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Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Underdogs

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Americans, Seriously

In his polo shirt, pleated pants and loafers, Bruce Arena might have been an executive exhorting the troops on a corporate retreat. Instead, he was pacing the tiny locker room at the SAS Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. On this April night, the United States men's national team would play a friendly against Jamaica, its last match before Arena, the coach, named his 23-man roster for the World Cup this month in Germany. The dressing area bore the reek of men huddled in a cramped space, the players lightly sweating after warm-ups and desperate to catch the boss's eye, to win his approval in this final audition.

Rhythmic clapping began reverberating off the cement walls. "Let's go, boys," someone shouted, then "Come on, boys," and Arena stepped into the middle of the shouts and the perspiring hopefulness and the discarded warm-up shirts. He did not yell or embrace a football coach's us-against-the-world paranoia; rather, he spoke with the calm assurance of a coach whose team is ranked No. 5 in the world, a team that could have — should have — reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan but lost, 1-0, to Germany after a grand, improbable advance to the tournament's quarterfinals.

"When we're in possession early in the game, let's open up the play," Arena, who is 54, told his players before they left to take the field. "We want to pressure them early. Make sure we're talking. Be smart. Let's not give away stupid fouls in the defensive third of the field. Be prepared to make adjustments. Let's be aggressive, let's attack them." Arena told his players to exert themselves all night in front of the goal. "Pressure," he continued. "We're looking to be very aggressive. Our outside backs must join in attack. Our midfielders, figure out where you need to move to be dangerous."

These plans for the match went awry when Jamaica scored in the fourth minute and then turtled into a defensive shell. Eventually the game ended in a 1-1 draw. But Arena's pregame speech serves as a useful blueprint for how he expects the United States to perform in the first round of the World Cup against the Czech Republic (June 12), Italy (June 17) and Ghana (June 22): by applying defensive pressure, counterattacking and playing aggressively; by relying on speed, fitness, athleticism, competitiveness, teamwork and intelligence; and by drawing on the professionalism that results from having a domestic league, Major League Soccer, reach its second decade and from having an increasing number of American players gain experience at European clubs.

The glue binding all these qualities together is the perseverance and determination that Alex Ferguson, the coach of Manchester United, in England, has called "that American thing." It's a method of commitment that Jürgen Klinsmann, Germany's national-team coach, told me is born of optimism and confidence, of "how to deal with people, how to look at things, how to believe in yourself, how to focus on things and also to take risks, to say, 'Let's go for it.'"

In late March, the day before the United States played an exhibition against Germany in Dortmund, Arena was asked at a packed news conference whether, as a sort of guru, other coaches come to him for advice. Implied in the question was Arena's résumé: five National Collegiate Athletic Association titles at the University of Virginia, two M.L.S. titles with D.C. United, a record 69 victories with the American national team and the quarterfinal appearance in the 2002 World Cup. Among the 32 countries participating in the 2006 World Cup, Arena's seven-plus-year tenure as a national-team coach is unmatched.

Still, Arena smiled and parried the question like a goalkeeper punching away a free kick. "I don't think there are too many coaches in Europe who are looking at me and are very impressed, believe me," he said.

Indeed, no one considers the United States a top-five team. The ranking, determined by FIFA, soccer's world governing body, is inflated by American dominance in the mediocre North American, Central American and Caribbean region. As Arena notes, American names are unfailingly absent from FIFA's listing of the top international players. M.L.S. is a middling league, and with the exception of the midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who is at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the European-based Americans are not playing regularly with the continent's biggest teams or forging their skills in the furnace of soccer's premier club competition, the season-long Champions League tournament.

But don't be fooled by Arena's answer. He is supremely confident in his abilities. And he has done a remarkable job elevating the stature of the United States in international soccer. Partly this is because of his strategic and tactical skills in putting the right people on the field in the right place. At the 2002 World Cup, for example, he took a chance on the callow Beasley and Landon Donovan, when both were 20; he put Brad Friedel in goal instead of the equally experienced Kasey Keller; he started a less-than-fit Clint Mathis against South Korea and coaxed a goal from him that produced a draw; and he switched to a somewhat unfamiliar alignment with three defenders on the back line for a second-round victory over Mexico.

Arena prefers to be called a manager, however, not a coach. In that distinction lies his primary talent: building a team, in every sense of the word. He has a gift for breathing value into words that have become deflated with overuse in sports: honesty, chemistry, trust. Above all, he understands, in a way that no foreign coach could, just exactly what it means to be an American soccer player — his strengths and weaknesses, his needs and preferences, his constant battle with the realization that a player from the United States is always considered something lesser.

"I get the sense that Arena truly appreciates the predicament of the American soccer player," says Andrei Markovits, a professor of German studies and comparative politics at the University of Michigan and the author of a book on the development of American soccer. "These are great athletes, but they are disrespected by their peers around the world and unknown by their own countrymen. Arena understands this, and I think it gives him tremendous legitimacy."

Sitting on the deck of his home in northern Virginia in April, Arena listened to this assessment and said he agreed with it. "I'm not willing to say we can't beat anybody we play," Arena said. "At the World Cup, we're not going to be the dominant team. It doesn't mean we can't be the better team." And: "I don't want to blow a lot of hot air . . . but I'm pretty successful at what I do. There's reasons for it."

The Americans play as a team, who are focused on winning and who know the one advantage they have is the respect Europeans do not have for them. As late as 1998, Europeans were talking about restricting the world cup to Europe and South America.

In 1998, the American team embarassed themselves, but in 2002, they lost in the Quarterfinals to Germany 1-0, which was an amazing change in fortune. Now,despite that, people still have no expectations of the Americans.I'll never forget Luis Figo's face when Portugal lost to the US in 2002. I get the feeling the Czechs or Italians or both may have that same expression.

The Americans have nothing to lose, but everything to gain by playing hard and winning. Contracts in Europe, respect at home, they have the awaiting a good performance.

For the first time, every World Cup game will air live on either ESPN/2 or ABC as well as Telemundo.

They could be the most dangerous side in the WC. They don't have the media examining their every move, Bruce Arena can coach in peace, Sven-Goran Erikson(England's coach) has his love life as tabloid fodder. Ask an English football fan to name one of his girlfriends, and they can.

While most of the sides live in a hothouse of expectation and anxiety, God, you would not want to be on the Ivory Coast or Togo sides this week, forget England, the Americans are becoming known as a team, certainly has the good wishes of the soccer rooting fans, but Landon Donovan can buy a coke in McDonalds and not be mobbed and DaMarcus Beasley can leave his hotel without a million cameras in his face. While it would suck if they lost, no one is going to shoot the players for losing, like they did in Colombia in 1994.

They have in some ways, the best of both worlds, low expectations and good talent.

But even in the US, times have changed. Soccer is a regular feature of SI's coverage, Jim Rome, the soccer hating sports talkshow host, is now a joke, and poor Keith Olberman, the baseball fanatic who finds soccer boring, is going to be in for a long month.

Disney is betting that soccer will draw an audience and they may be right.

But the best thing for the US team is that if they do well, their audience will grow which would be good for the team and the sport.

posted by Steve @ 4:19:00 PM

4:19:00 PM

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