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Arena Makes Some New Friends in His First Day on the Job

What a difference a signed contract makes. Especially one that puts half a million to three-quarters of a million dollars a year in your pocket.

The Bruce Arena who was introduced to the nation’s media as the U.S. national team’s coach last week was decidedly different from the one who had been ducking and dodging questions about his future for the last two months.

He was lighthearted and talkative. He joked. He revealed a dimension to his personality that had been largely hidden before, at least to those who only infrequently cross his path.

Most of all, he came across as a coach who knows he has been given an immense task and is actually looking forward to it.

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It was a good beginning, especially for a man whose differences with the media have stuck like a bone in the throats of both parties. Arena has not hidden his, shall we say, light regard for reporters, and they, in turn, have sometimes been scathing in their attacks on him.

But it’s a new era, and the animosities of old are erased. The future curves around several bends on its way to World Cup 2002 in Japan and South Korea, and all sorts of dangers lie in wait.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Arena’s first test will be Friday, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, where Australia will be the opponent. Fortunately for Arena-- unless the U.S. happens to lose the game--the Australians have elected to bring their Olympic team rather than their full national team.

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None of the Australian professionals in Europe have been called in. Instead, interim Coach Raul Blanco’s team is made up of 18 young players who are battling to make the roster for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

They will give it all they have, but they cannot be considered a match for even this new-look, few-veterans U.S. team.

The American starting lineup? How about this for a guess: Zach Thornton in goal, a defensive back four of Eddie Pope, C.J. Brown, Robin Fraser and Jeff Agoos; a four-man midfield with Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis wide right and left, respectively, and Richie Williams and Joe-Max Moore as the defensive and creative midfielders, respectively. Up front, the strike duo of Roy Lassiter and Brian McBride.

That would/should give Australia something to think about.

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PAYNE IN THE U.A.E.

Arena knows there were others who were close to getting the national team job. One of them was former Portugal national coach Carlos Queiroz, the man U.S. Soccer hired to produce a state-of-the- game report on soccer in this country.

In fact, Bob Contiguglia, the federation president, was about to board a plane to the United Arab Emirates, where Queiroz is now national coach, when a message from Queiroz stopped him cold.

“If you don’t have an offer, don’t come,” was more or less the wording.

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So Contiguglia stayed home, and Arena, his first choice anyway, got the U.S. job.

But who gets the Washington D.C. United job he leaves vacant?

“I was going to fly to the United Arab Emirates,” Kevin Payne, Washington’s general manager, deadpanned, “but he told me, ‘If you don’t have an offer, don’t come.’ ”

OOPS AND OOPS AGAIN

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As well as Arena’s introductory news conference went in New York, there were a couple of warning flags raised.

The first was that Arena twice talked about the World Cup in Japan, failing to mention South Korea, which is co-host of the 2002 tournament. That snub, although surely inadvertent, will have been noted in Seoul and is a mistake Arena should not repeat.

The other error was also minor but potentially troubling in light of later developments. It came when Arena was talking about how he will continue trying to become fluent in Spanish.

“The nice thing about this job is that I am coach of the United States national team and right now the language is English,” he said.

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Right now?

That might have seemed funny to some, but it is hardly the sort of sensitivity that Arena should show toward a community that supports soccer in greater numbers and with greater passion and greater understanding than any other.

Former coach Steve Sampson went out of his way to build bridges between the national team and Latino fans in the United States. It was one of the best aspects of his legacy.

It would be a shame if Arena undermined that effort, even if it is simply due to his fondness for flip remarks.

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One wonders, though, why his initial roster of 22 players contained a dozen newcomers to the national team but not a single Latino player.

As Major League Soccer Commissioner Doug Logan said: “I have offered to Bruce to be his interpreter in Guadalajara in January, and I see my role as being, ‘No, what Senor Arena really meant was. . . .’ ”

The new U.S. coach will quickly learn that while openness and forthrightness are admired, the international game requires a great deal more diplomacy in choosing one’s words.

Not to mention one’s teams.

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ITALIAN DOUBLE

On the telephone from Milan the other day, Walter Zenga, Italy’s 1990 World Cup goalkeeper, was trying to explain how a successful team is built.

The question has particular relevance for Zenga and the New England Revolution because the 37-year-old keeper next season will become the first player-coach in MLS.

He accepted that role--in fact, he insisted on it--as a condition for returning to Boston next year.

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Zenga played in the nets for New England in 1997, retired, and then, after Dutchman Thomas Rongen was fired, returned as coach for the final six games of an appalling 11-21 1998 season (going 3-3). He is hugely popular among Revolution fans, not least of all for his broken English.

“In one team, the best players, the backbone, are keeper, sweeper, center midfielder and center forward,” he said. “This is my idea, my opinion.”

In other words, now that MLS has limited teams to four instead of five foreign players, Zenga does not feel the Revolution would be wasting a foreign spot by having its Italian coach in the nets.

He probably will be one bone in the four-foreigner backbone.

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Another will be Salvadoran striker Raul Diaz Arce, who has had consecutive seasons of 23, 15 and 18 goals, the first two seasons with D.C. United, and is the all-time leading goal scorer in MLS.

That leaves the Revolution looking for a creative midfielder and a top-class sweeper around which to build its team.

The Chicago Fire’s Francis Okaroh could fill the latter role, if he wants to return to his former club. Finding a playmaker will be a bigger challenge for the team’s new player-coach.

Zenga’s planned double duty has raised a few eyebrows. Had he ever played alongside a player- coach or did he have any experience with the concept in his 11 years with Inter Milan and Sampdoria?

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“I’ve always had a player-coach,” was his unexpected answer. “Always, I was a coach on the field. This is a joke, huh?”

Well, OK, yes. But Ian Feuer is not laughing.

Feuer, a 6-foot-6 string bean from Los Angeles, was New England’s starting goalkeeper in ’98 but now, no doubt, will be languishing on the bench. And it’s not as if complaining to the coach will do much good.

Zenga, selected as the world’s top goalkeeper after Italy finished third in the Italia ’90 World Cup, had lost little of his ability by ’97. The Revolution was 15-7 with him in the nets that year and 0-10 without him.

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By the beginning of next season, Zenga said, he will be back in top shape.

“I feel like I stopped playing only yesterday,” he said. “One year [of retirement] flew by without me even realizing it.”

The Revolution will be spending a week or two in Italy in the spring. Zenga hopes that preseason trip will pay off in the fall, when MLS Cup ’99 is played at Foxboro Stadium.

QUICKLY TAKEN

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Injury has forced Colorado Rapid forward Paul Bravo to withdraw from the U.S. team that will play Australia on Friday. . . . Miami Fusion Coach Ivo Wortmann and Chicago Fire Coach Bob Bradley will be Arena’s assistants for that game, and Milutin Soskic will return as goalkeeper coach.


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