U.S. coach in­tense, funny

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Bruce Arena bites his fin­ger­nails re­li­giously, a habit he has had since age 10.

Among some other un­men­tion­ables.

“Are you kid­ding me? I’m sure there’s plenty of those,” the coach of the U.S. men’s na­tional soc­cer team ac­knowl­edged with a chuckle. “I don’t make that public in­for­ma­tion, though.”

Arena walks across mid­field soak­ing in the Cal­i­for­nia sun and sur­vey­ing the scene as his play­ers take a lap and be­gin stretches ahead of train­ing on a prac­tice field ad­ja­cent to Avaya Sta­dium, home of the MLS San Jose Earth­quakes.

He crosses his arms and paces — side to side, for­ward and back­ward — eyes up al­ways. He shifts his hands to his hips and steals a glance down­field to where the goal­keep­ers are do­ing in­di­vid­ual work.

“I’m think­ing about my in­vest­ments and re­tire­ment and things like that,” Arena

cracked, then added: “I’m ob­serv­ing the play­ers and look­ing at their habits, try­ing to learn as much as I can about play­ers on a daily ba­sis. It’s not only game day. When you have a team and there’s 23 play­ers, ev­ery player is im­por­tant. So some­times your con­tri­bu­tions aren’t only on game or on the field and it’s other things. You look at the qual­i­ties of play­ers both on and off the field.”

With his quick wit off the field and de­mand­ing na­ture on it, Arena has in­stilled a calm and a swag­ger the U.S. squad needed, and that has bred suc­cess again af­ter fans reached panic mode. Now Arena can be­come the first to coach to win three CON­CA­CAF Gold Cup ti­tles if the Amer­i­cans can beat sur­pris­ing Ja­maica tonight. The U.S. won un­der Arena in 2002 and 2005.

“I came in with Bruce in Jan­uary and I think ini­tially you saw some­one who’s try­ing to get points across and be pretty se­ri­ous about it, but as we re­al­ized his de­mands and his in­ten­tions he’s been able to kind of dial it back a lit­tle bit,” mid­fielder Gra­ham Zusi said. “Very dry, good sense of hu­mor. It’s im­por­tant, es­pe­cially in these long camps, to have some kind of comic re­lief as well.”

On Mon­day, Arena re­minded his play­ers it was here in the Bay Area where the Amer­i­cans re­gained mo­men­tum in March by beat­ing Hon­duras 6-0 in a World Cup qual­ifer.

Arena, a mem­ber of the U. S. Soc­cer Hall of Fame who turns 66 in Septem­ber, has led the team to an 8-0-5 record since he re­turned in Novem­ber for a sec­ond stint as coach, re­plac­ing Jur­gen Klins­mann af­ter the Amer­i­cans’ first 0-2 start in the fi­nal round of qual­i­fy­ing in the North and Cen­tral Amer­i­can and Caribbean re­gion.

“Four months ago we were re­build­ing our pro­gram, a pro­gram that was in des­per­ate shape of be­ing in a po­si­tion to qual­ify for a World Cup and all other things,” Arena said. “We’ve made great strides over the last four months. This is a great op­por­tu­nity for us to con­tinue to make progress. We’d love to win the Cup.”

The U.S. is seek­ing its sixth Gold Cup ti­tle and first since 2013. Nine dif­fer­ent play­ers have scored so far this tour­na­ment, most notably Clint Dempsey’s record-ty­ing 57th goal in a 2-0 semi­fi­nal vic­tory against Costa Rica on Satur­day that matched Lan­don Dono­van’s mark.

“Com­ing into the sit­u­a­tion, into the job, we were in a tough spot,” Dempsey said.

Un­der Arena, the Amer­i­cans have mo­men­tum again re­gard­less how Wed­nes­day turns out. Qual­i­fy­ing re­sumes with matches against Costa Rica on Sept. 1 at Har­ri­son, N.J., and four days later at Hon­duras. The hex con­cludes against Panama on

Oct. 6 in Or­lando, Fla., and at Trinidad and Tobago four days af­ter.

“It’s a good group of guys, let’s start there,” vet­eran goal­keeper Tim Howard said. “But Bruce has kind of come in and kind of took the edge off a lit­tle bit. That’s who he is as a per­son, that’s how he man­ages us, and he’s kind of al­lowed us to be our­selves and have that swag­ger. The one thing I would say about Bruce, which has kind of al­ways been the case but more so now, I think he is more re­laxed off the field and much more de­mand­ing on the field. He’s al­ways kind of had that balance but it’s more ex­treme now, and it’s a very good thing. He asks the world of us on the field, whether it be train­ing or games he asks us for 110 per­cent ev­ery day, and then when you’re off the field he’s jok­ing, he’s very jovial and he kind of lets us be who we are.”

Arena took over with lit­tle room for er­ror. A decade ago, he never would have en­vi­sioned him­self in this spot now.

“I’m en­joy­ing it, and I’ve al­ways thought about what I was go­ing to do in my mid60s,” Arena said. “I thought I was go­ing to re­tire at 55, so I’m a lit­tle bit be­hind sched­ule right now. Prob­a­bly go­ing to keep go­ing for a while, do­ing some­thing. I’m think­ing from what I can tell I prob­a­bly could be a sports­writer and do pretty well.”

Then added with a sly grin, “No. I’m only kid­ding.”

AP file photo

Bruce Arena has led the United States to two Gold Cup ti­tles in his ca­reer (2002, 2005).

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