MLS Cup Preview

MLS Cup Preview
November 20, 2011, 7:15 pm
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By Dave JohnsonCSNwashington.com

L.A. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena left fifty years of age in his rear view mirror a decade ago, but he is still coaching and writing history. Arena is the 2011 MLS Coach of the Year and set to be on the sideline Sunday for a record fifth MLS Cup.

There is no age limit in coaching and with Arena the only limit would have to be self imposed.
Arena used to tell me he was only going to coach until he was 50 and then go back to Charlottesville and maybe work in development at the University of Virginia.

It sounded like a good idea when he said it in the early days of D.C. United. Success interrupted Arenas plan to return to the school where he won five NCAA titles. Truth is U.S. Soccer needed Arena and he answered a call, he probably never thought he would get, when he took over the mens national team after the 1998 MLS season.

Arena had a taste of national team coaching at the 1996 Olympics where he guided the U-23 side. Amazingly enough Arena was actually in his first season of coaching D.C. United, but still successfully managed both teams and was instrumental in the development of players he would coach two years later with full national team.

When he took over that full national team in 1998, soccer in this country was at an interesting crossroads. Finally there was a first division pro league in MLS up and running, but the national team was coming off a disastrous performance at France 98 and badly needed direction.

Arena seized control and elevated the professionalism and organization of U.S. Soccer. By the 2002 World Cup Arena had instilled his winning mentality and the result was a team that through talent and belief made it to the quarterfinals before being pushed out in a competitive game on a controversial goal against Germany.

It cannot be overstated how important Arenas success as coach of the national team was. In 2002 there were real questions about the viability and future of MLS. The run at the World Cup gave soccer some relevance in this country and Arena was in his typical role of a rock-like figure to provide stability during uncertain times.

Arena was the steadying force on the American soccer landscape in the late 80s and early 90s, which was a time when the game was almost off the map. Sure the World Cup was coming to the United States in 1994, but the game sorely needed something to rally around and the Virginia Cavaliers provided that.

On the field Virginia had dominant teams with talented players who were encouraged by Arena to make the right decisions. More often than not the Cavaliers did while putting together a run of consecutive NCAA titles from 1991-1994. Arenas time in college ended a game shy of another title with a loss to Duke in the semi-finals in one of the greatest college games ever.

Off the field Arena was working hard to promote the sport. At the time Arena was the games best and most visible spokesman in this country. He used to make regular trips from Charlottesville to the Bethesda, Maryland Home Team Sports studio (predecessor to Comcast SportsNet) to promote Virginia and soccer on a weekly show I hosted from 1991-1995.

Here it is 2011 and Arena is still getting it done. The LA Galaxy has the best talent in the league, but that should not diminish Arenas selection for his MLS record third Coach of the Year award. Along his coaching journey Arena has developed talent (Virginia) and also willed teams to overachieve (USMNT).

On Sunday in the MLS Cup against Houston, the focus will be on David Beckham as he tries to close his five-year contract with a title. If it happens it will be fitting that the most important player in league history is forever linked with most important coach in league and American soccer history.