King Arena, the Bruce of MLS

It is good to be king. At the start of every MLS season there seems to be two foregone conclusions. One, that some MLS team will be linked with an aging European star, and two that Bruce Arena will be leading a team into the MLS Playoffs.

While the first thought might be fading slightly, the second is still present. Year after year, as teams yo-yo up and down the standings there is one constant: a Bruce Arena team at the top. 2014 is no different as his Los Angeles Galaxy-coached side will be taking on the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup.


But what makes him so successful? It seems to go back to his character. While reading through Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant book Inverting the Pyramid, the characteristic that all great coaches seem to possess is a certain level of ego and a some degree of madness.

Whether it was Herbert Chapman, Viktor Maslov, Helenio Herrera, or Osvaldo Zubeldia, the game always seems to progress and evolve when it is in the hands of someone who has the personality to impose their viewpoint on others.

Perhaps why Arena has been so succesful in MLS and in North American soccer is that he seems to view himself as an outsider. Although Arena did play soccer in college and had a short stint with the Tacoma Tides in the American Soccer League, his first passion has always been lacrosse. Mike Candel, his lacrosse coach at Nassau Community College, recounted his story back in 2002 for Newsday:

I remember a conversation after he continued his two-sport career at Cornell. Arena was offered the job as an assistant lacrosse coach at Virginia. He accepted it, thinking he would someday replace head coach Jim Adams. And,because he had some background in soccer, he was asked to coach the Cavaliers soccer team, which had players with talent barely above the intramural level.”I’m not sure I want to do it [coach soccer],” Arena said. ‘But it’ll hold me until the lacrosse job becomes available.

What was originally a part-time position with the University of Virginia turned into a career. When Arena first started his job with the Cavaliers in 1978 soccer in the United States was at a crossroads. While the North American Soccer League was doing well, US Soccer was not.

The national team had not qualified for a World Cup since 1950 and the team did not even make the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF for the 1978 World Cup.

The NASL was not entirely interested in the development of US Soccer, but rather selling soccer to North America. Club teams did not participate in the U.S. Open Cup and squads were more likely to look for Europe or South America to fill out their lineup cards.

The NASL, realising that American supporters might want to watch American players created an expansion side called Team America four years later. This team, despite their imaginative name, were an unmitigated disaster going 10-20 and folding after a season.

The NASL would not last much longer than that, folding itself in 1985 and leaving US Soccer without a top flight soccer league for close to a decade.

Although the NASL does deserve some credit in Americans interested in the game. But it is the college system and Bruce Arena’s University of Virginia sides in the 1980’s and 1990’s where the roots of US Soccer’s recent success can be traced.

During his 18 year tenure with the Cavaliers, Arena would win the NCAA title five times and make the College Cup (a.k.a. the semi-finals) seven times. His side will also qualify for the NCAA Tournament every single year, something that no college team has ever done in any sport for that length of time.

Beyond the titles it is the players that Arena helped mould that assisted the United States as it redeveloped itself in the footballing world. Players like John Harkes (Sheffield United), Claudio Reyna (Manchester City, Rangers, Sunderland), Jeff Agoos (US World Cup Vet), and Tony Meola (US World Cup starter) all got their starts with Arena at UVA, along with countless other players who would go on to play in MLS and other leagues in the United States.

Arena’s success of course is not just found in the college game, but also in MLS. As the coach of D.C. United, the New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy, Arena-coached squads have won four MLS Cups, three Supporters Shields, an Open Cup in 1996, a CONCACAF Champions Cup (the predecessor of the Champions League) in 1998, and won over 242 matches.

Of course his claim to fame abroad would be with his efforts with the US Men’s National Team. After bottoming out of the 1998 World Cup, Arena helped rebuild the side and led them to a quarter-final appearance at the 2002 World Cup.

At each coaching spot Arena was forced to either build a team from nothing (D.C. United, UVA) or clear up the mess of a previous administration (Red Bulls, USA, Los Angeles Galaxy). With the exception of New York in each situation Arena succeeded at changing the culture of the program and took the organization to unprecedented success.

This ability to change the culture of an organization is something that is not always easily done. Especially with the Los Angeles Galaxy, where stars Landon Donovan and David Beckham were very publicly feuding with one another, the situation had become so toxic that the team were not even able to make the playoffs in 2008.


But Bruce does what every good coach does: he can get players with massive egos to work with one another. Developing a system where Beckham could control the midfield but putting Donovan on the attack, he was able to give both players what they want and get a high level of success from the team. Even while adding Robbie Keane to the team in 2012 Arena was able to give all three stars equal opportunities.

Perhaps the reason why Arena does not get the credit that other great coaches in the world do is because he is not as media-friendly. Although he can deliver an excellent interview, he is not terribly photogenic and post-game press conferences are often brief.

It is a bit disappointing that he chooses to act that way, as when does speak he normally he can be very profound with often enlightening things to say about MLS and where US Soccer is going. Arena is not a cookie-cutter coach who will say the same three things when asked a question.

In particular with MLS, he can often be very critical of the league. After being unable to sign Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan this summer due to MLS’ byzantine allocation system, Arena told the Washington Post’s Steve Goff that, “forces within the league worked real hard to make sure that didn’t happen.” He also said that “They [MLS] are children, and there have to be adults in the process, and we didn’t have enough of them. I think we are back into the old days in the league where the rules are somewhat arbitrary.”

He has also been critical for the current U.S. Men’s National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann. In a recent interview with Sport Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, Arena disputed Klinsmann’s claim that younger American players needed to go to Europe stating:

I understand some of the thinking, and the belief that if you go there [to Europe] everything is going to be better, and your development will be more accelerated. We know from experience that European clubs are more experienced and have more resources than us. I don’t think they necessarily know anything more about soccer. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that we can’t develop elite players here.

So where does Arena go from here? After Sunday’s match, Arena will have a Galaxy squad teeming with talent due to their affiliate program in USL Pro. But with the impending retirement of Landon Donovan and an aging Robbie Keane it is a squad that will go through change. At 61, he is still young enough to coach for many years and recently signed a multi-year extension with the team.

As U.S. Soccer continues to expand and its history begins to become more open to fans of the game abroad hopefully Arena’s exploits in the game will be covered and he will be given his proper due. He may not have ever turned out to be a great lacrosse coach, but he has become a pretty good one in the game of football.

Make sure to check out our MLS Cup preview, and check out this week’s Hold the Back Page podcast for some MLS discussion.

The Author

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS:

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