SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Bruce Arena bites his fingernails religiously, a habit he has had since age 10.
Among some other unmentionables.
“Are you kidding me? I’m sure there’s plenty of those,” the U.S. coach acknowledged with a chuckle, “I don’t make that public information, though.”
Arena walks across midfield soaking in the California sun and surveying the scene as his players take a lap and begin stretches ahead of training on a practice field adjacent to Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.
He crosses his arms and paces – side to side, forward and backward – eyes up always. He shifts his hands to his hips and steals a glance downfield to where the goalkeepers are doing individual work.
“I’m thinking about my investments and retirement and things like that,” Arena cracked, then added: “I’m observing the players and looking at their habits, trying to learn as much as I can about players on a daily basis. It’s not only game day. When you have a team and there’s 23 players, every player is important. So sometimes your contributions aren’t only on game or on the field and it’s other things. You look at the qualities of players both on and off the field.”
With his quick wit off the field and demanding nature on it, Arena has instilled a calm and a swagger the U.S. squad needed, and that has bred success again after fans reached panic mode. Now, Arena can become the first to coach three CONCACAF Gold Cup titles if the Americans can beat surprising Jamaica on Wednesday night. The U.S. won under Arena in 2002 and `05.
“I came in with Bruce in January and I think initially you saw someone who’s trying to get points across and be pretty serious about it, but as we realized his demands and his intentions he’s been able to kind of dial it back a little bit,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “Very dry, good sense of humor. It’s important, especially in these long camps, to have some kind of comic relief as well.”
On Monday, Arena reminded his players it was here in the Bay Area where the Americans regained momentum in March by beating Honduras 6-0 in a World Cup qualifer.
Arena, a member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame who turns 66 in September, has led the team to an 8-0-5 record since he returned in November for a second stint as coach, replacing Jurgen Klinsmann after the Americans’ first 0-2 start in the final round of qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region.
“Four months ago we were rebuilding our program, a program that was in desperate shape of being in a position to qualify for a World Cup and all other things,” Arena said. “We’ve made great strides over the last four months. This is a great opportunity for us to continue to make progress. We’d love to win the Cup.”
The U.S. is seeking its sixth Gold Cup title and first since 2013. Nine different players have scored so far this tournament, most notably Clint Dempsey’s record-tying 57th goal in a 2-0 semifinal win against Costa Rica on Saturday that matched Landon Donovan’s mark.
“Coming into the situation, into the job, we were in a tough spot,” Dempsey said.
Under Arena, the Americans have momentum again regardless how Wednesday turns out. Qualifying resumes with matches against Costa Rica on Sept. 1 at Harrison, New Jersey, and four days later at Honduras. The hex concludes against Panama on Oct. 6 in Orlando, Florida, and at Trinidad and Tobago four days after.
“It’s a good group of guys, let’s start there,” veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “But Bruce has kind of come in and kind of took the edge off a little bit. That’s who he is as a person, that’s how he manages us, and he’s kind of allowed us to be ourselves and have that swagger. The one thing I would say about Bruce, which has kind of always been the case but more so now, I think he is more relaxed off the field and much more demanding on the field. He’s always kind of had that balance but it’s more extreme now, and it’s a very good thing. He asks the world of us on the field, whether it be training or games he asks us for 110 percent every day, and then when you’re off the field he’s joking, he’s very jovial and he kind of lets us be who we are.”
Arena took over with little room for error. A decade ago, he never would have envisioned himself in this spot now.
“I’m enjoying it, and I’ve always thought about what I was going to do in my mid-60s,” Arena said. “I thought I was going to retire at 55, so I’m a little bit behind schedule right now. Probably going to keep going for a while, doing something. I’m thinking from what I can tell I probably could be a sportswriter and do pretty well.”
Then added with one of those sly grins, “Nah, I’m only kidding.”
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