Seattle MLS no surprise for Arena

For once, it was the subject of the interview who asked the first questions: Is Cheney Stadium still called Cheney Stadium? Is Stan Naccarato still in Tacoma?

The voice on the other end of the phone asking about the two Tacoma icons belonged to Bruce Arena, who will be back in the Northwest on Sunday as his Los Angeles Galaxy visits for a match against Seattle Sounders FC.

Before Arena look over in L.A., he coached successfully in college and led two other MLS teams. He is best known for coaching the U.S. men’s national team to some of its greatest successes, including a run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and an all-time-high FIFA ranking of fourth in the world.

However, his first coaching job was at the University of Puget Sound.

And before that, he was a goalkeeper for the Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League, who played at Cheney Stadium with Naccarato serving as the team’s general manager.

Arena recalls those Tacoma days warmly.

“It was a great experience, playing in Cheney Stadium,” he said. “... I remember the days there when Stan was beginning to participate in the planning of the Tacoma Dome. We had a blast there. I had a fabulous experience as well with the University of Puget Sound, coaching there. And I got married in Tacoma.”

Before that, Arena had been a New York guy: born in 1951 Brooklyn, growing up on Long Island, and attending Cornell University in Ithaca.

However, when his coach at Cornell – Dan Wood – became coach of the Tides, Arena followed.

The Tides’ lone season – 1976 – coincided with the glory days of the North America Soccer League and the original Seattle Sounders.

“It was a good time for soccer in this country,” Arena said. “We had a good team in Tacoma, and that league was of high quality. I played on a team with Pepe Fernandez; he was the all-time leading scorer for Seattle and he came down and played with us. We had a lot of good players on our team. It was just a good experience overall. The league was pretty solid when I played there. Obviously, the NASL at that time was flying. I remember going to the dome in Seattle, and it was packed for a game against the Cosmos. That was the heyday of the NASL, and soccer in the Pacific Northwest was on a roll. People thought the world of the Seattle franchise; and Vancouver was playing then as well as Portland. Then we had our team in Tacoma. It was a good time.”

But it didn’t last.

The Tides folded after one season. The ASL followed in 1984. The NASL went under a year later.

Like many observers, Arena blames those failures on the leagues’ reliance on foreign players. He said some teams might stick some American in goal or at right back. But most rosters were dominated by foreign players, and expensive foreign players at that.

“What killed the North American Soccer League were the teams like the Cosmos with the high payrolls and then everyone else trying to chase them,” Arena said. “It didn’t add up financially, and the league folded. (MLS) today has a business plan that makes sense. And it also is comprised of Americans, which is important if you’re going to have a league in this country. Because of the development of MLS, more Americans play today and our national program has gotten better.”

Even without such glamour teams as the Cosmos, and even without many international stars, MLS attendance is higher than the NASL ever averaged.

And now, MLS is slowly trying to add some international star power with the designated-player rule, which allows teams to sign one high-profile player who doesn’t count against the salary cap.

Arena likes the approach.

“I think that 20 years from now the MLS might be one of the leagues in the world that all of the top players want to play in,” he said. “This league is going to grow, and it’s going to be much more stable financially and gain a much greater reputation in terms of the quality of the soccer.”

By far the best-known designated player was signed by the Galaxy: David Beckman, who is on loan to AC Milan and will not appear in Seattle.

Yet even without Beckman as a draw, the Galaxy game will mark Seattle’s fifth sellout in as many games.

Arena remembers enough about the region not to be surprised.

“Me knowing the people in Seattle 30 years ago, I’m not surprised they’re back out supporting the team,” he said.

“The timing has been fabulous. From my own personal opinion, Seattle could have had a team in this league 10 years ago. I think it’s great.”

Friday game

At Red Bulls 4, Earthquakes 1:Jorge Rojas scored his first two MLS goals within a six-minute span of the first half, and Macoumba Kanji had a goal and two assists, leading New York past San Jose in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Red Bulls (2-5-2), who snapped a three-game losing streak, set a franchise record with their four first-half goals. They had totaled just five in their first eight matches, and all nine of their goals this season have come at home.

San Jose (1-5-2) took its third straight loss and is 0-4-2 during its current six-match winless streak.

The announced crowd of 8,042 was the lowest home attendance for the Red Bulls since May 13, 2007.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808