In such sports as basketball and baseball, U.S. national teams are the perennial "overdogs," invariably liked by Americans and hated by the rest of the world. But in soccer, the world's most popular spectator sport, the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team was a bystander on a pitch dominated by European and South American squads -- until four years ago.
Then, the U.S. men's soccer team shocked Portugal and Mexico en route to its first quarterfinals appearance in the 2002 World Cup, sponsored by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Now, the squad, led by head coach Bruce Arena '73, is about to attempt another magical run, in the 2006 World Cup in Germany beginning June 9.
"If you are going to play the best 500 Brazilians against the best 500 Americans, we lose every time. The best 500 Italians ... you can't do that. [But] they are only allowing 11 in this World Cup. I like those odds better," Arena said in a May 17 interview broadcast on the U.S. Soccer Federation Web site http://www.ussoccer.com.
The 32 national teams that have qualified for the World Cup will play in eight groups. Although the U.S. team's 23-man squad has plenty of veteran players, many people still consider it an underdog against the highly ranked Czech and Italian teams in its group.
But beating the odds isn't new to Arena, who at Cornell was a second-team All-American in lacrosse and an all-Ivy soccer goalkeeper. A transfer student, he was recruited by famed former lacrosse coach Richie Moran, who praised Arena's talents and strong work ethic. "Bruce was an outstanding midfielder and a fine athlete. He came to practices with a blue-collar philosophy," said Moran.
Arena planned to concentrate on lacrosse, but when Cornell's starting and backup soccer goalkeepers were injured, soccer coach Dan Wood persuaded him to try out for that team as well. The result were a 1972 Big Red soccer team that went to the NCAA Division I Soccer Championships semifinals and a most valuable defensive player award for Arena.
"I enjoyed every day at Cornell," said Arena in a recent e-mail message. The campus's beauty, diversity, academic challenges, first-class faculty and coaching staffs provided "memorable moments and without a doubt shaped my career," he said.
At Cornell, Arena had his first taste of coaching as an assistant for the Varsity B lacrosse team of non-regular players. "He could take some lacrosse players with average backgrounds and make them into solid college players," recalled Moran.
After brief professional stints in lacrosse and soccer, Arena coached the University of Virginia's soccer program, transforming it into a five-time NCAA Division I soccer champion. He also coached Major League Soccer's D.C. United and the 1996 U.S. Olympics soccer team, before taking over the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team.
"Most coaches are good with their X's and O's [tactical planning], but Bruce also has this rapport with professional players," said Wood, now a Florida resident, who watched the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team play exhibition matches when Arena first began coaching the team eight years ago. "You could tell even at that early stage that people were responding to the Arena style. It can be rough and sarcastic, but you know he is fair," said Wood.
Under Arena's leadership, the U.S. men's soccer team has won as a defensive squad that thrives by pressuring the opposing team. Said Moran, "We want our team to be fundamentally sound, have good team players and great leaders, and I believe Bruce has followed that script."
Arena has the longest tenure of any coach at this year's World Cup. The U.S. team's first match will be against the Czech Republic team on June 12 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Among those cheering for the team will be Arena's wife, Phyllis '75, and Wood and his wife, who have World Cup tickets.
Graduate student Alex Kwan is a writer intern with the Cornell News Service.