The ornate lobby of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s hotel a few blocks from the White House is a swirl of activity, and Coach Bruce Arena is in the middle of it.
The MLS champions have just returned from a rainy training session at Georgetown University. Arena’s boss, Tim Leiweke, has arrived. So have former Galaxy players Clint Mathis and Chris Klein.
Arena greets Josh Saunders, the first-choice goalkeeper who has been granted a brief leave from the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program. Saunders just flew in from California. It’s the first time they’ve seen one another since Saunders entered rehab two weeks ago. They arrange to chat later.
David Beckham is strolling through the lobby. In stuffy Washington, no one troubles him, for he is just another famous face -- albeit with a tattooed neck. Irish star Robbie Keane passes by.
As if Arena didn’t have enough to juggle – his club’s sputtering start to the season, this road trip, the SoCal derby against Chivas USA this weekend – there is the small matter of coming to D.C. in the first place: a White House ceremony Tuesday with President Obama, who will salute the Galaxy’s 2011 MLS Cup title.
“In a perfect world, we certainly wouldn’t be doing this,” said Arena, whose team played in Montreal on Saturday and will return to Los Angeles on Tuesday night. “But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the players and staff who haven’t been involved in this type of ceremony. It’s certainly a great honor.”
Obama is the third president Arena will have met, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush being the others.
The latest invitation has brought Arena back to the region where he launched his coaching career (University of Virginia) and first excelled on the pro level (D.C. United). During an interview Monday, he discussed the Galaxy’s early-season issues, his future in soccer, the MLS schedule, the league in general, faulty youth development and his son Kenny’s first head coaching job.
The Galaxy, picked by almost all observers to repeat as league champion, is 3-5-2 and in seventh place in the Western Conference, already 15 points behind front-running Real Salt Lake (8-3-2).
“We haven’t been terrible; we haven’t been real good,” he said. “We’ve probably played a little bit better than our record is. We played well enough to win in Montreal [a 1-1 draw]. There was some encouraging stuff. Our team should get stronger, but we have to start getting some wins and adding up some points.”
Has the Galaxy lost its hunger and bite after winning the title last season?
“I can give you that answer at the end of the year,” he said. “I have a lot of understanding why our issues to date have been what they are, but that’s not anything I will make public right now. I have a very good sense why.”
Maybe Omar Gonzalez (knee surgery) is missed more than anyone imagined.
“It has certainly had an impact, but maybe with Omar playing we’re 0-10. Who knows?” Arena said. “You can say what if, but maybe we’d be exactly where we are with Omar. It’s a hard thing to project. You look at the Chicago Bulls. They did really well [in the NBA regular season] without Derrick Rose, but who thought that would happen without the  MVP?”
The Galaxy, primed to become the first MLS team to qualify for the Club World Cup, bowed out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals with a stunning defeat to Toronto FC (winless in league play). The two-leg series was part of four matches in 12 days for the Galaxy at the beginning of the campaign.
“We just didn’t do it right, for whatever reason, and I take responsibility,” he said.
On the subject of the MLS calendar, which compresses several matches into narrow windows but also offers long breaks for World Cup qualifiers and other events, Arena said: “The scheduling is a bit odd.”
With clubs from opposite conferences meeting just once, the Galaxy won’t play in Washington, New York, New England, Philadelphia or Toronto in the regular season. “In theory, they’ll make us come east five times next year. I don’t understand the strategies. The scheduling is completely foolish. It is what it is. You have to deal with it and get it right. It’s not an excuse.”
Arena also offered his opinion on the difficulty of long-lasting success in MLS.
“The way the league is, you’ll never have a consistently good team in the league. You’re going to have the peaks and valleys over the course of your history for a variety of reasons. It’s not like you are going to have the Lakers in basketball and be consistently good for 10 or 15 years. You can’t do it in MLS because of the different rules.
“You think I would trade [veteran goalkeeper] Donovan Ricketts [now with Montreal]? That was one of the things we had to do to deal with the evolution of having a team that is successful: the salary cap, the bonuses, the raises. We were probably $700,000 or $800,000 over the salary cap” in the offseason.
I asked Arena, 60, how long he would like to continue coaching.
“A year or two more and then I would love to have the challenge of impacting the technical direction of the league,” he said, declining to reveal when his contract expires. “That’s something that keeps my head spinning every day. It’s been very difficult to have a dialogue in the league that impacts change.”
Expanding on those thoughts, he said:
“We’re inefficient in how we allocate resources in the academy. There’s a likely argument where you can say we have improved the ability to move kids to the age of 17 or 18. Where do they go from there? It’s a black hole. It’s insane. We should have a USL type of league [to develop players]. Right now, the kids would be better off going to college, and then we are back to the same thing again.
“If I didn’t have a team, I could focus on that, and hopefully someone would listen. You never know. All the [league leaders] think they are much smarter because they are in committee meetings their whole lives. We don’t have a tactical plan that makes sense. Our technical committee in the league has no influence on decision-making. It ends up going to the competition committee and then the board of governors. A lot of times what we say doesn’t even get to ownership. Ownership doesn’t really hear all they need to hear. It’s better, but not where it needs to be.
“We can improve our league competition in a lot of ways -- everything that goes into putting a team on the field. You don’t know it until you put a team on the field. That’s what [the decision-makers] don’t understand. Whether you like to hear it or not, if you’ve never done that, you don’t know how to implement policy associated with it.
“There is a model for how to do this stuff -- it’s how the rest of the world does it. The model is there for us. We just have to get that model efficiently running in our system. It takes a number of people having the time and the right voice and the right intelligence to articulate the message.
“There’s no guarantees anyone can do it, but there’s a long way to go to improve the game here. Even though we’ve made statements that we want to be one of the best leagues in the world, we have a long way to go.”
On a lighter note, Arena spoke highly of his son, a former Virginia star and MLS player who was recently named head coach at Florida International University.
“When he was young, he would drive me crazy. He always had an opinion. He always listened. When he was a ballboy [at U-Va.], he would pay attention to everything. He was always into the details and had his own thoughts and opinions. He’s a natural at it. He loves the kids he coaches and really enjoys it.”
Bruce Arena became a head coach when he was 25. Now his son, a former George Mason and UCLA assistant, is guiding a college program at age 31.
In July, Bruce Arena will become a grandfather.
“I don’t feel old. There’s more to do.”