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Back in the fray

Bruce Arena's first game as coach of the New York Red Bulls was something of a freebie. After all, few expected his team to seriously challenge Barcelona -- arguably the greatest soccer team in the world today.

Arena said as much before and after the match. It was a realistic, if not exactly inspiring, approach.

The true test comes now, when Arena takes on the challenge of guiding the Red Bull New York team to a playoff berth. His first MLS game is versus D.C. United, his former team and one that is the current standard of excellence in the league.

Surprisingly, there is a tiny bit of pressure stemming from the fact that New York performed best just recently under interim coach Richie Williams, who was demoted to an assistant position once the signing of Arena was completed.

Williams was successful partly because he was able to motivate the team to follow his own example as a player -- tenacious and tough. Williams had the players, in effect, punching above their weight, to the extent that they were moving handily through the Eastern Conference table even during the absence of star Youri Djorkaeff.

Granted, after the big financial and institutional investment Red Bull has made in Arena, his job security is nearly unassailable -- at least for some time. In addition to coaching the team, Arena also holds the post of sporting director for the club.

Although Arena generally can be considered the most successful MLS coach of all time (he led D.C. United to league titles in 1996 and '97 and to the final again in 1998), it has been nearly a decade since he last coached in the league.

D.C. United also had possibly the best overall collection of players in MLS during Arena's tenure. The same probably would not be said of his Red Bulls.

There might be a bit of personal pride at stake for Arena in his return to MLS. It's reasonable to assume he would like to erase the bad taste of a poor 2006 World Cup for the U.S. team that somewhat dimmed his otherwise illustrious coaching record.

His friend and fellow coach, Frank Yallop of the Los Angeles Galaxy, believes Arena's legacy is safe.

"Bruce has done very well with the team, and whatever he goes on to do, he's the best coach the States have ever had," Yallop said.

Yallop also made clear that coaching in MLS versus guiding a national team is a distinct task. However, he had only three years out of the league before making the switch back from Team Canada. Like Arena, he faces the task of leading a team he did not put together. With Landon Donovan, though, Yallop has a player he has worked well with in the past.

"The biggest challenges and issues in the league are always in how you try and build a team -- what's available, what's at your disposal," observed Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley, whose own impressive résumé is blemished only by his tenure in New York.

The Red Bulls not only didn't send a single player to Arena's recent World Cup roster but also failed to produce a representative for the MLS All-Star team.

Arena has had a few New York players in national team camps before -- namely Todd Dunivant (with the Galaxy at the time) and Mike Magee. Tony Meola earned his 100th cap under Arena earlier this year.

Yet the key to Red Bulls production this year has never been an option for the U.S. national team. Amado Guevara, the mercurial Honduran midfielder, is still capable of turning games around for the team. Getting him to commit to keeping his head in matches is an issue, however.

"Amado needs to understand that it's not about him, it's about the team," said Alexi Lalas. Lalas, the Galaxy general manager, clashed notoriously with Guevara when he was the New York GM.

"It's a transition that every player has to make," Lalas continued. "When you are given so much and so much focus and attention is on you -- and there's no denying the fact that he's a brilliant midfielder. His possession and his vision and his skill is something that many teams in this league would love to have. Ultimately, the team is more important. Amado Guevara needs to figure out how to play within the team concept."

It's somewhat surprising that Williams, who reportedly challenged Guevara to return to his best form, was able to get him to respond. It might not be coincidental, though, that Guevara's renaissance took place while Djorkaeff, the player who had supplanted him as the team's crucial performer, was out of the country.

Djorkaeff had his own favorite as coach, apparently agreeing to return to play his final year of club soccer this season only if now-departed Mo Johnston was offered a contract.

Regarding Djorkaeff's recent leave, which was to be with his sick mother but also included a side trip to one of France's games at the World Cup, Arena talked tough upon the player's return. He stated that there would be no place for Djorkaeff if he was not committed to the team. Yet he also praised the Frenchman, calling him the "best player" at a recent practice, which might or might not have been a slight motivational dig at Guevara.

Aside from whether Arena can get such top players performing well in tandem, there's also the issue of how the league has evolved in his absence.

"There are things that have changed," Bradley said. "What's an allocation and what's not an allocation and when do you get an allocation? It changes all the time."

Arena built his D.C. team from scratch -- and with a roster of New York players he might or might not want to keep, the rest of the season could find the players in perpetual audition mode. That might not be conducive to the team cohesion needed for a stretch run.

There's also the unique aspect of the New York market itself.

"It's demanding," Bradley said. "They want to have a good team. The fact that there hasn't been a good team for a long time, when you get there, there is certainly a part where you want to build something the right way and that may take time and on the other hand you don't know how much time you have."

Towards the end of his New York stint, "Fire Bradley!" chants were not uncommon at Giants Stadium, the home field. "Patience is not usually something that goes very far [in New York]," Bradley said.

On the plus side for Arena is that he has unprecedented control over the team to make any adjustments he considers necessary.

"The degree to which Bruce oversees the soccer side of things and the position [Red Bull] created and the kind of control that he has is at a new level," Bradley said.

The considerable financial assets of the owners also might play a positive role. The organization has committed to building the team a new soccer stadium and procuring a training facility, per Arena's request, even sooner.

"Bruce seems excited about the Red Bull ownership," Bradley noted. "With the financial resources they have and the vision they have, it's possible that that's going to change the landscape again."

One aspect where the team already has a leg up might not affect the Red Bulls this year but could play a key role in the near future. The organization has a quality youth club system, one MLS has just decreed can transition directly to the senior team. With Johnny Exantus, Josmer Altidore and David Arvizu, the Red Bulls have exciting young talent for Arena to develop immediately while other MLS clubs will be getting their programs off the ground.

Youth development was something Arena stressed needed to be improved back when he was the national team coach.

"We can start to have youth programs in the clubs," Yallop said of the change. "That will be important. If you look at all the players in the World Cup, most of them went through a complete youth professional system."

In spite of all the things Arena will have to juggle as coach of the Red Bulls, the one with the most impact might be how badly he has always hated to lose. Even if it raised a few eyebrows that he didn't join New York right away after signing, Arena is on board now.

"Bruce is pretty good figuring out what the rules are, how to work within the framework and build something," said Bradley, who has worked with Arena as a national team assistant coach.

"He's a competitor, and I know he wasn't pleased with the way things went in this World Cup," Bradley added.

A resurgent New York team led by Arena could do wonders for MLS. A run to the 2006 playoffs would be an ideal beginning.

"I think he's excited for a change and that it's probably a good situation for the league and for U.S soccer," Bradley said.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com