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Aug 25, 2008

Arena's arrival shakes up Galaxy

CARSON, Calif. -- Bruce Arena has arrived as the conquering hero/savior in a big city before. After all, that's how Red Bull New York presented him in 2006, fresh off an eight-year tenure at the head of the U.S. national team. The Brooklyn-born Arena was returning to his roots, wielding an unprecedented amount of power as both coach and general manager of the club. However, after compiling a 16-16-10 (W-L-T) record in a little over a year, Arena was dismissed from the post.

But it takes more than a stint in New York, which runs through coaches like a buzz saw, to kill the reputation of the man who guided the U.S. to a quarterfinal finish in the 2002 World Cup. After the owners of the L.A. Galaxy pulled the plug on the Ruud Gullit experiment, they turned to Arena to rescue the franchise.

It might seem a bit of an unusual choice, since Arena's last successful stint coaching club soccer was a decade ago with D.C. United.

Yet Arena's status is such that he garners kudos even from opposing coaches.

"I'm extremely excited to see Bruce and [Galaxy assistant and former Fire head coach] Dave [Sarachan] back in the league," said Chicago Fire coach Denis Hamlett. "I learned a lot from them. I think they're going to do wonders for the league and for L.A."

It was easy for Hamlett to be gracious towards Arena, since his Fire squad beat the Galaxy 1-0 on Aug. 21 in Arena's debut as coach. With the loss, the Galaxy dropped into a tie for second-to-last in the weaker Western Conference.

Obviously, clubs want to defeat the Galaxy, in part because their players want to show well in the spotlight that David Beckham's team generates. Yet everyone in Major League Soccer understands that a strong Los Angeles squad would be an excellent draw for a league that is still looking to attract new fans.

Since Beckham's arrival to the Galaxy last year, a coach with as many league championships as Arena (Frank Yallop) and a former FIFA World Player of the Year (Gullit) have come and gone. Both failed to produce a winning record.

However, some believe Arena is the perfect solution to the team's woes.

"If you look at his record, everywhere he's gone he's made a team better," said Fire forward Brian McBride. "When given time, he's actually done some amazing things. I expect him to succeed greatly."

Arena is running out of time to orchestrate a turnaround in this season. It's not just that the Galaxy need a stellar run of games to even make a move toward the playoffs; it's also that the team is hitting the section of the MLS schedule when many players are absent for national-team games. Landon Donovan and Beckham are locks to be called in for the U.S. and England virtually every time.

"Without Landon and David, it's hard to create quality scoring chances," said defender Ante Jazic.

Arena's debut as Galaxy coach was a dreary example of this. Though Los Angeles looked a bit more organized defensively than under Gullit, the attack generated very few opportunities to mark a goal. Donovan and Beckham both had just played international matches, so neither made the roster for the match versus the Fire.

Perhaps Arena is just trying to focus on improving one aspect of the Galaxy's play at a time.

"He's come in and identified the problems with the team," said Jazic. "He's talked to the guys individually. He's really had us work on our shape defensively. He obviously needs more than two or three training sessions to do it, but he's the right guy for the job."

With a brusque manner that many claim to find amusing, Arena yells both criticisms and praise to players on the practice fields while the Galaxy scrimmage.

"He's emphasized just getting everybody on the same page and getting everybody organized, keeping our shape and getting everybody to know where we should be in certain instances," said Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin. "It's nothing specific; just when balls are in certain parts of the field, what our shape should be and moving as a group has been the main focus."

Unlike Gullit, who seemed to view watching game film as a distasteful chore, Arena embraces the many little advantages technology can generate. Plus, he's already familiar with MLS players, something the Galaxy owners really wanted.

"I've been watching the league, keeping up on the games," said Arena.

The L.A players know they are under scrutiny and may lose their spot with the team if they don't impress.

One player in particular might be under the greatest amount of pressure -- Cronin has allowed more goals than any other goalkeeper in the league.

Cronin wasn't sure what plans Arena had for him.

"He hasn't said anything," Cronin explained. "I feel that he's confident in me, and the rest of the team is as well."

One change Arena already made was trading forward Carlos Ruiz to Toronto FC to clear salary-cap space for the arrival of Eddie Lewis. The last time Arena brought in a national team player he especially liked, it was Claudio Reyna. That move is considered by many to be the biggest blunder of Arena's tenure in New York. Los Angeles fans will be unforgiving if there is a similar outcome. Big cities are used to being big winners.

"Anytime you come into a team where everyone has expectations to succeed, especially in a big city, it's a big task," said McBride. "But he's used to that, isn't he?"

Even Arena, however, cannot escape the fact that the Beckham circus is one phenomena that he has not dealt with in the past. How he copes with the superstar situation will go a long way to determining success.

"We have 10 games left -- we can still make a push," Cronin insisted. "Everybody has a general sense of confidence. Everybody is trying to get new beginnings out of this. Everybody respects Bruce and Dave and what they want to accomplish while they're here."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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