FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bruce Arena will be the 11th person in New England Revolution history to stand on the sideline as the club’s head coach, though his exact start date is still to be determined.
Arena led a Revolution training session for the first time Tuesday, but doesn’t seem to be in any rush to fully take the reins of his new team. He also thinks making his coaching debut Sunday on the road against the Los Angeles Galaxy, his last MLS coaching stop, might have unintended consequences.
“Will I be on the field? I don’t know yet,” Arena told reporters in Foxborough. “If I think I’m going to be a distraction to the team, I won’t do it.”
Arena is in a unique position despite being one of nearly a dozen coaching changes in the Revolution’s 24-year history. He is both head coach and sporting director, meaning he has almost total control of the entire technical side of the Revolution’s soccer operation. This is the first time club owner Robert Kraft has allowed a head coach to take on a separate and distinct job title in addition to responsibilities as a manager and tactician.
Arena having dual roles is similar to the coaching situation with Kraft’s other team, the NFL’s New England Patriots, which gives head coach Bill Belichick almost complete power of the on-field product by him also serving as general manager.
As such, Arena is also responsible for assembling a coaching staff.
He wouldn’t comment Tuesday on the status of interim coach Mike Lapper, who has led the club to a 1-0-2 league record since former coach Brad Friedel’s firing. As far as new staff goes, the Revolution have been linked with Richie Williams and Curt Onalfo, both of whom have strong ties to Arena through the U.S. men’s national team and the Galaxy.
Arena is also taking over as coach less than halfway into the season, with the Revolution (3-8-4, 13 points) still in a realistic position to make the playoffs.
Past coaching changes having either come during the offseason or when the Revolution were on the cusp of being eliminated from postseason contention.
The most recent exception was in 2002, when Steve Nicol took over coaching in mid-May after Fernando Clavijo was fired for leading the Revolution to a 2-4-1 start.
Nicol, who had also served as interim Revolution coach twice before he formally accepted full coaching duties, led the team to the 2002 MLS Cup and remained on the sideline in Foxborough until 2012.
Unlike Nicol, who had the benefit of seeing the club up close during two interim coaching stints, Arena is still adjusting to his new surroundings.
“I’m about 1% of the way there in this project,” Arena said. “It’s a lot to learn, a lot of things to evaluate. I’ve patiently tried to get a better feel for things here. I’m getting there, but it’s going to take some time.
“[I’m] going to give [the team] a couple things to think about, but at the same time not screw them up – that’s the biggest concern, that I can confuse them, give them maybe a little bit too much information. So, go slowly in the process.”
So far, the players appear to be receptive to the whirlwind of changes that have swept through the club in the last four weeks. Arena said he’s playing the long game in terms of building a winning culture, but no one in Foxborough – Arena included – is writing off the 2019 season.
New England is currently in second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference ahead of Sunday’s visit to Los Angeles, but is just four points out of the seventh and final playoff spot with 19 games remaining.
“I think we’re all very optimistic,” Revolution striker Teal Bunbury said. “I think as players, we want to play for a coach that obviously wants us to win and has a huge pedigree and has gotten the job done at every stage of the sport, so we’re really excited and we think we can definitely turn things around.”
Said Arena: “They can get better, yeah. They can only do that by being a better team, so we have to work that process, and that process is both on and off the field.”
The competitive pressure should ease up slightly after this weekend. The Revolution won’t play a competitive game from June 3-25. That break will give Arena plenty of time to identify the staff he wants to bring in and to get to know his players.
“I think it’s going to be huge,” Bunbury said of the team’s upcoming break. “I think a lot of people talk about recharging the batteries, rest, and things like that, but it’s going to be a focal point for us in terms of getting a better understanding of what coach Arena wants from us and learning from that. I think it’s a perfect timing for us as a unit to get focused in on that.”