-standing hierarchy established under Arena. While there are certainly players who are sad to see Arena go, there are also players who are relishing the chance to play for a new coach. Landon Donovan isn't one of those players. You could already hear the uncertainty in Donovan's voice in an interview with ESPN just hours after Arena's dismissal. Donovan commented at not knowing whether he'd really be considered to be captain by the team's next coach and sounded a little uneasy about the prospect of playing for a national team coach other than Arena for the first time in his career. Consider it a good example of why the national team needs a new start under a new coach. The U.S. national team needs a new coach to come in and look at the team with fresh eyes, someone with no established perceptions or favorites to play. Klinsmann is just the man to step in and call things how he sees them, to test players regardless of their resumes or standing in the U.S. Soccer community. There was definitely a stale feeling about the U.S. national team that was bound to happen after eight years under the same coach. Maybe Arena knew that when he walked away from this summer's World Cup. He may have felt one final impulse to stick around, but Arena had to know that it was time for a change, both for his sake and for the sake of the program he spent the past eight years resurrecting.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.