A Winning Arena

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U.S. head coach Bruce Arena has made a career out of unexpected success

American football fans who awakened in the predawn hours to watch the U.S. take on Portugal in the World Cup must have thought they were still dreaming. Before the coffee finished brewing the U.S. had gone up 1-0—excuse us, one-nil—on the stylish Europeans. And the Yanks kept lighting up Portugal like a pachinko table: 2-0 in the 29th minute and 3-0 in the 36th on a beautifully taken header by Brian McBride. Despite a furious Portuguese rally, the U.S. held on to a 3-2 victory for one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

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The success was unexpected, particularly after 1998's debacle, when the U.S. finished dead last, behind all 31 other teams. But U.S. coach Bruce Arena has made a career of unexpected success. When he took over Major League Soccer's D.C. United after an impressive college career, there were doubts he could handle pro players. United won back-to-back MLS Cup titles. When he was named coach of the U.S. team in October of '98, there was clamoring that the team needed a leader with a glittering international résumé, not some local from Brooklyn.

Now it has one. "We beat arguably one of the top teams in the world in the most important sports competition in the world and the most competitive one," the 50-year-old Arena told Time. "Does it say we have arrived? No, but it says we are headed in the right direction." His team stands a good chance of making the round of 16. A win in either of this week's games with South Korea or Poland could do it.

Like a chemist tweaking a formula, Arena constantly adjusts strategy and lineup to capitalize on the strengths of the players who are available against the next opponent. "His best quality is man management," says backup goalkeeper Tony Meola, who played for Arena at the University of Virginia in the late '80s. "You get chosen for a reason, whether you're a hard-nosed tackler or a playmaker. And those are the things you do." That's not the way many international coaches work it. Former U.S. and current China coach Bora Milutinovic, says Meola, makes players adjust to his system. Both approaches can win, but Arena's produced spectacular results last week. He surprised all by starting a pair of 20-year-old speed merchants, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, to take the attack to Portugal. "Beasley and Donovan were in top form," Arena says. "It was clear to me they belonged on the field." He told them at the last minute. He also picked Frankie Hejduk, a guy so rooted to the bench he was talking to termites.

Of course, all played superbly. That's part of the mind meld that has come to be known as Arenaball. He constantly talks to players, probes, prods and encourages. "That's what coaches do, what leaders do," says Arena. "You challenge people, treat them fairly, treat them with respect, try to position them to be as successful as they can be."

For all his intensity, Arena does not take a dim view of having fun. In Seoul, the team is staying at a downtown Marriott to be in the midst of the festivities. In previous Cups, they were soccer monks, isolated in country retreats. "Bruce understands the importance of enjoying the Cup," says midfielder Cobi Jones. "We feed off of all that positive energy."

The U.S. will need plenty of energy, not to mention a goal or two, to extend its stay. Clint Mathis and injured team captain Claudio Reyna, the squad's best player, seem like sure starters if healthy, but with Arena you never know. The one sure thing: the U.S. is a World Cup doormat no more.