On Sunday, Bruce Arena will be coaching in his seventh MLS Cup, aiming to win it for the fifth time. His coaching career began 40 years ago -- in a different sport.
Arena, a star goalkeeper for both Cornell’s lacrosse and soccer teams, became head coach of Cornell’s freshman lacrosse team in 1974. The following year, he played pro lacrosse for the Montreal Quebecois, but the National Lacrosse League folded after the 1975 season.
At age 24, he moved to the Northwest and back to soccer to play for the American Soccer League’s Tacoma Tide.
The University of Puget Sound’s vice president recruited Arena to coach its soccer team in exchange for tuition-free classes in the school’s MBA program. A patch of grass in the middle of campus served as the team’s practice field and on the first day of training he asked students walking by whether they ever played soccer.
“That’s how we formed our team,” Arena said. “We found a bunch of guys through that. … It was fun. They were a good group. They weren’t real talented but by the end of the year they actually started looking a little bit like a soccer team.”
In Arena’s first 10 games, the Loggers lost eight and won two by forfeit. They finished the season with wins over Oregon and Oregon State for a 4-8-0 record.
The Tacoma Tide folded the following year and Arena turned down an offer to join the NASL’s Team Hawaii -- figuring that his two pro teams folding in two years signaled a change of direction. He enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology to continue his MBA studies but returned to coaching with Cornell’s junior varsity lacrosse teams.
In 1978, he became assistant lacrosse coach and head soccer coach at the University of Virginia. After seven seasons, he left the lacrosse program and focused solely on soccer.
Arena’s UVa players would include future U.S. national team captains John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Tony Meola and Claudio Reyna, the latter two of whom captained World Cup teams.
Arena’s 18 seasons at UVa included the era -- 1984 to 1995 -- when college soccer took on a particular importance because of the absence of a bona fide American professional outdoor league. His Cavaliers shared the 1989 NCAA title with Santa Clara and reeled off an unprecedented four straight NCAA titles in 1991-1994. His 1990s’ teams were widely considered the best the college game had ever seen -- not just for collecting trophies but for a sophisticated, entertaining style of play.
Unlike so many college teams that had a few outstanding players supported by a cast of hustlers, Arena’s teams brought the “total soccer” concept to the college game. Its defenders -- guys like Agoos, Erik Imler, Clint Peay, Brian Bates -- looked as comfortable on the ball as the attackers.
The famously-hard-to-impress Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner wrote of Arena’s team in 1993: “A free-flowing, attacking team, with individual soccer talent visible in every position. A team of personalities, each making his own unique contribution to the game. … A joy to watch.”
Then U.S. national team coach Bora Milutinovic said, “Virginia plays great soccer, and is very modern tactically. They are a great example for other teams.”
There had been a “dynasty” program in college soccer to receive similar praise, but Stephen Negoesco’s University of San Francisco’s 1970s squads depended on foreign talent. Arena only used Americans. He recruited nationally but his 1992 NCAA final lineup included seven starters from the Virginia area.
When MLS launched in 1996, Arena took charge of D.C. United, and it won the league’s first two MLS Cups and two international crowns. The soccer it played during his three-year stint, led by Bolivian playmaker Marco Etcheverry, may still be the most entertaining the league has ever seen. (Arena did double-duty in when he coached the 1996 Olympic team, a U-23 squad that exited a tough first round with a loss to Argentina, a win over Tunisia and a tie with Portugal.)
4 Bruce Arena (D.C. United 1996, 1997; LA Galaxy 2011, 2012)
2 Sigi Schmid (LA Galaxy 2002; Columbus 2008)
2 Dominic Kinnear (Houston 2006, 2007)
2 Frank Yallop (San Jose 2001, 2003)
Having conquered the college game and MLS, Arena spent 1998-2006 as U.S. national team coach. Before the 2002 World Cup campaign, as was the case last summer, prospects looked bleak as the USA was drawn into a “Group of Death.” But Arena guided the USA to quarterfinals, where it fell 1-0 to Germany in a game it was unlucky to lose. That U.S. performance remains its best in modern World Cup history.
Arena returned to MLS soon after the 2006 World Cup but following a 13-month stint left the New York Red Bulls. In 2008, he moved to the LA Galaxy, which was struggling in David Beckham's second year with the team. In his first full season in charge of the Galaxy, Arena ended the Galaxy’s three-year playoff drought and it finished as 2009 MLS Cup runner-up. He led the Galaxy to the back-to-back MLS titles in 2011 and 2012.
Regardless of Sunday's Galaxy-New England result, it's unimaginable that Arena will ever be dethroned as America's greatest coach.