Commentary

Bruce Arena on building winners, his coaching role models, the honor of national team duty, and American soccer progress



Discussion on the greatest of American soccer coaches begins and ends with Bruce Arena. Nobody has won as much, done as much, nor inspired as many as has the New England Revolution's boss, who in more than 40 years in charge of the U.S. national team, four MLS clubs and one of college soccer's greatest powers has achieved more than -- an exaggeration, for sure, but the point is made -- pretty much everyone else combined.

Arena, 69, is the longest-serving and winningest coach in U.S. national team history, the only coach to have guided the Americans in multiple World Cups, and engineer of the USA’s greatest World Cup accomplishment -- sorry, 1930 -- in reaching the 2002 quarterfinals in South Korea. He also coached the USA at the 1996 Olympics.

The former goalkeeper with one cap -- coming off the bench to spell goalkeeper Bob Rigby in a 2-0 loss at Israel in November 1973 -- steered the U.S. from a nascent soccer nation with a pro league in its infancy into a side capable of knocking off the world's powers while supplanting Mexico, for a lengthy stretch, as Concacaf's master.

He's the creator of dynasties, building Major League Soccer's two most enduring runs -- by D.C. United in the league's first seasons and LA Galaxy for a lengthy spell through the middle of the last decade -- after winning five NCAA championships in six seasons at the University of Virginia, four of them in succession. He's revered for his ability to quickly build championship teams, and after restoring the Revolution to prominence in his first two campaigns has the club atop the Eastern Conference.

Arena, perhaps the biggest personality in the American game, spent an hour with Soccer America discussing, among other things, his introduction to the game, coaching and seeing the game, the current state of American soccer, what's needed to spur greater development -- and why that's not a priority -- and, most enlighteningly, how the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup had much to do with players who did not share the “same kind of passion” for representing the U.S. as his group 16 years earlier.

“I think that's a factor,” he says. “I think when you play for your national team, you've got to have the right kind of spirit to be doing that.”

Read on.

SOCCER AMERICA: What are your first memories of soccer, of watching or playing the game? 

BRUCE ARENA: Well, as a young man growing up on Long Island in the '50s and '60s, soccer was never on television [except] Wide World of Sports would show the World Cup every four years. And that's my first view of soccer. And then the old NASL came in when Phil Woosnam was the commissioner. I remember watching some games on Sundays, but that was my first contact.

But I grew up in a sporting environment where there was football, lacrosse, baseball, basketball, that type of thing, and I didn't start playing soccer until my senior year of high school. And that's because one of my best friends told me to come out to the soccer team after I quit football when I was a freshman because I was too small. I was very small because I was wrestling and cutting weight year-round. So I got into soccer by mistake.

And then that winter, I got involved with the the local club team, which is New York Hota in the German-American League, which is a mile from my house. I didn't even know it existed. So it opened up the whole new world to me. The old Cosmos in that day, in the offseason they played for Hota. So I started getting familiar with soccer and had obviously a real interest in it. And it went forward from there.

SOCCER AMERICA: Did you did have a favorite sport at that time or a sport that you felt you were best at?

BRUCE ARENA: Oh, It's definitely lacrosse. I was a very good baseball player, but I had to quit playing baseball because I was set on being a lacrosse player. And so I quit playing baseball in ninth grade because it conflicted with lacrosse in the same seasons in high school. And I was raised as a lacrosse player by my brothers [Paul and Mike], who were very good lacrosse players and played collegiately as well. I was dead set on the fact that I was going to play lacrosse.

SOCCER AMERICA: As you're playing both sports at Cornell, do you start inching toward soccer?

BRUCE ARENA: No, because I played on the national team in lacrosse, and I played in the World Championships in '74 and '78, and I played professionally in Montreal in '75. and then the league folded. That ended up my lacrosse career a little bit. You know, I went through a lot of stuff. I played professional lacrosse and soccer, and the teams I played on all folded. It was crazy, and that's what got me into coaching.

Bruce Arena during his Cornell days (with teammate Ben Alberto) from his days at Cornell. Arena helped the Big Red reached the 1972 NCAA national championship semifinals, losing 1-0 to a UCLA team that included Sigi Schmid. 

SOCCER AMERICA: You coached a bit at Cornell, but your first head job was at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

BRUCE ARENA: I was playing in Tacoma as a professional soccer player, but the vice president of Puget Sound recruited me, and my salary was three graduate courses. So I started my MBA, and I brought Frank Gallo with me -- he was a teammate of mine who played at Dartmouth -- and he got two courses. We were there, and they knew nothing about their soccer program at all.

Frank and I on the first day of practice, they lined a field for us at the quadrangle, the quad on campus, and the kids walked by. We'd ask them if they ever played soccer before. And we had some holdovers from the previous team, and we recruited some kids walking by and we started our team.

SOCCER AMERICA: A year of learning, of figuring things out?

BRUCE ARENA: Yeah, yeah, a lot of fun. But I coached before, because when I graduated from Cornell, I was coaching lacrosse there, and I also coached the goalkeepers in soccer while I was teaching and doing all my other stuff -- you know, playing professional soccer and lacrosse in between. I had coached, and I always had a passion for coaching and knew that I'd eventually get into coaching. But at UPS, it was just a lot of fun and good experience for us.

SOCCER AMERICA: Is there any part of you that thinks back and says, “Wish I was still doing lacrosse?”

BRUCE ARENA: No. The reason I went into soccer full-time is that I took a hunch and I said 20 years from now, which sport is going to be bigger? Is it going to be soccer or lacrosse? From a professional-coaching perspective, I looked at that. I was coaching both sports at Virginia and I felt that soccer had a higher upside than lacrosse. I hedged my bet, and I was right.

SOCCER AMERICA: Did soccer's evolution here develop as you expected or surpass your expectations?

BRUCE ARENA: In this country, it has exceeded my expectations by far.


Bruce Arena (top row, second from left) with the 1976 Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League. Arena was picked by the New York Cosmos in the 1973 NASL draft (43rd overall). He played for the Montreal Quebecois of the National Lacrosse League before returning to soccer with the Tides.

SOCCER AMERICA: Where do you think we are on our path to being a soccer country?

BRUCE ARENA: Well, we are a soccer country. We have a professional league now with 27 teams that is still going to grow. We have soccer stadiums all over the place. We have a second division. Our youth clubs are booming. The collegiate level is booming. And it's recognized as a top-level sport in our country. There's no question about it. I mean, the sport has arrived. I don't question that at all.

Coaching in America

SOCCER AMERICA: What are the most important attributes to be a coach? What are the things that that a coach who wants to be very successful needs to have?

BRUCE ARENA: I think at every level, it's different. Whether you're coach in youth or at the collegiate level or the professional level. The requirements of the coach are very different at all those levels. And with the national team, as well. They're all different jobs.

Obviously, a coach at the youth level should be fully aware of developing the technical side of the game for the players and that the kids have fun and enjoy themselves. And if they do that, they'll continue to move forward. At senior levels, it's different. And then at the highest level, if it's professional soccer, I think communication is very important in leadership.

Everybody knows the sport. It's not that hard to figure out how to coach. It's how you get the best out of your players, it's how you organize your team, and those types of things that are very important that make a difference.

SOCCER AMERICA: Which coaches were most influential for you?

BRUCE ARENA: I've always said this: For me, it was basketball coaches. It wasn't soccer coaches. In this country, I believe we have the finest coaching environment in the world. We have five professional sports, at a minimum, and we can follow those sports, those coaches, how they develop teams, win championships, all those kind of things, and it's right there in front of us.

And I still, obviously, admire the work of a Pep Guardiola, for example, a [Zinedine] Zidane, all those. But I look at it from a distance, right? Because I'm not there.

In this country, we on a daily basis get to examine the top coaches in their sports at the collegiate and professional levels. I can learn from [University of Alabama football coach] Nick Saban. I can learn from [former Chicago Bulls/Los Angeles Lakers coach] Phil Jackson. I can learn from [former Major League Baseball manager] Joe Torre, etc., etc. At the University of Virginia, I learned from Terry Holland, the basketball coach there, and George Welsh, the football coach.

The skills in coaching are very similar in all different sports. And for me to be a good coach in my sport doesn't mean that I have to follow what a coach at Real Madrid or Man City does. I see coaching everyday in this country, and that's helped me develop my particular style.

SOCCER AMERICA: How has the way you see the game evolved since, let's say, MLS began?

BRUCE ARENA: Oh, it always evolves. You learn something everyday. We learn everyday. Everyday is interesting, and how you deal with players, how you solve problems on the training field, how you deal with players or adjusting games, it's an ongoing process. That’s the enjoyable part, I believe, of coaching.

SOCCER AMERICA: Is there an ideal that you are looking for, or is a matter of putting a team together that can do the best at what it does?

BRUCE ARENA: Yeah, just try to be practical. I'm in a club now that's not one of the big spenders in Major League Soccer. And we adjust accordingly. In a perfect world, I'd have what I would think is a perfect style of play with the perfect kind of players. But we don't have that type of environment here. I'm not coaching at Man City or Liverpool. I'm coaching in Major League Soccer. We have restrictions on how we can acquire players, and you adjust accordingly. Our style of play will vary, depending on our players, and those are the limitations we have. But it's also the challenging part of coaching that I enjoy.

SOCCER AMERICA: Do you think you've come close to an ideal in this league, maybe with D.C. United or the Galaxy?

BRUCE ARENA: Oh, sure. I've coached good teams in the league. Nothing was ever perfect, but I developed good teams, and they were all different. From year to year, they were all different. Even when winning championships. The one thing in this league is you need to be prepared to adjust week in and week out, year in and year out. And that's part of the challenge of coaching in this country.

SOCCER AMERICA: When you're putting together a team, what are the things that you are looking to achieve en route to having the team that you want?

BRUCE ARENA: Through competition, you see your strengths and weaknesses. And, again, we don't live in a perfect world, so I can't go out and get Cristiano Ronaldo here or [Kevin] De Bruyne.

But I'll give an example. When I inherited this team in New England, I used the first couple of months to understand the team, the strengths and weaknesses, and made it a point that over a short period of time [that] we want to make improvements. It's not going to happen overnight. And we just continue to build the roster to get it stronger, and as the roster gets better, we can adjust our style of play. We're just dealing with what we have. And, you know, regardless of what I think is a perfect way of playing, we play the way we think is best suited for the players that we have.

SOCCER AMERICA: You built D.C. into a champion during the first season and had the Galaxy in the MLS Cup final a year after what had been their worst season. You've shown a knack for building winners very quickly. We often see coaches trying to do the same thing, they do it for three years, and they still don't get there. Is that just a natural ability that you have and being able to put things together? Or did that come mostly from experience?

BRUCE ARENA: It's experience, and it's observing the sports environment in our country. How do coaches or organizations in every sport build championship teams? I would certainly look at the Lakers in basketball. I'm looking at the Brooklyn Nets now. The Brooklyn Nets are like Manchester City or PSG in soccer. We don't have that [landscape], so I can't use that model. But I do look at other sports as well as our sport on how coaches and organizations build their teams and just try to make it better.

SOCCER AMERICA: How important are tactics as opposed to principles, or do they always go hand in hand?

BRUCE ARENA: Both are important. You put demands on your players, your coaching staff, your support team around everything, and what is expected of them every day.

In terms of tactics, you have a basic understanding of the things you want to do, and you make adjustments as you go along. Last year, for example, with this team, when we lost Carles Gil, we obviously had to change the way we played. No question about that. I think every coach does do that. You have to make adjustments in your tactics, but tactics are important, as well as the principles of about how you go about doing your business every day.

SOCCER AMERICA: Is too much made of formation?

BRUCE ARENA: Oh, yeah. That's some of the stupidest stuff I ever hear and read. Formation is a starting point. And it changes as soon as the opening whistle blows.

SOCCER AMERICA: We've seen the game largely go away from the 4-4-2 as a starting point. Does that mean anything?

BRUCE ARENA: No, no.

Building winners

SOCCER AMERICA: We've seen you work with certain coaches over time, such as Dave Sarachan, Curt Onalfo and Richie Williams, among others. What is it that you look for in an assistant? What do you want from an assistant?

BRUCE ARENA: Well, the older I get, what I can do everyday changes as well. But the current staff I have is an outstanding staff. They're very active on the field.

In the old days, I tried to do everything. I was the fitness coach. I thought I was the trainer, as well, besides the head coach and the goalkeeping coach. In the old days, when I was young and had all that energy to try to do everything I could.

Today, I set the tone about how we're going to train, the things we're going to do, and I play more of an observer role in training than an active coach on the field. I obviously get involved in the field, but I transfer a lot of responsibility to my coaching staff. Therefore, I need a coaching staff that we can communicate together, we have a basic agreement on what we want to do and a pretty common understanding of how we analyze our players, as well. And if we can do that, then we're all on the same page.

So I pick coaching staffs of people I know. I understand their background, their skill level and their quality as the person.

SOCCER AMERICA: Do you like debate when you're in discussions with your coaches on matters? Do you like different viewpoints?

BRUCE ARENA: Sure. I'm not sure you call it a debate as much as an argument. A debate is probably more civil than some of the discussions that we have.

SOCCER AMERICA: It seems like that type of thing can be healthy with the right people and unhealthy if it isn't the right mix.

BRUCE ARENA: Most definitely. It's like being married, you know. It's not a perfect environment when you're married. You have disagreements. But you find ways to be compatible with each other over time.

When you're married, you're probably coaching as well.

SOCCER AMERICA: You've always done very well with veteran talent and bringing in experienced guys who get it. How important is that to building a roster and creating situations where younger players can develop?

BRUCE ARENA: Yeah, I think that's important that you have some experienced players on your roster. In some cases, you have more than others. This year in our opening game against Chicago, I think the average age of our team was 24 years old. So that was a young team, and I've had teams that were obviously older.

In the Galaxy days, you know, I'd have a number of players in their 30s, like [David] Beckham and [Robbie] Keane, among others. You just have to find the right balance. You have to find the right characters as well.

At the end of the day, you need to surround yourself with good people. And not that you're going to agree on everything, but you need good people, and when we have good people, you can work through good times and in tough times. I think the quality of people you surround yourself with helps create an environment that can be successful.

SOCCER AMERICA: In terms of players who are very good in the clubhouse and maybe not as good as some other players on the field vs. players who are absolutely terrific but not necessarily good in the clubhouse: Is there a balance there?

BRUCE ARENA: For sure, and I think you probably tolerate a little bit more of the players that can win the games than the ones that don't.

It's not like it's a perfect world out there, and it's also not “my way or the highway,” the old Vince Lombardi days in how you deal with players. You don't treat everyone the same. You know, you have a team of 25 players, you have 25 different personalities, and you got to be able to communicate and make adjustments accordingly.

SOCCER AMERICA: Your players have talked about your ability in dealing with personalities for decades. Have you always had that, or is that something that had to be developed?

BRUCE ARENA: I learned that from my college lacrosse coach, Richie Moran, and I used to observe how he thought that the bottom player in our team was as important as the best player. And I admired that. And I try to respect all players, regardless of their role or their importance on our team. I think that's a good way to handle a team and players.

It takes a lot of time to do that. You have to be tolerant and all. You have to have a good understanding of what those different players go through and try to respect that and treat them in the right manner. And that's what I've always tried to do.

SOCCER AMERICA: Have you found that players and what motivates them have changed over the years?

BRUCE ARENA: Well, I think as our league grows, money becomes more of a factor. I always say that the difference between the college and the professional level is at the professional level, they want to know how much they're going to play and how much you're going to pay them. They don't really care how your wife's doing or your son as much as those other two things.

At the collegiate level, you could create a wonderful relationship with your players on and off the field.

Bruce Arena guided the University of Virginia to five NCAA D1 titles: 1989 (shared with Santa Clara),  1991, 1992, 1993, 1994. His other championship wins include MLS Cups 1996, 1997 (D.C. United) 2011, 2012, 2014 (LA Galaxy); 1998 Concacaf Champions Cup and Interamerican Cup (D.C. United) and three Gold Cups with the USA (2002, 2005, 2017). 

SOCCER AMERICA: You have a most impressive coaching tree, with so many of your players going into coaching. Can you tell who is going to be a coach, and what is it that tells you?

BRUCE ARENA: Yeah, I think you can. I think when you have players that understand what you're doing in training and how they communicate not only with me but with their teammates, and how they are off the field, whether they have the characteristics you need to be a coach one day. I think you can tell.

I constantly think about that. I think we have probably three or four players on my team now that should end up either on our coaching staff or in our academy program, because I think they have the qualities necessary to be good coaches.

SOCCER AMERICA: Do you want to identify them?

BRUCE ARENA: No. I don't want to retire them.

SOCCER AMERICA: How important for the American game is what Jesse Marsch is doing, the path he's taken en route to taking charge of RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga?

BRUCE ARENA: I'm not as bought into the concept of what people say, that it's really going to help American coaches. Jesse's working for the same organization that he did in New Jersey, the Red Bull organization. And he's gotten promoted within, which I think is terrific, and I admire the job he's doing. I'm not sure Jesse's promotions within the Red Bull organization is going to make a statement for American coaches, to be honest with you. I mean, that's a separate situation.

What would be interesting is that these clubs around the world start coming here and start recruiting our successful coaches to coach in their countries. We're going out and recruiting coaches and general managers or sporting directors in our league from abroad that don't have a lot of the success that some of our people have. So I hope that slips a little bit.

SOCCER AMERICA: We've had players going to Europe for more than three decades and watched opportunities grow for Americans. When you look at this current crop of American players that are doing so well in Europe, what strikes you about them? What does it say about where we are, in terms of development?

BRUCE ARENA: I think that's great. We have some young, talented players and we have to continue to work in our league, to find a way to get these players on the field. And that's a very debatable issue.

There are teams in our league that have as many as 17, 18 international players on their roster, and that hurts the development of the American player. And having said that, it's not the league's job to develop American players, necessarily, so I understand all of that. You know, we're trying to do it here [with the Revolution] as best we can, as are other clubs in the league. But I guess it's still a little surprising how some of these big clubs have come here and been able to evaluate some of our young players that have not necessarily been that successful in our environment and have brought them to these countries. and they've been very successful.

I had an opportunity to work with Christian Pulisic the year with the national team, and he's an outstanding talent. I'm not surprised he's been as successful as he has been. And, obviously, there's a number of other players that have been very successful, and it's great to see. We in our environment here, we're developing good players. I think part of the task is going to be, can we develop and keep some of them in our league, as well? But however you think about all this stuff, it's a real positive. We are developing some very good players and they're sought after both domestically and abroad.

SOCCER AMERICA: How would you feel about MLS implementing rules on, say, how many minutes young players must play?

BRUCE ARENA: I wouldn't say minutes, but you go back to the example in Mexico, where they limited the number of international players that could be on the field. That's a possibility. Although having said that, we count green cards as domestic players, so that complicates the whole issue.

I'd never go on minutes. I think minutes is a stupid way of doing it. I would say that if you really want to have an emphasis on domestic players playing, you have to have a rule that absolutely is designated to that. The question is where does the green card come in? If you count the green card as domestic player, you're never going to win, because the most teams in the league now have a minimum of a dozen international players, and a bunch of them hold green cards. What Mexico did is you had to have a Mexican passport, and they wanted X number of Mexicans on the field, and that that helped develop some of their players.

There's a lot of ways. I mean, you can come up with 20 different ways to figure out how to get more domestic players on the field, but, I'm pretty confident in saying this, I don't think that right now is an important factor for MLS. They're just trying to grow the league and be more competitive and increase the value of the league and improve the business model. The development of the American player is not a priority.

World Cup success and failure

SOCCER AMERICA: When you took charge of the national team for the first time, back in 1998, what were the biggest things that jumped out at you?

BRUCE ARENA: That's an interesting question. In '98, I saw a team that probably thought more of themselves than they should have, and we worked real hard in trying to develop a team where the team came first and developed a style of play that was suitable to the qualities and characteristics of our players.

I did that for eight years, and then I inherited the team in 2017, and to me, that was a much bigger surprise than taking the team in '98.

One thing I thought in '98, we went through the four-year cycle where we went to the 2002 World Cup. We had, obviously, September 11, 2001, which -- obviously, without me expanding on it -- was a huge event in our country, and inside our team it developed a spirit of patriotism. And as we qualified for the World Cup and we built up to go into the World Cup, the way we were recognized worldwide and the concerns and interests people had for the team and the spirit and patriotism we had going into that World Cup was unprecedented.

And the team I inherited in 2017 had none of those qualities. Not that there weren't players that had a passion for playing for the U.S. An example would be Michael Bradley. But we had players who were on our national team because they wanted to play in a World Cup, not that they cared about the sport in our country, anything else. And I saw a much different attitude among the players, which disappointed me because, you know, I wear the red, white and blue on my sleeve. I think there was not a greater honor that I could ever have in my life than being the national team coach and what it meant, and I didn't see that same kind of passion in the players.

I tried the best I could to get it. And the guys gave a great effort. But I'll be honest with you, we didn't have a full complement of players that bought into playing for the U.S. and what it meant and that kind of thing. And I think that's a factor. I think when you play for your national team, you've got to have the right kind of spirit to be doing that. And that to me was a much different situation to step into then the one I stepped into in 1998.

SOCCER AMERICA: You also had such a limited time to change things in 2017.

BRUCE ARENA: Yeah, but to tell you what, we had in a lot of ways a very good year. We played 18 games. We won 10. We lost a total of two games on the year and drew six. We won the Gold Cup and then we failed on the last day of qualifying. And I thought that was going to be the case all along, that we were going to go down to the last day. And, you know how that went, that game, and the other circumstances surrounding it, which eventually led for the teams that qualified for the World Cup.

It was a tough blow, but I do give the guys credit that were part of that team. A bunch of them just really played real hard for the U.S., although it wasn't fully there the way I would have liked to have had it. But you learn from that. I think now as they [head toward] the end of this campaign, believe it or not, for the next World Cup, I think you have a group of players who are all much more bought into playing for the U.S. And that's encouraging. And a lot of great young talent as well.

SOCCER AMERICA: It has people very excited for 2022 and even more so for 2026. Are we at the level where we can compete for a World Cup championship yet?

BRUCE ARENA: Well, without being disrespectful, it's just a stupid statement to say. We didn't qualify for the last World Cup, so now we're going to win the World Cup? That's a big jump, isn't it?

SOCCER AMERICA: Yes, it is.

BRUCE ARENA: How many countries in the world have won a World Cup?

SOCCER AMERICA: I think it's eight. And just three first-time winners since 1966.

BRUCE ARENA: And we're going to do it and didn't qualify for the last World Cup? We're pretty damn good.

SOCCER AMERICA: Well, can you see us being at a level where we can compete for a World Cup championship -- not necessarily win it, but be a team that can win it -- in your lifetime?

BRUCE ARENA: Yeah, mm-hmm. I plan to living to be 200 years old, by the way. I  think by 2026 we should be well ahead of where we are now.

SOCCER AMERICA: Aside from the results, what were the biggest differences between the 2002 and 2006 World Cups?

BRUCE ARENA: A little bit of luck. The draw. And I think of the French team in Mexico in 1986. If that World Cup was held in 1985, I think France would have won. They were a year older in '86. I think our team in 2006 was a year too old. We had an easy qualifying campaign. If I remember correctly.

And I knew going into that World Cup, you know, we've got the Czech Republic in our opening game. And in all honesty, when we scouted them -- much different than when we'd scouted Portugal for the opening game in 2002 -- when we scouted the Czech Republic and followed them for six months before we played them in the World Cup, they were better than us in all 11 positions on the field. So we knew that was going to be a tough game.

And then the second game we had Italy, who won the World Cup. So, you know, put two and two together. It wasn't going to be easy. And having said that, we were still in position to advance if we beat Ghana. And we had a very odd play, the way we got a penalty kick called on us at the end of the first half. That made a big difference, and then, you know, whatever. So I think there were differences. Our team in 2002 was better than 2006. That's one answer I would give you.

SOCCER AMERICA: The narrative seems to be what a disaster 2006 was. But I was at that Cup, and I thought, you know, throw out the first half-hour against the Czech Republic and the U.S. played pretty well.

BRUCE ARENA: Yeah, we did fine. You know, for some reason, in sport, people, it's like life and death. Win or lose. I mean, the number of articles I read about teams that won a game and, actually, when I look at the game, I thought they didn't play very well. But the bottom line is winning the game. That's all anyone thinks about.

They don't know the difference of the quality, to be honest with you. That's my opinion. All they care about is who won. If you won, that means you played well. If you didn't win, you didn't play well. And that's not always the case. Because our sporta are different. Basketball, you score a hundred and something points. Soccer, it's the lowest-scoring sport in the world. And one mistake makes all the difference.

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SOCCER AMERICA: What are the biggest things about the game that those who are not on the inside do not understand?

BRUCE ARENA: Well, I think the speed of the game today is absolutely remarkable. I'm not sure players are necessarily any better soccer players, per se, but the physical qualities of the sport around the world today is absolutely off the charts. The speed of the game has changed considerably.

And it's really interesting to watch young players try to adjust to that and see how they step into the game. And that's something I admire. When you see a young player who could be successful playing at the professional level, I think it's pretty incredible that they can make that adjustment from their previous environments into professional soccer. And today, the speed of the game, the physical part, the mental part, the technical part is really in high demand.

An unprecedented career

SOCCER AMERICA: As you look back at what you've done, which achievement do you take the most pride in, the one that means the most to you?

BRUCE ARENA: I would say representing the United States in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup. Because of what it meant for our country and what it meant for me personally. I had my father's mass card in my pocket. That meant something.

And I say this all the time, I'm just an average person growing up on Long Island in a blue-collar family, and I've had the opportunity to represent my country as a coach, win championships, be part of a great university, great clubs, great national team and have sat in the Oval Office with three presidents as well. And met world leaders. Just remarkable and incredibly thankful and grateful for all that's happened in my life, to be honest with you.

SOCCER AMERICA: Biggest disappointment or regret?

BRUCE ARENA: I think I regret being a coach for so many years and not having the proper time with my family at times. And by that I don't only mean my wife and son, but my brothers. That's what coaching does. It takes you away from family. And that's a little bit of a regret for what I do.

But having said that, I would do it all over again. But when you get to my age, I think you think about those things a little bit more. When you're younger, you know, you're going 100 miles an hour. You never think twice about it.

SOCCER AMERICA: The best team you have coached?

BRUCE ARENA: I don't think I can give you an answer to that question. You know, it's all relative. You know, at a university level with my best team, I don't think I can even tell you that. At the league level, could I? Oddly enough, I would probably say the '98 D.C. United team was probably the best team I coached. And then the 2002 national team. The team that played against Germany [in the 2002 quarterfinals] was pretty damn good.

I don't want to take away from any of these teams. I've had great experiences everywhere. A lot of them have been successful, so I don't want to take anything away from the accomplishments those teams had. But it's been a good run.

SOCCER AMERICA: Which players have you most enjoyed working with?

BRUCE ARENA: I enjoyed working with Robbie Keane. With Beckham. With A.J. DeLaGarza, Tony Sanneh, Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno. Incredible, incredible people. At the national team level, Earnie Stewart, Brian McBride.

All not only very good players, but I think if you go back to something I said previously, you want to surround yourself with good people. These are just good people. And their memories last forever, because not only what they achieved on the field, but what you achieve away from the field with those kind of people. First class.

Having said the names that I gave you, I've probably left out 100. Donovan Ricketts is another one, simply an outstanding guy to work with you. There's just so many of those. I'm not giving a fair answer to, you know, a legitimately good question.

SOCCER AMERICA: Lastly, how do you see your legacy? And do you care much about your legacy?

BRUCE ARENA: Do I care much about my legacy? What does that actually mean?

SOCCER AMERICA: I guess that for some people, what their legacy is means a lot to them. For others, they did the work and whatever their legacy is, that's what it is, and they don't pay a whole lot of attention to it.

BRUCE ARENA: I think pretty much [the latter] would be the case. You know, I'm not that concerned with what other people think, and I'm not concerned with how I think and what other people should know, because if that was the case, I would be an animal on social media. It's not surprising that I'm not on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I don't do any of that because, first of all, I think all you do is get yourself in trouble.

But I'm not really worried about what other people think about me, and I'm not worried about them knowing what I think. You know, I'm just trying to do my job and do it in the right way with integrity, if that's possible to do today.

SOCCER AMERICA: If I were to say that you're the most important figure in American soccer history, how would you respond?

BRUCE ARENA: I don't think that's correct. You know, I've played a role, but I don't know the answer to that statement either. But at the end of the day, if that's what you think, that's great and I'm honored you said something like that. But I don't necessarily think that's the case.

MLS PHOTOS  Courtesy of New England Revolution by John Wilkinson III & David Silverman
14 comments about "Bruce Arena on building winners, his coaching role models, the honor of national team duty, and American soccer progress".
  1. Bob Ashpole, July 5, 2021 at 6:58 a.m.

    A great interview. Thanks.

  2. frank schoon, July 5, 2021 at 8:54 a.m.

    Scott, Congratulations!, One of the better interviews I've read on Bruce Arena and the questions you posed gave it a good read. Thank You..

  3. John Soares, July 5, 2021 at 2 p.m.

    Have always loved the guy's directness and honesty.

  4. Sean Guillory, July 6, 2021 at 8:11 a.m.

    I liked his comment last about the 2006 team.  That team was so arrogant.  I remember Demarcus Beasley saying that the Czech Republic weee old before their opening game and then Pavel Nedved and company gave them a humiliating lesson.  I also like his answer on us winning the World Cup.  To expect us to win a World Cuo goes back to our arrogance again.

  5. Philip Carragher, July 6, 2021 at 9:50 a.m.

    Good interview. One follow-up that could have provided much needed insight would be more detail on what good soccer looks like. I see and hear the on-target criticism that parents and coaches and fans are only concerned with winning and losing, that there is too much emphasis on the scoreboard, and they're absolutely correct. Like Coach says, "They don't know the difference of the quality". Ok. Tell me what quality soccer looks like, me, the American sport fan; or better yet, show me. And don't just give me a youtube link or tell me what teams to watch that are playing good soccer because I need a bit more, maybe much more. Years ago, prior to the Winter Olympics, the TV station carrying the games had a quick four minute explanation/demonstration about ice skating that provided simple visual and verbal details about the take-off and landings of jumps. I wasn't interested watching the ice skating but because of this quick education I did watch and was captivated.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, July 6, 2021 at 11:24 a.m.

    Good soccer is based on shared principles, not a common "look". Look will vary as game plans vary from match to match. For instance play against a zone defense "looks" different than play against man-to-man defense. Modern Barca playing against zone defenses "looks" different that 1970-74 Ajax facing man-to-man defenses. Ignore what 99% of the people say on the internet about how those teams play. They get distracted by appearances rather than tactics. Pep Guardiola's teams are a good illustration. His teams follow the same principles in their play, but they look different.

    I think what is called "Dutch Style" principles is a good expression of what good soccer is. (Ignore the word "Dutch". Good soccer knows no borders.) This video is the best description that I know of beginning at 1:30.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vy9h4QgNIc8

    The thing that this description doesn't communicate expressly is that positional play includes how they view the game. The common view in the US is that play is divided into multiple phases including attacking and defending as seperate phases. The Dutch Style "positional play" involves movement that places the team in the best position to both attack and press (if possession is lost) at the same time. Their defense is intended to promote their attack and vice versa. Also all 11 players attack and all 11 players defend. These two ideas give teams playing Dutch Style a great advantage over a conventional team that divides it 11 players into attackers and defenders and only positions for attacking and defending part of the time.

    Keep in mind that the almost no team plays like Ajax did in the early 70's, not even Ajax.
    That is true of Barca in Spain and Bayren Munich in Germany.

    The 433 formation is not the secret. It is how the team plays, not the "formation", that matters.
    I played soccer for 50 years and it took me 30 years to come to this view. I kept looking for the "secret" of positional play, but there is no secret other than playing good soccer in terms of superior tactics and skills. 

    I got to stop there. This is my view, and a lot of people on line and off line will disagree, but it is an answer to your question. 

  7. humble 1 replied, July 6, 2021 at 12:22 p.m.

    Philip, this is where maybe Bruce is wrong about whether we are a soccer nation or not.  And maybe it's because he help build what we have and maybe does not have the perspective of the average American.  Yeah we build a D1 and D2 leagues, but the D1 league is like 25 years old and the D2 league is like 5 years old.  We have not build a successful youth development platform, it is spagetti soup mess, from the bottom up.  We have not build a successful coach development platform to support our youth platform.  What was build here was built from the top down.  A lot of what we have are mercenaries, players and coaches from abroad.  European and South American Soccer was built from the ground up.  The soccer knowledge of an average Brazilian, Mexican, German or English, is far beyond that of the average American.  When we are really a soccer nation, that is when most everyone will already know their answer to the 'quality' question.   

  8. frank schoon replied, July 6, 2021 at 12:58 p.m.

    Philip ,I understand what you're saying. Your quote"insight would be more detail on what good soccer looks like". This is  why I rant on our 'poor' soccer journalism because it's their job to EDUCATE the soccer fan, which is not happening. Most journalists are more interested in talking 'around' soccer but not about soccer, itself and that is due to their own lack of understanding of the game. This is why I try in my comments to give some interesting details about the game so you could learn more about the game.

    You're right about parents/coaches stressing winning. When is the last time you hear a parent talk about his kid  being developed in the right way by some coach...NEVER; COACHES ARE ONLY SEEN AS WINNERS NOT AS DEVELOPERS OF PLAYERS. Parents think that playing for a 'good' team means really having  a strong team.....I have to laugh whenever I watch a 'socalled' good youth team play and parents have no clue of what their kid suppose to be able to do. Parents are not taught to look for or be aware of the 'details' ,technically and/or tactically, their kid should be able to do or perform. But as long as their team is winning, they interpret this as success for their kid.

    Bob and Humble made some good points too. But most importantly, there is no source ,journalistic wise, that gives fans some interesting details, 'insights' about the game......

  9. humble 1 replied, July 7, 2021 at 10:46 a.m.

    Frank, all due respect, being a person that did not play the game, I have learned a lot from SA among others.  I really messed up my sons game in the beginning, in so many ways, but he is  a player now, and growing, and it is in part because of my continuous learning efforts. I can honestly say for me SA has been a tremendous resource.  Finding good soccer analysis, it is a bit less difficult than searching for needle in the haystack, but there is good stuff out there.  I happliy pay SA, it is a bargain really, and am thankful for your comments and the many others that keep me thinking and learning.  Maybe from your perspective, and knoweldge/experience level it is more challenging, but we parents do not seek the holy grail, we do not seek perfection, just good advice and solid analysis from which we can build our knowlege.  Keep it going! Cheers! 

  10. Philip Carragher, July 6, 2021 at 1:11 p.m.

    Thanks Bob and Humble 1, I appreciate your insights. I'd love to find an easy way to get the average U.S. sport's fan to recognize and consequently love soccer's "quality play" as well as they love simply winning big tournaments but that's a heavy lift. I suppose if they can be amazed by Benzema's heaven-inspired first goal against Switzerland then maybe there is hope, if not, it'll probably take a long time. (But haven't we had a long time?)

  11. cony konstin, July 6, 2021 at 1:14 p.m.

    Bruce is a true winner because he never made any excuses when he lost. He just came back and worked harder and smarter and won again. A sign of a true champion. Good luck with the Revs. 

  12. stan kull, July 7, 2021 at 2:15 p.m.

    One web site that provides detailed analysis of games, systems, etc. is:

    https://spielverlagerung.com

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, July 8, 2021 at 12:22 a.m.

    I am not impressed. The site does not identify who runs it. The tactical "analysis" is too superficial and centers around "formations". Every high school basketball player in the US understands that you break down a zone defense differently than a man-to-man defense. Yet the people running this German site are dumber than a 14-year-old basketball player in the US. 

    Jonathan Wilson's "Inverting the Pyramid" does an excellent job of tracing good soccer throughout the history of the game. For a historical perspective of European football, I suggest reading the section about rise of the game in Hungary and Hungary's humiliating defeat of England in the 1950s, not once but twice. This was the origin of positional play and the most important influence on modern European soccer. 

  14. John DiFiore, July 7, 2021 at 9:34 p.m.

    Good interview!  I really enjoyed "What's wrong with US?" as an autobiography of Bruce.  I would like to see it retitled, and then see a separate book on what really happened during 2018 qualifying run - from Bruce's honest perspective.  I'm sure that won't happen, as some would indefinitely get called out.  It's too bad the guys couldn' come up with a W in Couva.  Thank you Bruce for taking the game higher and higher!  Fan for life!

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