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A few good minutes with L.A. Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena

Bruce Arena, with Ashley Cole after a CONCACAF Champions League match against Santos Laguna, is entering his eighth full season in charge of the Galaxy. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press)

On the eve of the D.C. United-Los Angeles Galaxy match Sunday night at StubHub Center, I sat down with Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena for our annual conversation that sways between serious and tongue-in-cheek on a variety of issues facing his club, MLS and American soccer.

Arena, 64, is entering his eighth full season with the Galaxy. Previously, he coached the Red Bulls for a year, the U.S. national team for two World Cup cycles, D.C. United for three seasons and the University of Virginia for 18 years. He has won five MLS Cup titles, three Supporters’ Shields and three MLS coach of the year awards. Since 1978, when he began at UVA, he has won more than 530 matches.

Did you expect a better outcome in the CONCACAF Champions League?

“I thought every MLS team would lose. The combination of good Mexican clubs – a couple of them are really good – and the timing just doesn’t work for us. If the competition comes two months later, I think we have a chance.”

CONCACAF might change the calendar …

“If the group stage starts in February, it’s still going to make it difficult on MLS clubs.”

But the level of competition is not as high in the group stage …

“You’ve still probably got to win your group. So if you’re in preseason, it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be a perfect situation.”

So what’s the answer?

“The answer is you keep the system and move the quarterfinals, semis and finals back later, which the Mexican league will complain about. Or you change the MLS calendar. Or change the tournament calendar. We will not win the Champions League if we have clubs playing out of season.”

All those things considered, do you think the Galaxy should have performed better in Mexico?

“Yeah.”

Was it an issue of fitness and chemistry?

“The best answer is: We played poorly.”

For both your team and D.C. United, how will the early Champions League matches impact this meeting and the early league schedule?

“Getting two Champions League games in, if you get out of it without too many injuries, you are in a better position to start the league than the other teams. In the short term, not the long term. In the long term, everyone is on an even plain.”

Do you think MLS should change the calendar to play fall through spring, or are weather conditions just too harsh in much of North America?

“Certainly, the weather makes it difficult. In a perfect world, you shorten the playoffs instead of expanding them because you can play games in November in this country and all teams, not just playoff teams, should be playing. I would extend the regular season: Start a little earlier and end a little later. Eventually, the playoffs focus on a minority of the teams, so a lot of teams are off for a long time. It makes the start of the next season more difficult. I would like to see the regular season competition longer for all teams and tighten the playoffs. Maybe all playoff games should be one off, not just the first round and MLS Cup. The playoffs are the American way, but the length of them impacts the development of our clubs. A lot of clubs are off for more than three months – that’s too long without competitive games.”

What do you think of promotion and relegation here?

“Impossible.”

Why?

“Because of all the resources that have been dedicated to build this league by ownership. You are going to tell someone: ‘Goodbye?’ You’re going to tell Phil Anschutz, who has spent millions and millions building this league, that next year he may be playing in the NASL because his team had a bad year?”

Maybe someday, if all the leagues evolve …

“You’re in a dream world.”

There’s a theory that promotion and relegation would both push MLS investors into committing greater resources into their teams in order to avoid relegation and inspire owners of lower-tier clubs to spend more in order to reach the top level …

“Competitively, there are a lot of merits to promotion-relegation. Again, we’re in America. We’re in a different world.”

Is it wrong to do things differently here?

“No. We’re trying to be like everyone else in the world again in everything we do.”

In what way?

“We have coaching courses in France, coaching education from the Dutch. We’re back to that again. Out of all of this, I still haven’t heard anything new. We still need to be part of the game around the world, but we have a lot to offer, as well.”

What is your sense of the national team as you look at it from a distance?

“I don’t think they’ve stepped forward a whole lot, nor have they stepped back a whole lot.”

Is that a symptom of the talent pool or a lot of factors?

“A lot of factors, but our domestic league needs to have more Americans playing in it to make the pool stronger. We have a lot of international players now, players who aren’t helping the U.S. national team.”

Well, you went out and acquired a bunch of international players this winter …

“I am just playing by the rules. If you’re telling me I can only have X number, I will only have X number. I am always accused of not playing by the rules. Now, I am playing by the rules and being accused of something. I can’t do anything right.”

Did someone accuse you of cheating?

“I’m sure they have.”

There is a perception out there …

“Yeah, we cheat all the time. We’re the last team in the league that didn’t get away with anything.”

What do you think of that perception …

“It’s stupidity and jealousy.”

What do you say to people who were critical of the Galaxy signing Nigel de Jong, a player with a history of violent incidents?

“You’re ignorant. Good soccer player. I never concern myself with a guy who has a background playing for Ajax, Hamburg, Manchester City, AC Milan and Holland.”

Do you feel you needed some more toughness in the lineup?

“We needed good players. We needed better players on the field.”

You’ve got an older group. Not all are old, but I think nine are past 30. Ashley Cole is 35 …

“I wouldn’t look at Ashley Cole and say 35. I think he is going to show a lot of quality. His age doesn’t concern me. Certainly he is not the player he was eight years ago, but he’s still very good.”

Now that 21-year-old Ariel Lassiter has signed, do you realize you will have coached both a father (Roy) and son in MLS?

“My goal is to coach Ariel’s son, as well. Then I will go into the Guinness Book of Records.”

That must make you feel really old …

“That makes me feel like it’s time to get on the horse and ride into the sunset. I remember Ariel when he was a baby in D.C. Having said that, I also have [United Coach] Ben Olsen here this week. We have a long history [at Virginia, DCU and the national team]. There is no question I’ve been around the block.”

So you mentioned horses and sunsets, are you prepared to announce your retirement right now?

“No, I’m not. I am announcing I’ve outlived most of my critics. I’ve got a couple more to work on.”

This is the last year of your contract, correct?

“I never discuss my contract publicly.”

Okay, so this is the last year of your contract, and you’ll have to negotiate a new one or look at whether you want to continue …

“I’m not really concerned about my contract status, one way or other, whether I have more years or no years left.”

If someday you decide you don’t want to coach anymore, whether it’s after this season, 10 years from now or when Ariel Lassiter’s kid is playing …

“Once I have his kid signed, I know it’s time to retire.”

As I was trying to say, if you hang it up as a coach, would you still want to work in the front office?

“I have interest in administration in all different types of levels.”

You are, after all, both the Galaxy’s head coach and general manager. You do have multiple titles already …

“Yes, I am also the a$%$!e and the s%&!d around here.”

The season is just starting, but can you point to one or two teams that stand out?

“That’s an impossible task. Any person that actually takes themselves seriously in doing something like that lacks understanding of this league and how it operates.”

Why?

“Too many things change and so much goes into being successful on the competitive side. There are so much issues. At this point, I wouldn’t rule anyone out. You don’t know anything in this league until around December 1st.”

Great, thanks, you’ll make your prediction a week before MLS Cup …

“Exactly. There are too many variables. One general manager of a team told me in the next-to-last week of the regular season last year that he was going to get fired, and they ended up having a lot of success in the postseason. I won’t name names. He was okay. It’s like that all the time.”

Couldn’t you say the same thing about other leagues around the world?

“A lot of leagues are top heavy. It’s interesting, though, because the Premier League is having an MLS-type season where you have different teams in the running. Spain has the big three, Germany is a little lopsided. Our league is a crap shoot.”

Is it good to have that kind of unpredictability?

“It probably keeps a lot of owners happy because their team is still alive. It’s probably something the fans like. If their team still has a chance to win MLS Cup, it’s good for them. Who wants to be a fan of a team that never has a chance?”

MLS lacks, so to speak, villains, teams that are hated around the league every single year …

“I don’t know if you can call teams ‘villains.’ This year has been different in England with teams like Leicester City and West Ham. It’s not Manchester United and Chelsea. I still think what our league has to have is quality. We’ve got to get to a point where we have clubs of quality.”

MLS has some quality teams, right?

“I mean consistently strong, more competitive in outside tournaments. The rest of the leagues around the world aren’t standing still. We’re not going to be smarter and wiser about using our money than anyone else. The playing field has to be close to level in order to compete.”

Can you name all the different mechanisms in MLS in which clubs can acquire players?

“Yeah.”

Okay, name them.

“Is this supposed to be funny?”

No. I don’t do funny. It’s just that there are a lot of them …

“I just did a report on that. Can I read the report on my computer?”

Sure …

“I can tell you without looking at it, but I just did this report. Hold on … I did this off the top of my head, so maybe you think I am going to be wrong, but what I have is: designated player, discovery process, MLS trades, MLS SuperDraft, allocation process. Plus waivers, re-entry, free agency.”

You forgot homegrown!

“I guess I should put that on. But we’re not acquiring them; they’re our players through the academy system.”

True.

“But the problem with all of it, nowhere else in the world are teams waiting on other teams to make a decision. You’re not waiting for your turn. Sometimes, if you’ve been good, your turn never comes up. It’s a bit of an awkward process.”

What do you think of Targeted Allocation Money?

“I think it should all be the same. The targeted allocation, in theory, is that you are going to bring in a better player than currently exists on your roster. I think you can do both and not have any kind of requirements on how much you pay. I would rather just stick it all together. Just say we have X amount, that’s your money.”

Have you ever had to explain to someone in soccer overseas or to a player how this all works?

“None of them understand it. Not even the MLS players who are union reps.”

Do you understand it?

“I do understand it.”

You are the TAM guru of Carson …

“People say I am the TAM cheater, but I know the TAM rules. I am the Milton Friedman of TAM.”

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