Bruce Arena won five NCAA men’s soccer titles. He is a five-time MLS Cup champion. He is the most efficacious mentor in American annals, winning 56 percent of his matches with the United States men’s national team.
Add it all up, and Arena is arguably the most successful soccer coach in American history — and he nearly coached lacrosse instead of soccer.
“Oh, most definitely,” Arena, now manager of the New England Revolution, told Pro Soccer USA. “When I was at the University of Virginia, I was the lead assistant in lacrosse and there was going to be a day where I was going to be targeted to be the head coach. However, I went the direction of soccer.”
Arena is now a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame and the NJCAA Lacrosse Hall of Fame, but he started his career in both sports as an All-American at Nassau Community College near his home on Long Island, N.Y.
From there, he transferred to Cornell University, where he was the starting goalkeeper when Cornell advanced to the NCAA semifinals in 1972. He also commenced his coaching career in lacrosse at Cornell the following year. Later, the University of Virginia provided him a unique opportunity as both an assistant lacrosse coach and head coach of the men’s soccer team.
Professionally, Arena chose to focus on soccer because of its potential growth.
“In the ’80s, I thought the sport of soccer had a bigger future in our country,” he said.
Arena made a wise calculation.
Arena’s success at UVA landed him a job leading D.C. United during Major League Soccer’s inaugural 1996 season. He won the MLS Cup in each of the league’s first two years and earned another step up the coaching ladder, embarking on an eight-year stint as head coach of the United States men’s national team.
His tenure with the USMNT featured a stunning performance in the 2002 World Cup that included victories over Portugal and Mexico before a 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals.
After a disappointing 2006 World Cup, Arena returned to MLS. He spent a year and a half with the New York Red Bulls before moving west to launch a dynasty with the LA Galaxy. His Galaxy teams won three league titles before the USMNT called again, hiring Arena to take over for the fired Jurgen Klinsmann in the middle of 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Arena suffered only two defeats in 18 matches. However, supporters remember just one game, the devastating loss at Trinidad & Tobago that ended the quest for Russia 2018.
“That’s life, and I thought our staff did a very good job since we positioned ourselves to be there,” Arena said. “So, you can’t complain about that. I thought that what we had in 2017 was a very good one.”
But an acerbic hint prevailed from that experience, and Arena pondered offers to coach again, although he never felt desperation to get back into the game.
“If I decided not to take this current position, I would have been fine because I was actually enjoying myself in Southern California,” he said. “I was probably playing too much golf, but finally being a fan of the sport and other sports, just enjoying life. I thought that’s the way I was going to go — I was not going to coach again.”
It was the Kraft family that convinced Arena to start a new project at the age of 67, taking over the Revolution from his former USMNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel. The Revolution were 2-8-2 and only a point removed from the bottom of table in the Eastern Conference when Arena started.
“I had talked to other clubs about opportunities, but this one interested me because it’s a different kind of project,” Arena said. “It was an intriguing challenge, I thought. I had something similar with the Galaxy, but there you never questioned the commitment. Here, people certainly would question the commitment.”
Arena felt assured the Revolution would provide the resources needed to be successful.
“I felt that the Krafts were going to make a commitment to improve the franchise,” he said. “Right now, my thinking is if I can move the franchise along and we build a soccer stadium, we’re in the right direction to be one of the top franchises in Major League Soccer down the road.”
For Arena, the approved acquisition of designated player Gustavo Bou from Club Tijuana in Liga MX provided proof of the pledge made by ownership.
“Most certainly,” Arena said of the Bou transaction. “And we’re moving into a new training facility in the next couple of weeks that’s probably going to be as good as any training facility in MLS. So, a lot of progress is being made in a short period of time.”
Bou has been a revelation. The Argentine has a goal in six of his eight appearances since the July 10 transfer and has scored in four straight matches heading into Saturday’s match at New York City FC. Arena said he and Revs technical director Curt Onalfo had both monitored Bou for years, dating back to Arena’s time coaching the Galaxy and Onalfo’s work providing analysis on Liga MX matches for Fox Sports.
“We were in very close proximity and were in contact with Club Tijuana over a number of years,” Arena said. “So, I used to watch them play often and we knew about the player.
“If there was a chance to bring in a player that we think could help make a difference in the short term, of course we wanted to do that. And Bou is a natural, so we went after him and, to use a college term, we recruited him pretty hard.”
Arena is motivated. As a leader, he places an emphasis on building individual confidence and team cohesion. Other than Bou, the Revolution roster is the same group of players that won only two of 12 matches before Friedel was sacked.
Now, they’ve lost just once — against league-leading Los Angeles FC — during the 13 matches Arena has coached, and New England is in a playoff position sitting sixth in the Eastern Conference.
“You know, I think the players are probably a little bit better than they performed in the first half of the season,” Arena said. “We’ve done a good job; they’ve done a good job. And, you know, we’ve had a little bit of luck, as you always have in the sport. We’re just working real hard to try to make the game better.”
The next exam for the Revolution comes against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Arena, born in Brooklyn, cherishes opportunities to return to the New York area and a building that provides fond memories.
“I grew up a Yankee fan, so it’s amazing, always thrilling to be in Yankee Stadium,” Arena said.