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Bruce Arena impatiently swats away the notion that he is a miracle worker – and he is right.
The Los Angeles Galaxy head coach might have woven the fabric for what could become one of soccer's greatest revivals, but he has done it through common sense, not magical means.
Arena's methods this season seem so blindingly obvious now that the Galaxy are 90 minutes away from the Major League Soccer championship. He got the best out of his most credentialed player (David Beckham), fixed Beckham's rift with captain Landon Donovan and put faith in a young and hungry core of talented backup players. Simple, huh?
Maybe. But it was a simplicity that eluded the uninterested Ruud Gullit and the hard-working Frank Yallop before him, as the club floundered and wrought self-inflicted ridicule upon itself in the period following Beckham's arrival.
Arena is no stranger to criticism himself, having shouldered much of the blame for the United States' dismal showing at the 2006 World Cup and enduring a troubled period in charge of the New York Red Bulls. However, his stint in L.A. has proven that, while he can be gruff and direct and lacks a sparkling personality, he knows American soccer as well as anyone and can build success if given the tools.
When Arena replaced Gullit last August, he stepped into what looked like an impossible situation. Motivation and spirit were at an all-time low, salary cap space had been clogged by poor signings and Beckham appeared to be on his way – perhaps permanently – to AC Milan. Yet 15 months later, the Galaxy are an overwhelming favorite to lift the trophy in Seattle on Sunday when L.A. takes on Real Salt Lake in the final.
Arena's headline masterstroke was to pull together the warring factions of Donovan and Beckham as soon as the Englishman returned from his loan spell in Milan. That axis has grown less uneasy over time and the two big stars have been critical to the Galaxy's surge in the season's second half.
But Arena began to add strength long before that, finding good, solid talent dotted around MLS and overseas without breaking the bank for it.
Defender Gregg Berhalter and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts have helped patch up positions which were often a weakness in past seasons. Arena also found Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza in the draft, players who have become defensive mainstays, despite their limited experience.
While the season began slowly, with the Galaxy drawing nine of their first 11 league games, improvement was taking place, especially at the back where it was most needed. Even so, Arena could not imagine the extent to which his men would come bursting back to finish atop of the Western Conference before seeing off Chivas USA and the Houston Dynamo in the playoffs.
"I'd have said you were [expletive] crazy," Arena said of the scenario. "I wouldn't have believed it."
Now Arena believes, just as a previously skeptical American soccer public is once again believing in him.
Weekend Best XI
1. Get him an Advil
Arsene Wenger's hopes of leading Arsenal to English Premier League and Champions League glory took a blow when Robin van Persie was ruled out for three months with ankle ligament damage. The Gunners had been looking outstanding both domestically and in Europe but will miss the Dutch striker's attacking firepower.
2. Get him a beer
Nick Rimando produced three saves in a dramatic penalty shootout as underdog Real Salt Lake reached the MLS Cup final by beating the Chicago Fire on Saturday. Rimando guessed the right way on six of the seven PKs he faced and RSL has now won back-to-back road games to give it a shot at the title.
3. Get him some earplugs
Richard Dunne received some verbal jousting from France's players after his Republic of Ireland side lost 1-0 in the first leg of Europe's World Cup playoffs. Dunne had angered the Frenchmen with his pre-match comments to the media, and he is likely to be a target for crowd abuse in the second leg in Paris.
4. Keep an eye on …
The single-game playoff between Egypt and Algeria in Sudan on Wednesday will have both nations hanging on the outcome of a clash that is about more than soccer. The intense rivalry between the countries has already boiled over between fans and a ferocious clash can be expected.
5. Catch a flight to …
Seattle. The Emerald City is the place to be this week, as David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the Los Angeles Galaxy try to complete an incredible turnaround by winning the MLS Cup. However, Real Salt Lake will be intent on spoiling the party at Qwest Field.
6. Useless and completely made up statistic of the week
12 – The number of beers Jermaine Jenas must have downed in the locker room before proclaiming England had "played well" in its 1-0 friendly defeat to Brazil. Either that, or he's delusional.
7. Fond farewell
Diego Maradona has plenty of time to grab his crotch now after FIFA hit him with a two-month ban for a foul-mouthed tirade last month that included an obscene gesture toward reporters. Perhaps the time off will give Maradona some time to work out a World Cup game plan, as Argentina looked inept in qualifying and lost to Spain in a friendly on Saturday.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Edgar Castillo. U.S. head coach Bob Bradley will be thanking FIFA bosses if Castillo, who previously represented Mexico, becomes an integral part of his plans. Castillo is exploiting a new FIFA loophole by switching allegiances and is expected to suit up against Denmark this week. Castillo could be the answer at left back, where Jonathan Bornstein is on shaky ground after giving up the penalty that led to defeat in Saturday's friendly with Slovakia.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Costa Rica. CONCACAF looks set to have only three teams in the World Cup after Los Ticos lost their playoff first leg at home to Uruguay. The nightmarish decline of Costa Rica – which was just a minute away from earning a spot in South Africa during Hexagonal group play – is almost complete.
10. Get excited about …
Portugal's World Cup fate will be determined on Wednesday night, as it travels to Zenica to take on a talented and spirited Bosnia-Herzegovina side. The Portuguese are up 1-0 from the first leg but are missing Cristiano Ronaldo and still have much work to do.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Take a look at Tereza Frankova, wife of Galatasaray and Czech Republic striker Milan Baros.
- David Beckham
- Landon Donovan
- Bruce Arena
- Los Angeles Galaxy
- Real Salt Lake