With The World’s Most Popular Sport underway again, and your Richmond Kickers ready to come out kicking for their — can you believe it? — 28th season, it seems only fitting to turn the latest episode from an OLD sportswriter into memories about real futbol … Volume 7 … “The World’s Greatest Soccer Coach.”

True confession: Soccer never was near the top of my list of favorite games to play, much less watch. When you grow up on the sidewalks of New York in the 40s and early 50s, there’s lots of concrete and little grass. Occasionally, you’d see a couple of guys juggling this round thing, keeping it in the air with their feet, knees, chest and head. Didn’t look particularly easy. So much for the curiosity factor.

Then, during gym class held outdoors, a Washington & Lee fraternity brother from Colombia, South America comes at you, moving the ball back and forth between his feet, daring you to take it away. No sweat, Mauricio. This should be a snap. You’re going down! So he zigs while you zag, and you’re left on the ground, wondering what happened. He made it look so easy, too. The heck with this.

That was pretty much my mindset when I joined The Times-Dispatch staff in 1959 — and for a number of years thereafter. We kept being told soccer was the biggest and best sport just about everywhere else on the planet, that it soon would be The Next Big Thing in this country, too. And the beat went on. It got to be a running gag. Then I met The World’s Greatest Soccer Coach.

Bruce Arena came to the University of Virginia in 1978, hired by athletic director Gene Corrigan to be an assistant coach with the school’s nationally prestigious lacrosse team. From Long Island, N.Y., Arena had played the game in college (Cornell) and later in Canada’s rough-and-tumble box lacrosse league. He certainly was qualified. Oh, by the way, Bruce … how about being head coach of soccer, too? Sure sounded like an afterthought, didn’t it?

“It was very much of an afterthought,” Arena said a few days ago from Boston, where he’s coach — in addition to several other titles — of Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution. “Gene said to me at the time, ‘I want you to keep the soccer kids happy … I don’t want them to get into any trouble … [but] I want to win a national championship in lacrosse.’”

A two-sport standout at Cornell, where he was a goalkeeper in soccer and led the Big Red to the 1972 semifinals, Arena was offered $12,000 to do both jobs. He held out for $13,000, and while Virginia certainly got its money’s worth (and then some), it wasn’t for teaching young men to use a big stick to throw a hard ball into a large net. The Cavaliers did OK in lacrosse — “We made a few [NCAA] finals and a bunch of semifinals” — but no championships.

Under Arena, they did better than OK in soccer. By the time I got the Virginia/ACC beat in 1984, UVA football was about to participate in its first bowl game, Terry Holland had turned basketball into a national power, and Arena was in the process of building one of the country’s elite programs, winning five national championships before leaving for Major League Soccer’s inaugural season (1996) as coach of D.C. United.

One day, sitting in his office at UVA, having shed his lacrosse responsibilities, his first NCAA title still a dream rather than reality, Arena said he hoped his program could become “the North Carolina of soccer.” He was referring to Dean Smith’s ultra-successful basketball Tar Heels. Holland saw the quote, didn’t like it, and told Arena. After all, Holland and Smith weren’t exactly pals. “I actually said that? I didn’t mean it as an insult. But, looking at it from Terry’s point of view, it might have been,” Arena said from Boston.

His first NCAA championship came Dec. 3, 1989, on the frozen tundra of Rutgers Stadium in New Brunswick, N.J. Wind chill was minus-10 degrees at kickoff. The Cavaliers and Santa Clara were knotted at a goal apiece after 90 minutes. This was before penalty kicks were used to break ties. After three hours and 10 minutes in conditions better suited for penguins and polar bears, it was still 1-1, and they decided to call the teams co-champions. Santa Clara coach Steve Sampson didn’t endear himself to the Virginia party, saying his side should get the trophy because it was ranked No. 1 (20-0-3). Ironically, Arena got the last yuk when he replaced Sampson as coach of the United States men’s national team in 1998.

It was while he was winning a record four straight NCAA titles (1991-94) that we started referring to Arena as “The World’s Greatest Soccer Coach.” He never objected, either. It was, of course, tongue-in-cheek which was standard operational procedure in the soccer office. Arena always has been a tough bird who doesn’t suffer fools easily. He can be blunt, sometimes to a fault. At 68, he still gives — and takes — with the best of them.

“My job is to be a leader, and leaders are supposed to talk when there’s something to talk about,” Arena said. “I have no respect for people who know things are wrong and won’t talk. I know I’ve said plenty of wrong things. Haven’t we all!”

Many people — including yours truly — told Arena he was wrong to leave UVA for Major League Soccer. Big mistake, Bruce. Yeah, right! He won the first two MLS titles with United and later three more in charge of the Los Angeles Galaxy (2011-12, 2014). In between he took the national men’s team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. In 2006, FIFA ranked the USMNT fourth, its highest ranking ever. Nevertheless, when the Americans finished last in their World Cup group, Arena was fired. If he didn’t walk away laughing, he should have.

The World’s Greatest had gone from making five figures at Virginia to becoming a multi-millionaire, currently owning a permanent home in Charlottesville as well as a condo in one of Boston’s swanky neighborhoods. Revolution — and NFL Patriots — owner Bob Kraft has been very generous. If he regrets anything, Arena said, it would be that he didn’t accept an offer to coach overseas for the first time when a club in Denmark came calling after the 2006 World Cup. “But I was incredibly tired … and needed some time off.”

OK, so maybe leaving Virginia was a gamble. “You could question if it was the smartest thing to do at the time, but you want new challenges,” Arena said. “I’ve won championships at the collegiate and professional levels. I’ve met three [U.S.] presidents in the oval office. I met world leaders. It’s been a great story. I don’t think I can complain.”

There certainly have been no complaints at UVA, where former Cavalier (1983-86) All-American and assistant coach George Gelnovatch replaced Arena and has claimed two national championships (2009, 2014) — and lost on PKs in last year’s NCAA final. He’s by far the longest tenured coach — 24 years and counting — at Mr. Jefferson’s University.

“I have a hard time reconciling that myself,” Gelnovatch said the other day. “The last contract I signed recently, I guess, makes me a [UVA] lifer.”

This he knows for sure: “The game is better. The players are better. I’m a better coach,” Gelnovatch said.

In fact, our interest in The World’s Most Popular Sport continues to grow, too. The people always were the best part, including covering the Kickers from their inception until retirement in 2006. The game itself? Without replays, if you blinked, you could miss the most important thing. Relying on the players and/or coaches to say what happened exactly (in any sport) can be an adventure. Also, I once told Kickers coach Leigh Cowlishaw what I would do to him “if you ever tell me again that a zero-zero game is exciting.” I know … I know … nil-nil.

I drew the Kickers by default after writing Bobby Lennon — who? — was coming to town to start a minor league pro team. Sue Anne “Cookie” Ketchum bankrolled the startup, and Lennon ran their Kickers out of a shoebox — or so it seemed. Both were very likeable and attracted some pretty good players like Cowlishaw, who had come from England to be a standout at the University of Richmond, and Rob Ukrop, a local product who was All-American at Davidson.

They also had a real kangaroo named Joey that was team mascot. One night the gentleman entrusted with singing the national anthem on the field (pitch) was handed the animal’s leash. As he started “Oh, say can you see ...” Joey began hopping and pulling and yanking at the leash, obviously uncomfortable with what was going on. And he did so throughout what proved to be a rather unusual rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. It was downright hilarious to everyone but the poor guy singing while hanging on and trying to keep poor Joey from getting away.

Things turned more serious for the franchise after the original owners ran out of money and tumbled into debt. The team averaged 1,500 paid in 1993 and 775 in 1994 while losing more than $125,000 — not exactly chump change, especially then. A new group, led by restaurateur Dick Ripp — and later joined by Bobby Ukrop, Rob’s father — paid a reported $300,000-plus to take over the team in 1995 and immediately announced a working agreement with D. C. United, effective the following season when Major League Soccer got underway. How optimistic was the Kickers’ new ownership? On the front page of a prospectus designed to attract additional investors, the question is asked: “Can the Kickers ever become a MLS franchise?” Answer: “Yes.”

“It was a possibility,” Bobby Ukrop insisted last week. “Our stadium could have worked, but it [MLS in Richmond] was too far of a reach at that time.”

What’s more, their enthusiasm received an instant reality check when the 1995 Kickers average attendance was 1,109 at 22,000-seat University of Richmond Stadium despite the team going 15-3 and winning the U.S. Open Cup as well as the league championship. Cowlishaw, the sixth of eight coaches, had — by far — the longest tenure (2000-2018) and the most on-field success. Off the field, the Kickers grew a youth program that became a major moneymaker and kept the pro team, which hasn’t been in the black, afloat. In truth, there never was a dull moment keeping up with the Kickers, who seldom were without some drama — if you knew where to look.

Still, a fan-like appreciation of soccer was yet to come. Now, let it be noted the emergence of NBCSN’s coverage of England’s Premier League made it happen a few years ago. For starters the commentary was spot on. Studio anchor Rebecca Lowe is the absolute best. The analysts are first-rate, too, even if UVA, alumnus and 2001 ACC player of the year Kyle Martino’s ever-changing beard and hair styles get annoying. More important, you know you’re watching the game being played at the absolute highest level. Also, there is non-stop controversy. The referees are inviting targets. So is the replay system which seems to get it wrong almost as often as right. Add to all that the studio and game commentators’ willingness to criticize harshly — a staple of British TV.

In 1994, our commentary regarding the U.S. Soccer Federation, and its presentation of the United States’ opening match in the World Cup, couldn’t have been harsh enough. This country was named host for the game’s biggest event, held every four years, because it had large stadiums that, in the end, would set overall attendance records and create a surplus of $50 million. It also was a great opportunity to showcase the sport and get then-much-needed good vibes from the news media. In those days, only soccer purists really cared.

The initial matchup for the Americans was at the 77,557-seat Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich,. against Switzerland. Our misadventure started when we learned we didn’t have a room at the designated press hotel despite having a printed reservation in hand. We were told U.S. Soccer controlled the rooms and received a hefty financial cut but if we could pay a little more, maybe they could find something for us. We did, and they did.

Then it was off to the first indoor facility in World Cup history to get something for an advance story. Naturally, with former UVA players Tony Meola and John Harkes starters on the U.S. team, logic dictated interviews with them. Sorry, said the team’s PR director, they aren’t available. But, he suggested, you can go over to the team hotel and possibly catch them when they’re walking through the lobby. Yeah, right!

The game finished 1-1 and was a snoozer. Field temperature was over 90 degrees because it was mid-June and the Silverdome didn’t have a cooling system. Midfielder Thomas Dooley called it, “the worst place I have ever played.” You think he was unhappy, you should have heard the reporters who weren’t allowed to enter the roped-off area where players were brought after the game. You don’t have the right credentials, we were told. Eventually a few players appeared on closed-circuit TV in the press room, but technical problems made that worthless after a few minutes. Let me out of here. You can take your soccer and …

If possible, you should end on a positive note. We’ll try, sort of ...

The NCAA occasionally does something right — then turns around and blows it. There is no better example than Division I soccer’s final four here. From 1995 through 1998, UR (nee City) Stadium was home to the most successful championship round in tournament history. The first semifinals round drew 21,319 spectators, second only to 22,512 that turned out at Busch Stadium, home of baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, in 1980.

In all, Richmond has five of the top six and seven of the top nine in College Cup attendance. The eight sessions here averaged 19,336. The University of Richmond and city of Richmond were co-sponsors, but UR personnel ran the event, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. By any definition, it was a rousing success.

So, the NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, decided the Cup had become so popular it was time to move to a larger venue. The 1999 College Cup was held in Charlotte, N.C., at the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and attracted crowds of 15,439 and 13,231 to the then-73,250-seat facility. The tournament moved on after two years and even less interest in 2000. Last year’s championship game in Cary, N.C., drew a meager 8,413. Gelnovatch is in the forefront of coaches calling for a permanent site “like [college] baseball.” The Virginia coach thinks Orlando, Fla., would be ideal. “Something is coming,” he said.

Until next time ...

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