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Aug 17, 2008

Arena looks to restore his winning reputation

As far as résumés go, few, if any, American soccer coaches can stack up to Bruce Arena. He won five national championships at Virginia and two MLS Cups as D.C. United's coach, then led the U.S. team to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. Yet despite all those accomplishments, Arena has spent the past nine months in his home in Virginia, wondering when the opportunity would come for him to erase the taste of the only coaching failures of his illustrious career -- the first-round exit in the 2006 World Cup and his inability to win a playoff game with the Red Bulls.

That opportunity has emerged 3,000 miles away, where a Los Angeles Galaxy team is on the verge of a meltdown. After seeing its appointment of high-profile foreign coach Ruud Gullit fail so miserably, the Galaxy had no choice but to make a short list of coaches who've had MLS and championship experience. The task of finding someone to clean up the mess became all that much easier when Arena expressed interest in the job.

Can Arena really straighten out a team with so many question marks? Can he fix an awful defense and find useful defensive midfielders even though the international player deadline has passed and the MLS trade deadline is only a month away? Can Arena handle the circuslike atmosphere that David Beckham's presence brings to the Galaxy? Can he persuade Landon Donovan to stay in MLS and help him turn things around?

According to sources with knowledge of the deal (Arena's official appointment is expected to be announced Monday), AEG (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Anschutz Company) is banking on Arena being able to do all that and more because if Arena can't, nobody else can (at least not on such short notice and with so little time left in the season).

Arena found himself in a similar situation in the middle of the 2006 season when he took over a Red Bulls team in a state of flux. He was able to get the most out of a Red Bulls team that didn't have a fraction of the talent the current Galaxy team has and lead it into the playoffs (and pretty close to an upset of D.C. United).

Unfortunately for Arena, that first season isn't what is remembered about his brief tenure with the Red Bulls. What is remembered is a disappointing second season and rumors of players revolting against Arena and helping convince Red Bull that Arena wasn't the man for the job. Arena's term ended when he was forced out after the 2007 season, leading to questions of whether Arena was still the coach he was when he was masterminding the D.C. United dynasty more than a decade ago.

Those concerns would be more valid if not for the long list of quality coaches who have come up short in New York only to succeed after leaving. Portuguese national team coach Carlos Queiroz and U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley both tried to bring a trophy to New York, but both left Giants Stadium without winning a playoff series. Throw in the fact that Arena was given only a season and a half to lead the Red Bulls, and you could understand why AEG president Tim Leiweke might not worry much about Arena's time there.

That isn't to say that Arena can't be blamed for things not going well in New York. He already admitted on multiple occasions that he made a mistake jumping right into the Red Bulls job just weeks after leaving an eight-year term as the U.S. national team coach. Arena took the New York job so he could prove that the U.S. team's 2006 World Cup failure was not a fair measure of his abilities as a coach. The result was soccer's equivalent of a rebound relationship, established for the wrong reasons and doomed not to work.

What Arena should have done after the 2006 World Cup was take a break and step away from the game to recharge his batteries. He needed some time to really think about returning to being a club coach, and how that adjustment would be after eight years as a national team coach.

Arena has had nine months to think about all these things. Nine months to put his setbacks into perspective, to acknowledge his mistakes and figure out what he needs to do better. Now Arena believes he is ready to return to the sidelines and be the same coach who built the best résumé in American soccer coaching history.

Arena will have a chance to prove it in Los Angeles, where he will have his best, and possibly last, chance to recapture the success of his first two decades in coaching. If Arena can't salvage the sinking Galaxy ship, the suggestions that he has lost it as a coach will grow louder. But if Arena can work some magic and turn the Galaxy into a winning club again, he will go a long way toward restoring a reputation that has received its share of tarnish in recent years.

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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