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Arena ready to return to sidelines

D.C. United is in trouble. A 2-7 record and four-match losing streak have the team with the best regular-season record just a season earlier in desperation mode. When D.C. takes the field against Toronto FC on Saturday, it will be as much a must-win match for D.C. United and embattled coach Tom Soehn as you'll find just two months into a season.

About 120 miles southwest of the debacle in D.C. is Charlottesville, Va., home of the most successful soccer coach in American history, and a coach who looks every bit like he's ready to return to the sidelines. Bruce Arena has been away from coaching for only seven months, but the time off has done wonders for Arena. He looks happy, relaxed, slimmer and younger than he did when he walked off the field at Gillette Stadium following his last match with the MetroStars last October.

Funny what having your first real break from coaching after almost three decades can do.

The one thing that seems clear from talking to Arena is that it isn't a case of if he will return to coaching, but when. Arena jokes about golf being his new day job, saying that the only itch he feels these days is when he retrieves stray shots from the rough, but when talk turns a bit more serious Arena acknowledges that he would like to coach again.

"Yeah it is," Arena said when asked if a return to coaching was a possibility for him. "I've talked to people. I had a potential opportunity in the offseason and I turned it down.

"I didn't think it was time to jump right back into it," said Arena, who believes he now is ready to return to coaching. "I'll entertain anything that makes sense."

For most D.C. United fans, nothing makes more sense than Arena returning to D.C. to salvage a squad that looks completely lost. He was D.C. United's first head coach and laid the foundation for three MLS Cup titles in the first four years of the league's existence, so who better than Arena to straighten out the mess?

While Arena isn't likely to say a word about the D.C. job while Soehn still has it, his comments regarding the type of situation he would want to step into point toward a team like D.C.

"What I learned here, more than anything, is that organization is important, and that your front office is an important part of the team on the field," Arena said of his time with the Red Bulls. "It's got to be good experience and the right kind of support to move forward."

It is fair to say Arena would have faith in a D.C. organization led by team president Kevin Payne, the same man who hired him as D.C. head coach a dozen years ago. Between Payne and general manager Dave Kasper, Arena would have a far more experienced front office to work with than the group he worked with while with the New York Red Bulls.

It is Arena's year and a half with the Red Bulls that has some wondering whether Arena is the can't-miss option so many think he is. His tenure with the Red Bulls had its share of bad acquisitions, disappointing results and questions about his handling of the squad. There were rumblings about locker room dissent and an unhappiness with Arena's handling of his players.

Were Arena's issues with the Red Bulls the result of a burned-out coach who probably should have taken a break after eight years as a national team coach, or the result of the coach Arena has evolved (or devolved) into?

"In all honesty I should have taken off the rest of 2006 and the only reason I didn't was on the insistence of Red Bull," Arena said. "My plan was to come in in January of 2007 because the whole idea was that it was going to take three years to build the team."

Rested and recharged, Arena has also faced the business end of being pushed out of a job for the second time in two years. The first time it happened, with the U.S. national team, Arena responded hastily by taking the Red Bulls job, partly because Red Bull made him a tremendous offer, but also because of the desire to prove himself as a coach. Arena learned a lesson from that experience and has made the most of his time away from the game.

Now what remains is finding out where he will wind up. While D.C. United is the easy call because of the history there and the club's current struggles, Arena will have other options if Soehn can turn things around and get D.C. back to its winning ways. There are a pair of expansion teams set to join MLS in Seattle and Philadelphia and Arena would have to be considered a strong candidate for both jobs.

Seattle might not sound like a good fit but Arena has some experience in the Pacific Northwest, having played for the Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League and having held his first head coaching job on any level at the University of Puget Sound (both in 1976).

Then there is Philadelphia, an ideal East Coast club for the certifiably East Coast Arena. He would be equal distances away from the club he helped build and the club that essentially sent him packing. Whether Philly ownership would hire someone so synonymous with D.C. United, and whether Arena would be willing to wait for the team to start playing in 2010 are other stories.

Wherever Arena goes, he will bring a wealth of experience and a résumé unmatched by any American coach before or since. With a chance to reflect on his successes and failures, as well as an experience with the Red Bulls that taught him and humbled him, the 56-year-old coach is going to show up on a sideline sooner rather than later. Whether that sideline is at RFK Stadium, Qwest Field or a stadium in Chester, Pa., remains to be seen.

Game previews

Just when you think things are getting predictable in MLS, you get a week like last week.

The red-hot Chicago Fire looked like a lock at home against Houston, but suffered its first home loss of the season. Then the Dynamo went to San Jose looking like a lock only to fall to the Earthquakes in an emotional game.

This week's match-ups will be even tougher to call. Led by the Chicago Fire-New York Red Bulls grudge match, the New England-Columbus showdown and D.C. United's must-win match against Toronto FC, Memorial Day weekend will have plenty of drama on tap.

Saturday

New England at Columbus Crew

The Crew was finally halted by Toronto FC last week but Columbus returns to Crew Stadium, where they are unbeaten this season. They face a Revs squad that has enjoyed good success on the road (3-1-1 this season). The Revs will do a good job of containing the Crew attack and will pull the mild upset on the road. Revolution 1, Crew 0.

Toronto FC at D.C. United

D.C. needs a win badly here, but Toronto FC will be eager to repay D.C. for the 4-1 thrashing handed to them the last time they came to RFK Stadium. In D.C. United's favor is the fact that Toronto hasn't played away from BMO Field in a month. D.C. finds a way and Tom Soehn survives for another weekend. D.C. United 2, Toronto FC 0.

Real Salt Lake at FC Dallas

We will find out right away just what Steve Morrow's firing means to a sliding Hoops squad that has been bad in recent weeks. The perfect remedy arrives in a RSL squad that doesn't have a single point on the road in four matches. Kenny Cooper stars as FC Dallas rebounds. FC Dallas 3, Real Salt Lake 1.

Chivas USA at Colorado Rapids

The first-place Rapids (yes, you read that right) face a Chivas USA team looking to spark a winning streak after last week's comeback win vs. D.C. The key for Colorado has been an improved defense that will be tested by the Goats. Christian Gomez shines again as the Rapids move above .500. Rapids 2, Chivas USA 1.

Kansas City Wizards at Los Angeles Galaxy

The Galaxy is riding high after its 5-1 whooping of FC Dallas, but the Wizards will present a far tougher challenge defensively. Los Angeles has been better defensively in recent weeks so KC won't have an easy time sparking a struggling offense. The Galaxy keep the momentum going. Galaxy 2, Wizards 1.

Sunday

Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls

This is going to be an intense chess match as former Fire coach Juan Carlos Osorio tries to beat his former club and former assistant coach Denis Hamlett. Osorio won't be on the bench due to suspension but he will go after a Chicago defense that hasn't faced an attacking trio like Juan Pablo Ange, Jozy Altidore and Dane Richards this year. Chicago won't make it easy but the Red Bulls win a tight one. Red Bulls 1, Fire 0.

Last Week: 2-4-2

Overall: 23-16-9

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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