November 22, 2016
SO, JUST WHO IS BRUCE ARENA?
A look at the new/old U.S. national coach
By Michael Lewis
|Bruce Arena is ready for a second go as U.S. national coach.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
Before the 2002 World Cup, there were some concerns from the media that U.S. coach Bruce Arena would not be up to the task of keeping up with international tactics. He laid those worries to rest, manipulating his lineup from game to game with a team that was wracked by injuries and suspensions.
Perhaps his finest moments came in the knockout stages of the tournament, when Arena had less to work with. Without starters Jeff Agoos (injury) and Frankie Hejduk (yellow-card suspension) against CONCACAF archrival Mexico in the second round, Arena deployed a 3-5-2 lineup that exploited the Mexicans’ weaknesses. Eddie Lewis, a left midfielder who can send some devastating crosses into the penalty area, hadn’t started a World Cup game. Yet, Lewis created the Americans' insurance goal in a stunning 2-0 win. Forward Josh Wolff, another new face in the starting lineup, set up Brian McBride's goal.
Defender Gregg Berhalter and defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni also started their first Cup matches as the Americans started a game with a three-man defensive line for the first time since their 4-0 qualifying triumph at Barbados, a span of 32 matches.
Arena also was forced to move central midfielder Claudio Reyna to the right side and he came through with flying colors, making a 40-yard run down the right side to help create McBride's score.
"Change can be good," Arena told Sports Illustrated. "I could have done more platooning here, because there's not much of a difference from our top player to our bottom player."
Again faced with less than a full complement against highly favored Germany in the quarterfinals, Arena again was forced to mix and match and almost came up with a major upset. The U.S. fell, 1-0, although many observers felt the Americans outplayed their German counterparts and even should have been awarded a penalty kick for a Germany handball in the penalty area.
“The best thing he did was make everyone believe the whole time thing that they can contribute,” said the U.S.’s No. 3 goalkeeper at the 2002 World Cup, Tony Meola, who played for Arena at the University of Virginia and the Red Bulls. “Everyone felt they were contributing to the program. And everyone felt like when he called, He’d be ready.
“His biggest quality is his man management skills. He has taken a lot of guys into the system, some guys who may have felt they should have been there before, some guys who never thought they would have gotten a call and does a pretty good job of having everyone mesh together. It’s for sure the best job of man-managing of any coach in us soccer history, in my opinion.”
Arena will get another opportunity to man-manage players at the international level as he was named coach of the U.S. national team for the second time, replacing the sacked Jurgen Klinsmann. The Franklin Square, N.Y. native directed the squad in two World Cups from 1998-2006.
After that 2002 quarterfinal loss to Germany Arena refused to complain about the non-call and offered no excuses.
"I was really proud of our team," he said at the time. "We were a little bit unlucky. If we'd got a break or two we may be in the semifinals of the World Cup."
But he was realistic as well. "It shows the world we can play," Arena added. "If anyone watched the game tonight and thought that the U.S. didn't belong at this stage in the World Cup, I don't think they looked at the game in the right way.
"We've made a lot of progress, we haven't arrived but I think there's a bright future for the game in the United States."
He still might have a tinge of a Brooklyn accent, but don’t let that fool you. Arena is one smart cookie who can and has learned. When he took over the coaching reigns in 1998, he knew little about how the international scene worked. In two World Cup cycles as coach, Arena has learned much about how the game worldwide game works.
Now, he expects surprises when the U.S. ventures into Caribbean and Central American countries for qualifying, whether it is the game being played in the middle of nowhere, having fans and local radio stations make noise outside of the team hotel the night before the game or fans at the stadium making life miserable for the Americans by intimidation (whether it is noise, words and yes, even sometimes throwing things).
"The only way you ever learn to be a national team coach is on the job. It’s on the job training all the time. I’ve had enough of these experiences and what happens," Arena said.
Arena has forged a reputation as a players' coach. They love and want to play for him. Just ask three players who have been coached by Arena -- Meola, midfielder Ben Olsen and Wolff.
Meola played for Arena at the University of Virginia, backstopping the 1989 Division I national championship team, when Meola was called on to become the U.S. National Team’s first choice goalkeeper at the age of 20. Meola played a key role in helping the U.S. secure its first World Cup berth in 40 years.
While Arena wanted to win every year, he realized Meola needed to train at a high level and most likely leave school for the 1990 World Cup. During a four-way call between Meola, his mother, U.S Soccer official Sunil Gulati, now the president of the organization, Arena essentially decided the goalkeeper’s future.
“Bruce made all of the decisions,” Meola said. “He said, this was the best thing to do at that point. He told me to go to England. I went to England with John (Harkes) to train before the World Cup. It was completely up to him. Whatever he told, I would have done.”
When he decided to turned pro in 1998 as a junior after three years at Virginia, D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen needed to stay at the Arena house for four months as he got his feet settled. The Arenas – Bruce, his wife, Phyllis, and son Kenny, welcomed Olsen with open arms.
“I wasn't ready to be on my own,” Olsen said. “They take care of people. There's that family. He certainly has it.”
Olsen admitted that Arena was difficult to figure out, one of the qualities that has made him a superior coach.
“Your guess is as good as mine about Bruce,” he said. “He's a tough guy to kind of figure out. I think that's what makes him such a good coach in the end. It’s tough to really read him. It kind of keeps you guessing, keeps you motivated. And that's one of his things as far as being a coach, being a motivator to these guys, (knowing) what makes each player tick and what's going to get him to do a job for Bruce. I think that's one of his best attributes as a coach.
“He's a player's coach. When it’s business, it’s business with Bruce. When you're playing soccer it's all business. When you're off the field, he gives you that freedom to be yourself and do what you want, as long as it doesn't hamper your ability to help the team. If you deviate from that at all, he's right on it. He'll tell you about it.”
In contrast, Wolff knows Arena only from the National Team.
"He keeps the big picture in mind," Wolff said. "When training is difficult and play is not as good, he cracks down on us. And if games are not going that way, he comes down on us and makes his point. He tries to boost us in the right way. I don't think he never loses his players. He always has them with the right ideas, the right commitment, the desire, whether it's training or games.
"It's important because it’s easy to get distracted and lose your focus if it’s training or a game. I think he keeps a good job of keeping everyone in it. The chemistry of the team over the last four years, the last six years has been a big part of success and I think he creates a positive environment. He's pretty honest with the players. He lets you know kind of where you sit. If you have a bone to pick with him, he will be the first to sit down and look you right in the eye and tell you how he sees it and the way he feels. As a player, that's all you can ask for. You want some honesty, you want some candor from your coach. And that's clearly what you're going to get from our staff."
One of his friends, C.D. Chivas coach Bob Bradley, once compared him to Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. "He's got the same sarcastic humor, but what's more important is that he sets a tone for the team," Bradley was quoted by Sports Illustrated. "He never gets too caught up in X's and O's, but his teams are always organized well. Bruce lets his players play."
Added Olsen: “He’s probably the funniest coach I've ever been coached by. he has a great self-deprecating humor about himself. He definitely knows, when the time's right, to make the team laugh. We're a tough crowd.”
As for that sarcastic humor, a day before the World Cup draw in Leipzig on Dec. 9, 2005, Arena met with about 10 American journalists. Asked if he would like to play a top-seeded team such as Brazil early on because favorites usually are slow starters in the tournament, Arena jokingly looked up to the heavens and put his hands together as though he was praying.
"I'd love to play Brazil first," he said with a smile on his face.
The reporters erupted into laughter.
Then he became serious. "I'd rather play them in the final," he said.
He also hasn't been afraid to speak his mind, which sometimes has gotten him into trouble on and off the field.
After a World Cup qualifying loss in Costa Rica, Arena had a run-in with referee Peter Prendergast of Jamaica after protesting a penalty-kick call the Jamaican native made in the waning minutes on July 23, 2000. He was slapped with a three-game suspension (eventually cut down to two matches).
Almost five years to the day in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Arena wound up in the middle of another incident that ironically involved Predergast. The most incident in question occurred in the 59th minute of the U.S.’s 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Honduras in the the semifinals at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. on July 21, 2005 as Arena protested a foul call on Chris Armas.
Arena admitted afterwards he used a four letter word. Carlos Batres of Guatemala, the fourth official, apparently felt the language was too strong and alerted referee Peter Prendergast of Jamaica, who ordered the coach off the field.
"I was baffled at the time," said Arena, who was not allowed to coach the team in the final (assistant coach Glenn Myernick did instead – as the U.S. overcame Panama in a penalty-kick shootout to win the title).
"Peter Prendergast is an excellent referee," Arena said. "We get along very well."
"I don't understand the protocol. That decision is made by the fourth official and not by the referee."
Some 10 months prior, Arena found himself embroiled in a controversial situation off the field for a number of opinionated and critical remarks he made about Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer to the New York Times on Sept. 28, 2004.
“In soccer, we don't have any administrators with soccer skills, in terms of knowing the game, and that is the case at U.S. Soccer and MLS," the Times quoted Arena. "We are trying to select venues for qualifying games that give us the best chance to succeed but are compromised when games are put in MLS venues to help the league."
While many observers and media members felt many of his quotes hit the mark and were not out of order, many MLS and U.S. Soccer officials were furious. One high ranking soccer official wanted Arena fired as coach, according to sources, but that wasn't going to happen because of Arena's excellent record as coach. Besides, it would have been next to impossible to replace him with a qualified successor.
In his public apology during a media conference call several days later, the usually brash Arena was contrite in his response.
"I have to admit when I read the article, I was truly disappointed in these statements because I believe they can certainly be construed as being very critical of both U.S. Soccer and the MLS," he said. "This was not the spirit, nor the intent for which I participated in this interview.
"I think many of you know, I’ve worked in the sport of soccer for the last 30 years, and I’ve tried real hard to try to make soccer more recognizable and respected in this country. And I have to admit at times, the passion and commitment I have for the game tends to cloud my judgment and apparently destroy some of my brain cells as well. For this, I apologize to the people I may have offended.
"I want to be clear about this: I’m very proud and honored to be a part of U.S. Soccer and I’m indebted to the MLS for giving me the opportunity in coaching and three memorable years at D.C. United. Throughout my tenure with U.S. Soccer, the organization has supported both the team and myself. And, let me be clear about this: I support MLS. I think the league has done great things for the sport in our country. I’ve had the privilege to work with some of its owners - most notably Lamar Hunt, Phil Anschutz and Bob Kraft. These are good people with great vision, commitment and generosity for our sport. Don Garber (MLS commissioner) and his staff, plus the coaches and players of MLS are truly dedicated to the game. I’ve said this many times - if we’re going to move forward and one day be a nation capable of winning the World Cup, we’re going to be led by our professional league. I really believe that the future of the sport in this country is dependent upon MLS. Therefore, I intend to do everything possible to help make it succeed. Therefore, that is why I am disappointed for the way this article came out. I have no excuses for that, and I just want to apologize to all parties concerned and I appreciate the minute I have to extend my apologies to everyone and thank you."
So, it shouldn't be surprising that Arena has built a wall to hold the media at bay. He doesn’t take stupid questions or fools gladly.