The Galaxy is in town to face D.C. United on Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium — a mismatch of personnel and payrolls, and quite likely, on the pitch.
Washington is familiar ground for the Los Angeles head coach, Bruce Arena (as well as for his assistants, Dave Sarachan and Curt Onalfo). Arena resided in Charlottesville and Fairfax while coaching the University of Virginia, then D.C. United and the U.S. national team. Since 2006, he has visited regularly while in charge of the Red Bulls and then Galaxy, the two-time reigning MLS Cup champion.
I sat down with Arena at the team hotel in downtown D.C. on Friday afternoon …
Q: Let’s start with tomorrow’s match. You have four starters returning from international duty: Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Keane and Jaime Penedo. They all played Tuesday, and you have a CONCACAF Champions League match next Wednesday. How do you manage their playing time against United, which is not the strongest opponent these days?
A: “We will see how they feel, but they are experienced with coming and going. I don’t think the travel for Landon and Omar is as extensive as the others because they’ve been back in the States for basically a week and arrived in D.C. on Wednesday. I think they’ll be ready. Penedo is a little tired [after playing in Honduras]. Keane arrived Thursday.”
Q: With the playoffs approaching, do you sense the Galaxy beginning to round into form?
A: “The problem with the team is we’ve only had our full group together for about 10 games this year. [Donovan and Keane have started together in 11 of 27 league matches.] It’s the oddities of MLS and other things. It’s a good team, but we’ve got to show it as we close out the regular season. We are, by far, not assured of the playoffs.”
Q: You’ve played regular season matches, the back side of the 2012-13 Champions League, the start of the 2013-14 Champions League, plus the U.S. Open Cup and the International Champions Cup. How has that worked?
“For the regular season competition to be right, [MLS] has got to figure out how to balance the schedule. We still haven’t managed to do it properly and deal with all the conflicts. There is a lot of work to get the schedule right in this league. I still think it is foolish for us to hold any days aside for Open Cup. We should do our schedule and then let the Open Cup revolve around it. We just close down too many dates for regular season matches. It doesn’t make sense. Open Cup is mid-week, but those are dates we need. We have to play mid-week league games, and if you take a bunch of Wednesdays out as a starting point, you are in trouble. If we want to stay in the Open Cup, then we have to find a different way to do it. We can’t accommodate it. On top of it, this unbalanced [MLS] schedule is the oddest thing in the world. Either play strictly in conferences or play home and away against everybody. The whole competition is screwed up. We don’t have a rhythm to the scheduling.”
Q: Are you troubled by MLS continuing to schedule league matches during FIFA fixture windows, particularly World Cup qualifiers?
A: “It impacts the integrity of the competition. It is an oddity and it’s bad for the fan base and bad for the league.”
Q: Reports have surfaced the league is considering a reduction in the number of regular season matches to accommodate breaks and outside competitions …
A: “I don’t know how they can reduce the number of games because that means they are reducing revenue. We have to start earlier in the year, maybe end a little later, and condense the Open Cup dates.”
Q: The Galaxy, though, did not have to participate in the International Champions Cup. That was just an exhibition tournament.
A: “We are equally at fault in the congested schedule. But you are going to find that event is here to stay. The fan base in this country likes it. There will be an MLS team in it. We got to play Real Madrid, Juventus and AC Milan.”
Q: But with nothing much at stake, how did that benefit your team?
A: “When you see players you hear about and see teams you hear about, you get a real taste of it. It’s an invaluable experience.”
Q: Are you okay with the four artificial turf fields in the league?
A: “They are disasters. The only one that is somewhat acceptable is Portland. The others are all terrible. Seattle is bad. Vancouver is probably the worst. And New England isn’t good.”
Q: How do you think MLS handled the Clint Dempsey situation?
A: “The more we get the league out of anything on the competition side, the better off we are. In the Dempsey case, I don’t have a problem with it. But I don’t think the league should be involved with player development or rosters. That has to be all local. There is no experience in the league office to tell us how to run teams and put rosters together.”
Q: You have been involved in forming an MLS coaches’ association, which might become a union?
A: “Our goal is development of the game. Our issue is not financial right now. It’s about how we move forward on the technical side of the game. The relationship has improved with the league, but it has got to get better. In a timely matter, coaches need to be involved in a lot of these issues that impact what we do: scheduling, rosters, player development, academies.”
Q: What do you think of the league through 18 seasons?
A: “There aren’t as many peaks and valleys as there used to be. The line has flattened a little bit, which is good. Now, you want to have a steady rise. In the last decade, boy, there have been a lot of ups and downs. It’s gotten better, but there is still a lot of work to do in every area. We still have a league where we don’t appreciate the assets we have in this country, that our [U.S.] players are much better than the league gives them credit for. This league should continue to be about the American player.
“The league overall is doing great. There is not anyone who doesn’t think the league will be around in 10 years. Ask that question 10 years ago, there would’ve been some doubt. Big challenges are ahead: the collective bargaining agreement [which expires after the 2014 season], scheduling, resources for rosters.”
Q: How would you assess Landon’s season?
A: “It was a rough start, but by the beginning of June, he hit his stride. He is getting better, he is feeling better, and he is positioned to end his international career in the right way — in Brazil for the World Cup — and finish out his club career near his home. He moved it along the way he envisioned.”
Q: What are your thoughts on the national team?
A: “We have learned we have a style of play that was established long ago, and at the end, it always come out: We are a hard-working team, a competitive team, we defend as a unit and create opportunities off set pieces. Against top-quality teams, we obviously can’t carry the play to them, but we continue to be a power in CONCACAF. There is definitely more depth, and that is a credit to MLS. The other night there were six MLS players starting against Mexico. That wasn’t always the case. We’ve been able, through our league, to develop a good pool of players.”
Q: Do you communicate regularly with Bob Bradley, your longtime friend and former assistant who is overseeing Egypt’s World Cup dream?
A: “If there is ever a soccer coach to have a parade for, it is that man. What he has done in Egypt, and to have the strength he has demonstrated, is absolutely remarkable. It’s something I can tell you clearly I would never be able to do. I don’t think I have the mental strength to do what Bob has. It’s a remarkable feat.”
Q: You will turn 62 next week. You won five NCAA championships. You’ve won four MLS Cups. You coached the Olympic team. You worked two World Cups. How much longer would you like to do this?
A: “I might become a sports writer. A little easier job. Free lunches. An unbelievable life.”
Q: Yes, very similar pay check to coaching …
A: “I don’t plan to coach the rest of my life. There is a time when this will come to a conclusion, but not right now anyway. [grinning] It might change in another week, you never know.”