Long season wears on United's Arena Games within games grind down coach

October 05, 1997|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

HERNDON, Va. -- Late Wednesday morning, practice having just ended and his players in the showers, Bruce Arena sat in his second-floor D.C. United office returning calls.

Still in sweats, he was one tired coach. With little probing, he admitted as much.

"It's been a long year, although one that's very special to me," said the 46-year-old. "But in some ways, oddly enough, it's old. Part of that is the fact that you're always running a program that's expected to win. It wears you down a little bit."

For Arena and D.C. United, which will open the Major League Soccer playoffs at 8 p.m. tonight (ESPN2) at RFK Stadium in Washington, this season ranks right up there with the most grueling in any pro sport.

Depending on United's playoff success, between three and eight games remain, but circle Oct. 29. That's when it Arena hopes it will end, though possibly he and his players would face the same kind of headache they've faced all year.

United wants to win its second straight United States Open Cup against the Dallas Burn that day in, of all places, Indianapolis. But to do it, the team would have to cope with three of its best players going off to join the U.S. national team for its World Cup qualifier in Mexico City three days later.

Having won both MLS's first championship and then the 83rd U.S. Open Cup late last October, Arena -- whose 1996 wasn't exactly easy, either, as he also coached the U.S. Olympic team -- was back at work in January, and has had relatively few days off since.

First came preseason games in Japan and Hong Kong, then spring training in Florida, Major League Soccer's 32-game season, a couple pf mandatory exhibitions at A-League affiliates, the 84th U.S. Open Cup and a three-game series called the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

For one nightmarish stretch from late July into early September, United crammed 13 games into 36 days (going 8-4-1), a more cluttered pace by six to 10 games than some of Europe's best-known teams -- with larger rosters -- deal with.

Players came and went, regularly, with various World Cup qualifiers requiring their services. It didn't help, either, that two 22 starters, defender Mario Gori and top scorer Raul Diaz Arce. were arrested on rape-related charges in Columbus, Ohio, cases that remain to be adjudicated.

In mid-September, Arena, usually cautious to the point of sometimes seeming aloof with reporters around, bent.

"The way our league is operating, this is one of the worst coaching jobs in the world, in MLS," he told The Washington Post with remarkable candor that rippled quickly through soccer circles nationwide. "There's so much you don't have control over."

That earned him a quick, smart-mouthed rebuke from league commissioner Doug Logan. But Arena, not only United's coach but also assistant general manager, only said publicly what others in the league had been grousing about privately for weeks. It was a point deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati shrugged off following August's U.S.-Ecuador friendly in Baltimore.

The spat is history, Arena said this week. The league will address issues of scheduling, roster size, salary cap and movement of players during its planning for next season.

Until then, Arena's on-field focus seems to be back where it usually is, on winning. No surprise, for a man who was a college lacrosse All-American at Cornell and became a coaching legend in his other sport, soccer, at the University of Virginia. His four NCAA soccer titles in 18 years and 295-59-31 record rank him among the coaching greats in any college sport.

He's concerned about the New England Revolution tomorrow night and again at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium Wednesday in the best-of-three playoffs. If needed, the deciding game will be at RFK next Sunday.

The Revs lost four straight to United this season, but all of the games were close. They also won three of their last four games to salvage the last MLS East playoff spot. United, which clinched first place early and had the most regulation wins (17, plus four shootout wins) of any MLS teams, ended 1-2, both losses coming in regulation at home.

Still, Arena's team is all but conceded a berth in the second MLS Cup on Oct. 26 at RFK. But can his club regain its form? Arena was asked.

"We'll know, starting Sunday night," he replied. You can just tell, though. Tired or not, he wants to win.

MLS playoffs

Conf. semifinals

(Best of three)

Eastern Conference

New England vs. D.C.

Sunday -- at D.C., 8 p.m.

Wednesday -- at New England, 7: 30 p.m.

Oct. 12 -- at D.C., TBD*

Columbus vs. Tampa Bay

Sunday -- at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m.

Wednesday -- at Columbus, 7: 30 p.m.

Oct. 11 -- at Tampa Bay, 7: 30 p.m.*

Western Conference

Colorado vs. Kansas City

Tomorrow -- at Kansas City, 8: 30

Wednesday -- at Colorado, 9 p.m.

Oct. 12 -- at Kansas City, TBD*

Dallas vs. Los Angeles

Sunday -- at Los Angeles, 8 p.m.

Wednesday -- at Dallas, 8: 30 p.m.

Oct. 11 -- at Los Angeles, 10: 30 p.m.*

* -- if necessary

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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