It’s easy to be petty. It’s more difficult to make a larger point that overrides the pettiness.
Bruce Arena (with Steve Kettmann)’s book What’s Wrong With Us?: A Really Long Subtitle Follows is certainly petty at times. And it’s tempting to respond in kind.
How many potshots does Arena take at the soccer media? Let’s put it this way — I paused reading about a third of the way and searched for my own name to see if I ever came up in the firing line. I did not, which either means I’m on his good side for now or I’m insignificant. (Maybe both.)
Grant Wahl isn’t so lucky. Arena says Wahl’s book, The Beckham Experiment, takes the
Us Weekly approach as opposed to the more literate SI tradition started by great writers like Frank Deford and Ron Fimrite. The July 6, 2009, issue of the magazine carried an excerpt from Wahl’s book under the headline “How Beckham Blew It” with a blurb that threw around words like failed and alienated. I didn’t take any of it very seriously. When you’re on the inside looking out, you just chuckle at that kind of stuff and move on. Who really cares about stories of players going out for a meal together on the road, and Beckham being told he couldn’t drink unless he showed ID? I guess they call that human interest.
(Yes, let’s all note the irony that Arena cites Frank Deford, a man who prided himself on knowing nothing about soccer but turning up his nose at it anyway, like Dan Aykroyd’s character in Trading Places would scoff at a man with no butler, as part of the great literary tradition at Sports Illustrated.)
He’s also frustrated with reporters for failing to ask about a penalty kick he thinks Jozy Altidore deserved (“Don’t they watch the games?” he wonders). Then he offers up something that’s frankly a good critique of many young reporters who haven’t found a voice:
Sometimes reporters are like the kind of students who want to make sure you know they’ve done the required reading, as opposed to just keeping their eyes open and asking a question they really want answered.
That was every reporter I edited in college. And probably me at one point. And a lot of reporters I’ve known who just wanted to do the most perfunctory job possible, lie low and avoid layoffs.
But it’s really a pity Arena doesn’t have an appreciation for editors. Because my goodness, this book needed one. Is he Robbie Keane or Robby? Who is this “DeMarcus” of whom he speaks? And the most egregious error of all, in the third sentence of the book, he says the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal was “as far as a US side has ever advanced in the world’s greatest sporting event.” Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the U.S. women have won the World Cup more than once and whether the women’s event qualifies as “the world’s greatest sporting event,” the U.S. men reached the semifinal in 1930. You could argue 2002 was a greater accomplishment given that a couple hundred teams entered as opposed to the 13 in 1930, but it’s still factually incorrect.
There’s also an amusing error that apparently belongs to one of his predecessors but is passed along here with no explanatory note:
Former national team coach Walt Chyzowych, the director of coaching for the federation, gave the course’s opening talk, titled “The American Problem.” Walt said: “We are geographically a very big country: we have three different time zones,
Almost seems like a veiled slap at the Pro League Standards and the “three time zone” rule.
(Granted, book editing seems like a lost art today. I opened up a book on drummers today and read about Steve Smith’s time at “Berkeley” College of Music and that great keyboardist “Chic Korea,” which I can only assume is Niles Rodgers’ new K-Pop band.)
What’s funny about it is that Arena is certainly detail-oriented. My first conversation with him was a live chat at USA TODAY in which I fed him reader questions and then typed his answers. He had the chat open on his computer so he could tell me every typo I made.
Granted, he loves the back-and-forth with the media. He’s often a bit snarky — when I asked him what he thought of the U.S. Soccer curriculum Claudio had just unveiled, he said, “Claudio who?” (It’s fair to say Arena was aware of Claudio Reyna’s existence and the fact that he had been tasked with developing a curriculum.)
And yet he would always give good insight. Many times, I finished an interview with Arena shaking my head, then found several great quotes when I played back the recording.
So that’s why it’s a little disappointing that the reform ideas are so poorly developed. Part V of the book is called “A Bold Plan for the Future,” and it’s anything but that. There’s a checklist at the end that includes a few obvious things: “Hire a national team coach” isn’t exactly ground-breaking, though lengthening the MLS regular season and shortening the playoffs is a bit more interesting.
The biggest complaint Arena has (and he’s not alone) is that American players aren’t getting enough playing time in MLS, and he suggests we’d be better off with more protectionist policies. By his figures, the percentage of U.S.-born players in the league dropped from 62.3% in 1996 to 43.5% in 2017. OK, but in 1996, there were 10 teams with roughly 20 players each — 200 players in all. Let’s do the math — that’s maybe 125 U.S.-born players. (The A-League was fun to watch in those days in part because it still had a lot of watchable U.S. players — something the NASL and USL have difficulty duplicating.) Today, MLS has 23 teams with 28 roster spots, or 644 players. That would mean the league has 280 U.S.-born players, though the league claims 290.
Either way, the number of Americans in MLS has far more than doubled. You could argue that they’re not getting enough playing time. Then again, didn’t we hear for years that American players needed to go to Europe and fight for places in the first team? If they’re now doing so in the USA, why is that a bad thing?
(But I digress.)
Arena’s best suggestion may be his call for MLS and U.S. Soccer to give former players more prominent roles in the front office. That’s not a bad idea. Still not what I would call “bold.” (Maybe he’s learned that this “writing” thing is more difficult than he thought from the other side of the podium?)
But What’s Wrong With Us? is still an entertaining read, filled with fun behind-the-scenes stories from the USA’s most successful (since 1930) World Cup and its least successful (since 1985) qualifying campaign. The reader will learn more about U.S. soccer from those stories than she/he will from the reform suggestions, but maybe that’s for the best. Arena always was better at coaching than punditry. Here’s hoping he gets another job in which we can interview him more often.