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Tuesday, June 27, 2006
MLS supporters lash out at Arena and league critics

BERLIN (AP) -- Some Americans are telling Bruce Arena to think before he speaks.

Four years ago, U.S. coach Arena lauded Major League Soccer as a reason for the Americans' run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Now, some think he's trying to blame the 11-year-old league for a first-round exit from Germany 2006 .

"I think it's ridiculous," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "If I were him I'd take a deep breath and think about what I say before I criticize anyone in American soccer."

Following a 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic, a 1-1 draw with Italy and a 2-1 loss to Ghana, the Americans went home with 15 other first-round hopefuls, bringing comparisons to the three-losses-and-out performance of the United States in France in 1998.

Six months after the 1998 showing, fired coach Steve Sampson blamed MLS for the failure, saying veteran players who left their European and Mexican clubs to come home for the start of MLS two years earlier had become "soft."

While not identifying MLS, Arena's comments in the past several days strike many in the American league the same way.

"And the way for us to get our players to get better is: We do need to get more of our younger talented players in Europe," said Arena, who won two of the first three titles in MLS with D.C. United. "We need them in a year-round soccer environment. We need them playing in more intense games to help develop them mentally, as well as soccerwise."

In a subsequent interview with ESPN on Monday, Arena, a member of MLS' strategic technnical committee, said specifically he was not blaming the league. Others believe he was suggesting it was inadequate.

"The reality to so many out there is that coaching the U.S. national team is the easiest job on the planet," said U.S. national team alltime scoring leader Eric Wynalda, now an analyst for ABC/ESPN. "You do have a league that provides you with a great team. For him to be so arrogant, to not recognize that fact. ...The one thing his agent said as the reason that he should have the job was because of his success in MLS."

Wynalda, who played in Germany from 1992-1996 and spent six years in MLS, put the blame for the U.S. failures squarely on Arena.

"He can take a team to a certain level, but he has no idea where the next level is," Wynalda said. "How much does he know about playing in Europe, other than having a hot dog and a beer in the stands? Hearsay? Does he talk to the players? That's justification to know? Has he ever coached there and have that pressure? No. Sorry, I'm just pointing out the obvious."

U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who has never played in MLS, also suggested American players needed to get to Europe. But MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, the man most responsible for player development in the U.S. league, thinks people are grasping for excuses.

"The temptation after a disappointing World Cup is to come up with knee-jerk reactions and explanations," Gazidis said. "It has the beauty of simplicity. The inconvenient fact is there is not a shred of evidence to support it."

About half of both the 2002 and 2006 teams were comprised of players in MLS. But in 2002, six of the starters for the Americans' 3-2 opening victory against Portugal played in MLS, including Landon Donovan and Brian McBride. In 2006 against the Czech Republic, only three came from an MLS roster: Donovan, Eddie Pope and Pablo Mastroeni.

"The truth is, the answer is more complex," Gazidis said. "We'll take time to analyze this. I do think we're not producing the type of player with quality, the skill and the imagination of a [Juan] Riquelme or a Ronaldinho. We have the ability to do it. But we need to reach deeper into the Hispanic and African-American communities; look at South American player development."

The Columbus Crew's German-born coach Sigi Schmid, an assistant for the U.S. team at the 1994 World Cup and a former U.S. under-20 national team head coach, believes there are advantages to playing in Europe.

"For sure, playing Europe gives you a hardness, a coolness," he said. "There's more of a microscope, more pressure to perform as an individual. We have to be better at recreating that in MLS."

Schmid said the media reaction to this year's World Cup was a step in that direction, yet his fellow coach at the Chicago Fire, Dave Sarachan, says everybody is overthinking this.

"Maybe it's more simplistic, like we just didn't play well," said Sarachan, an assistant to Arena at the 2002 World Cup. "We fell flat in the tournament. We have MLS players who can play in the World Cup. Jimmy Conrad and Clint Dempsey played very well. I don't think MLS is the fault of the national team not playing well in the World Cup."

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