Chatting with Bruce Arena, the dean of American soccer coaches, is always a hoot. Chatting with Bruce Arena so soon after MLS allegedly thwarted his efforts to sign Sacha Kljestan and determined Jermaine Jones‘s club by blind draw, well, from the bottom of my blogging heart, thank you, MLS.
I sat down with Arena at StubHub Center on Monday morning, two days before the Galaxy hosts resurgent D.C. United.
Soccer Insider: Do you think the Galaxy is beginning to hit its stride at the right time?
Bruce Arena: “We’ll see.”
It’s a forgiving league because you can start slowly and turn it on before the playoffs, right?
“That has often been the case.”
Do you plan to make any significant roster moves before the Sept. 15 deadline?
“No, we are fine. I don’t know what you can do at this point — even though, the way things have been happening [in MLS] lately, God knows what could possibly happen.”
What happened with the possible Kljestan deal from Anderlecht? You seemed all set to sign him.
“We had a trade in place. We had budget room and space to be able to do it. We had all of our ducks in a row. We were positioned to sign a player. I won’t go into detail and just say forces within the league worked real hard to make sure that didn’t happen.”
“Because they are children and there have to be adults in the process, and we didn’t have enough of them. I think we are back into the old days in the league when the rules are somewhat arbitrary. Hopefully we will get that straightened out in the offseason.”
You traded defender Kofi Opare to D.C. for a high position in the allocation order with the intent to sign Kljestan, right?
“We were going to add a player.”
It didn’t work out, so you probably will not be able to exercise that allocation slot before the deadline, correct?
“Right. But we did end up adding a player without the allocation slot: Alan Gordon.”
So what do you make of the blind draw that delivered Jones to New England instead of Chicago, his preferred destination?
Had you heard of an MLS blind draw before?
“Never heard of it. They could have made life easier for everyone by making it public, I guess. That [mechanism] would be like the NBA draft lottery being a blind draw. We have seen a lot of blind draws in U.S. soccer over the years with the Open Cup. They have made it more transparent, but there are still a lot of clouds there.”
In the big picture, given your experiences trying to acquire Kljestan and what unfolded with Jones, does it trouble you that, here in Year 19, MLS is still using these peculiar mechanisms for player signings?
“It’s troubling for everyone. Everyone is involved in the process. There is no finger-pointing at any particular person because ownership is involved in all of this stuff. They allow it and they participate. This is all attributed to ownership; it’s not attributed to the commissioner or the people in that [New York] office. It may not be fully supported by ownership, but there is a participation level by ownership that says: ‘This is the way we want to do things.’ ”
Going forward, I imagine you would like to see changes …
“Owners can run the league any way they want to run it. If they want it to be transparent, not transparent, have rules that are arbitrary – that is all their business. They are allowed to do those things.”
What are your observations about the quality of the league this year?
“I think it is better from top to bottom. There are emerging styles of play that differ, which is good. Teams definitely have their own way of doing business, on and off the field, which is good. Until we have other ways to do your business, we are never going to produce great teams. For a couple of years, someone is good, and then they go down a little bit.”
Would it be better if there were villains, so to speak, and matchups that created greater upset possibilities?
“Parity translates to mediocrity. It doesn’t translate to excellence. You do want to have cycles where there are more dominant teams. It’s impossible to do in our league because of the rules, the financial restrictions, and the way of doing things that are sometimes apparent and sometimes not apparent. It makes it difficult to produce a really good team over time.”
The argument over the years was that financial rules were a necessity to ensure the league’s long-term sustainability …
“That problem has been solved. I don’t think there is any question about the fact this league is going to be around. We have very strong ownership, so now the next challenge is whether we can make it into a league of more quality.”
So you would advocate lifting the financial constraints …
From a distance, what are you observations of D.C. Coach Ben Olsen, your former player?
“He has done a real good job. When you are at the bottom and your ownership makes it known they are going to work hard to make it better, on and off the field, there was no question there was going to be a strong emphasis on improving the team and maybe spending a few dollars. Sticking all of the pieces together is never easy, but I do think you have some advantages when you come off a poor season and you get in line for a variety of possibilities [such as the first pick in various player acquisitions]. Having said that, it’s not easy. Teams in the same situations over the years have not managed as well as they have. At this point, they get high marks.”
You have known Ben a long time. To see him now coaching a contending team …
“To see him now stressed out like everyone else is very rewarding!”
Did you see coaching qualities in him long ago?
“He is far from a finished product. He didn’t know what he was getting into, and at this point, he probably doesn’t know where he is headed, but in time, all of that stuff will take care of itself.”
What were your impressions of the U.S. team at the World Cup?
“It was great that they got through group play. I don’t think there was anything on the playing side that you can point at that was really notable. The fight, the desire is there, the goalkeeping was excellent. The inability to pass with any kind of quality was a glaring weakness. Producing chances, having any kind of possession was really a knock against the team. They were poor in those areas. Having said that, they managed to get a win and a draw out of four games – that’s pretty remarkable. We are not in position to play against top teams. We can give it a good effort, a good fight.”
In many ways, despite the stated ambitions, the characteristics of the U.S. team have remained the same over the years …
“I would argue maybe that isn’t so. Our team in 2002 played pretty well.”
What have you observed about Landon Donovan since his announcement a few weeks ago that he will retire after this season?
“He is at peace with everything. He’s happy. He’s playing well. It’s all good. He is pleased he arrived at a decision he feels good about. I encouraged it. I felt it was a good move for him.”
“He was ready to retire. This has been going on for years, so it’s good to reach a conclusion. I should be so lucky to go out like that.”
You could if you want!
“Yeah, I guess so.”
So you are saying you might be done after this year?
“I’m not saying anything. I might become a writer.”
You don’t want to do that.
“I wrote a guest column for the L.A. Times during the World Cup.”