U.S. Soccer President Sticks Up for Arena

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006

BERLIN, June 30 -- Since the U.S. national soccer team's unceremonious exit from the World Cup last week, Coach Bruce Arena has been severely criticized by fans, former players, international columnists and television commentators.

On Friday, Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president who will play a major role in whether Arena remains in charge, came to Arena's defense.

"I think it's been extraordinarily unfair," Gulati said in an interview with The Washington Post at his downtown hotel here. "I think it's fine to criticize the results of the team and the performance -- that's part of sports and Bruce is the head of the team, that goes with the territory -- but to challenge his experience, his ability, his know-how, his decision making is, just to me, not credible given his record over the last eight years with our team and his record in general. He didn't become a bad coach in two weeks."

Despite Gulati's defense, Arena's future remains in limbo. After initially indicating a decision would be made no earlier than mid-July, Gulati said Friday that the timetable might need to be moved up "so everyone can figure out what's going on."

Arena, 54, has coached the U.S. team for 7 1/2 years and through two World Cups, but after a 0-2-1 record and first-round elimination this summer, he has questioned whether he wants to continue and the USSF has begun weighing its options.

Arena's contract, estimated at $600,000 per year, will expire Dec. 31.

"We need time for reflection, discussion, but we will continue to talk," Gulati said. "Bruce has to decide what's best for him; Dan [Flynn, the USSF's secretary general] and I have to decide what's best for the federation."

Arena has been linked to the MLS's New York Red Bulls, which fired coach Mo Johnston this week. Asked Friday if he had been contacted by the team, Arena said he had no comment.

Arena has come under fire from commentators, most notably former U.S. players Eric Wynalda and Alexi Lalas, for his personnel moves and tactical decisions at the World Cup.

"The stuff coming from analysts is mind-boggling," Gulati said. "I don't understand that at all. It's not that I have an issue with the criticism -- that's, frankly, a sign of maturing of the sport and interest in the sport -- but when the criticism is personal or just plain dead wrong and not based on anything actual, that to me is counterproductive."

MLS Commissioner Don Garber also joined the fray after Arena said that, in order for the U.S. program to improve, more young players need to gain experience in European leagues.

"I would've said a couple things differently, but I had no real issues with what [Arena] said," said Gulati, a former MLS deputy commissioner who, in addition to his new USSF post, oversees soccer operations for the New England Revolution. "It's misplaced anger and it's just frustration on everybody's part."

U.S. Note: In a reversal from previous USSF statements, Gulati said he would consider entering the national team in next summer's Copa America, the prestigious South American tournament, even though it is scheduled to begin just a few days after the completion of the U.S. squad's own regional championship, the Gold Cup. The U.S. team has a standing invitation to play in Copa America after winning the 2005 Gold Cup.

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