Houston Dynamo's Anthony Arena shows poise in first MLS minutes
The future arrived earlier than expected for the Dynamo last Saturday.
Given an opportunity due to the team's long list of absentees though injury, suspension and international call-ups, rookies Jason Johnson and Anthony Arena seized their chance in the 1-1 road draw with the Columbus Crew and offered glimpses of their potential.
The quick and tricky Jamaican forward was lively on his first MLS start and Arena produced a defensive performance so mature it was hard to believe it was his MLS debut.
The pair were two of the highlights from a battling result at Crew Stadium that extended the Dynamo's run to five successive away games without defeat. There is no MLS game for Houston this weekend but the reserves will head to South Carolina on Friday for a game against Charleston Battery on Saturday.
Featuring against the Crew capped quite a week for Arena, a former Seattle Sounders under-23 player who was selected by Houston with the 18th pick of this year's Supplemental Draft. The 22-year-old played 70 minutes in defense after Eric Brunner was forced off with an injury. It came only three days after he made his first senior Dynamo appearance in the U.S. Open Cup win over FC Tucson.
Arena largely kept Columbus's dangerous forwards Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta quiet – with help from center back partner Ricardo Clark, who'd been drafted into defensive duty from his usual midfield role because regulars Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor were unavailable.
"It was tough – two of the best players I've played against. I just tried to keep them in front of me the best I could, a lot easier said than done," Arena told HoustonDynamo.com. "Rico talked to me a lot, Corey [Ashe] helped out a lot, I obviously had a lot of great players around me so they helped organize me and I just tried to keep them in front and do the best I could... I was able to block a couple of shots and connect a few people with passes, it really allowed me to ease into it."
Goalkeeper Tally Hall, now away with the U.S. national team, was also vocal. "He was definitely out there barking orders at me. If I did something well they'd tell me, if not they told me to fix it. They definitely helped my confidence a lot. They made it easier to play," said Arena.
All part of the benefits of being on a roster stacked with experienced players. "On this team they make it easy for guys to come in and then learn quite a bit. It's a veteran squad and they know how to welcome guys, they make you feel part of the team right away and they're always coaching and helping. They make it pretty easy for me to come in and progress," said Arena.
He is glad to be going through the challenges of his first season with another rookie: "We talk. I was happy for [Johnson] to get his first start, he's been working real hard and getting a lot better also. It's definitely good to have someone go through that process."
Head coach Dominic Kinnear has shown he is willing to give youth its chance. Ashe made 22 MLS appearances in 2007, his rookie season; 2012 draft picks Brian Ownby and Warren Creavalle made their MLS debuts in June last year. Striker Will Bruin even became the first Dynamo rookie to start on Opening Day in March, 2011. That month another 2011 draftee, Kofi Sarkodie, became the youngest Houston player to start an MLS match - only three days after his 20th birthday.
Arena said he had no target date in mind for his debut. "I had no idea, if it came it came, if it didn't, it didn't ," he said. "I just wanted to be prepared if it did, that's the biggest thing. Keep working in practices, reserve games, Open Cup games, making sure that if the time did come I'd be able to step up to it, and I think I did OK."
He was less willing to wait on the sidelines in high school. Arena's father played football at UNLV and his grandfather did at Notre Dame, but the Washington state native got fed up with the lack of action when he tried the sport.
"I kicked. A bunch of my buddies played in school and I figured why not? So I went out and I kicked in my junior league in the first year, It came pretty naturally. Then I was getting a little bored, wanted to play other positions..." he said.
Football kickers often have a soccer background, and Arena can strike an oval ball with power and accuracy: "In practice I made like 55, 60 yards, just messing around. In a game, 48, or something."
But he had a scholarship offer to go to Wake Forest and the coaches were worried about the injury risk, so he gave up football. "It was fun while it lasted," he said, adding that he never considered pursuing it professionally.
"Definitely not. People tell me, you should go kick! I'm like, it's too much sitting around and waiting, I want to be in the mix of things." On last week's evidence, looks like he made a smart decision.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.