Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 26 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
Bruce Arena has never coached a team outside of the United States, but he has played for one. It was 1974, less than two years removed from his one and only cap as a goalkeeper with the U.S. men’s national team, when the former two-sport Cornell University athlete spent a season playing professional indoor lacrosse with the Montreal Quebecois of the original National Lacrosse League.
The team shared the old Montreal Forum with the NHL’s Canadiens, which, backstopped by another Cornell grad in goalie Ken Dryden, had already claimed two of the six Stanley Cups they’d win that decade.
“My fondest memory is the guy who sang the Canadian national anthem,” Arena said of Roger Doucet, the legendary Canadian tenor. “He was fabulous.”
Arena was back in Montreal last weekend ahead of the start of the MLS’s milestone 25 season. The Brooklyn-born, Long Island-bred 68-year-old has been with the league since the beginning, leading D.C. United to the inaugural MLS Cup championship in 1996, the first of five league titles. He’d go on to win another in D.C. and three more with the LA Galaxy in between stints as the manager of the U.S. men’s national team. Along the way, he also earned a reputation for speaking his mind.
Now he’s in charge of the New England Revolution, his fourth MLS stop (he also spent a season and a half with the New York Red Bulls in the late 2000s), and remains as opinionated as ever. That trait was on full display during a wide ranging 40-minute conversation with Yahoo Sports a day before his Revs fell to Thierry Henry’s Montreal Impact, 2-1, in Henry’s first MLS match as a coach.
As ever, Arena had plenty to say.
1. I didn’t have much interest is asking Arena to rehash, again, his failure to qualify the USMNT for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. U.S. Soccer has undergone significant change since then. Arena resigned and was eventually replaced by Gregg Berhalter. Carlos Cordeiro was elected USSF president after Sunil Gulati decided not to run for a fourth four-year term. Dan Flynn retired as CEO, and longtime exec Jay Berhalter left his post as chief commercial officer last month.
I was curious to hear Arena’s thoughts on the current state of the federation. He didn’t hold back.
2. “I see an organization that somewhat leaderless. The people in that organization need mentoring, from the administrators to the head coach. They have a president who in my view has no business being there,” Arena said of Cordeiro.
3. “Because the guy has no passion for the sport,” he said. “Obviously a non-paying position, but I don't think you should be the so-called head of an organization and have no passion for that sport. You have to love the sport.”
Say what you want about Gulati, but his love of soccer has never been in question. “Sunil has been arguably the most influential person in the sport in our country,” Arena said. “Like all of us, he hasn't made all the right decisions. We all make mistakes.”
4. The idea that Arena has never taken responsibility for the qualifying debacle isn’t entirely accurate, anyway. “You could say the reason we didn’t qualify is because of me,” he told Yahoo in May of 2018. “You live with it.”
Everyone has regrets. That includes Arena. However, he insists he has fewer than most. “I don't have too many,” he said. “I'd be a complete pig if I said I wish I had won more. I've won more than my fair share. I'm not regretful. I'm grateful.”
5. We didn’t start our conversation with the USMNT, however. My first question was obvious: How do you like the Revs this year? “We're gonna find out ... We’ll be better than last year, I think,” Arena said.
6. Despite the opening day defeat, they should be. Arena was hired as head coach and sporting director last May after New England struggled under former boss Brad Freidel and led the Revs to a surprise playoff appearance. Over the winter, they added 23-year-old Polish striker Adam Buksa as one of the team’s three designated players, joining Argentine forward Gustavo Bou (recruited by Arena last July) and Spanish midfielder Carles Gil. Veterans Juan Agudelo and Jalil Anibaba left for expansion sides Miami and Nashville, respectively.
7. Off the field, the changes have been more pronounced. The club opened its new $35 million training facility in December. Arena is hoping longtime owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft will announce plans to move from suburban Foxboro Stadium and into Boston in the near future. “I think they're as close as they're ever going to be,” he said. “To be a champion, we need to be playing in the city.”
8. After spending more than a decade living in Los Angeles, Arena is glad to be back on the East Coast. He and his wife Phyllis sold their house in Manhattan Beach and moved into a new condo in Boston’s trendy Seaport section of town. (Their permanent home remains in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Arena lead UVA to five NCAA titles.) He has a weekly spot on local sports talk radio.
9. “It's the greatest sports town in America,” Arena said of Boston. “Sports is 24 hours a day in Boston. In Los Angeles it's not, I can promise you that. It would be a waste of time to do [sports radio] in L.A. In Boston, it’s part of the culture. I don't mind doing it all. And I think it's important that we're building this product up.”
10. Arena is one of just two MLS coaches with complete authority over the soccer operation, the other being Sporting Kansas City manager/technical director Peter Vermes. But interestingly, his stature and authority are such that his control spills over to the business side.
11. “It's very challenging bringing the Revolution forward, both on the field and off,” Arena said. “Certainly I have the influence on the technical side. I try to influence a little on the commercial side, even though that's not my responsibility. But I'd like to see us really build up the entire organization. You can't have one without the other. So we're not there yet.” How does he do that?
“Open my fat mouth,” Arena cracked. “I talk to the people who are doing things commercially within the organization. I don't spend a whole lot of time doing it, but I try to have a comment or two along the way. I've been enough around enough franchises in this league that I understand some of that stuff. And we'll eventually get there once we have a [downtown] stadium. We can't advance ourselves a whole lot more until then.”
12. Nobody was more vocal about the need for charter travel in MLS than Arena, who prohibited both his Galaxy and Revolution teams from sporting club-branded gear on commercial flights. The new collective bargaining agreement with the players allows far more charter flights. That came in handy when the Revs’ commercial flight to Montreal last Thursday was cancelled. The team immediately hired a charter, and arriving in Canada later that night.
13. “It had to be done,” Arena said of the new rules. “You can't expect professional athletes to travel the way we've traveled and perform the way we need to perform.
“It's going to make a difference in the competition. It's not going to be as lopsided. Typically home-field advantage has been huge in our league. I think when you balance things out a little bit where the travel is better, the competition will be stiffer.”
14. The new CBA should help improve the product in other areas, according to Arena. “I think getting salaries a little bit more respectable helps,” he said. “Teams having more money to spend helps. The infrastructure in the league, the stadiums, the training facilities are better. The players are better. Everything's getting better.”
I think finally everyone has grown up.
And they're willing to say this takes a little time.
15. I noted last week, when LAFC co-owner Larry Berg and other club execs were talking up MLS’s potential, that commissioner Don Garber, who often spoke of becoming one of the best leagues in the world by 2022, now sounds more realistic about MLS’s place in the global landscape.
16. “I used to say it and they looked at me like I'm an idiot,” Arena said. “I think finally everyone has grown up. And they're willing to say this takes a little time. It's baby steps. You know, this talk early on of this is going to be the greatest league in the world and blah, blah, blah, was all a bunch of baloney. And now we're making steady progress each year. So I think that's a real positive.”
17. Henry said something interesting after his team prevailed on Maxi Urruti’s audacious game-winning half-volley. Asked about the sterling debut of 18-year-old English youth national team defender Luis Binks — whom the Impact signed from Tottenham Hotspur last month — the former New York Red Bulls striker preached caution. “He’s young and we need to be careful with young players,” said Henry. “I’ve seen guys in this league where people were talking a lot about them and they disappeared after a year or so.”
18. A day earlier, Arena said the same thing, if less diplomatically. “You idiots hype up every kid that steps on the field,” he said, referring to the media. “Every time a young player is in a national team camp, he's a star. It's ridiculous. The stupidity is even worse than it used to be.”
19. For all the progress MLS has made off the field over its first quarter-century, I’m not convinced that any team in the league is better than Arena’s 1998 D.C. United squad that won both the CONCACAF title (over Mexico’s Toluca) and the InterAmerican Cup against then-South American champ Vasco da Gama.
20. If there is, it might be LAFC. Last week’s column dropped before their epic comeback from two goals down to beat Liga MX side Leon and advance to the quarterfinal against Mexico City-based Cruz Azul. The Black and Gold still have a long way to go to become the first MLS club since the Galaxy in 2001 to top the region, but man it’s hard not to like their chances after a match like that.
21. LAFC’s triumph was no fluke. They totally outclassed Leon in just their second competitive match since October. Bob Bradley’s side, understandably, wasn’t as sharp in their MLS opener but still easily dispatched Inter Miami in its debut. But the rest of the league ought to be on notice if they weren’t already.
22. Atlanta United and New York City FC both have their work cut our for them in the CONCACAF Champions League quarters, with the Five Stripes taking on Liga MX-leading Club America and the Pigeons meeting Tigres. Too bad that Josef Martinez, who tore his ACL in Atlanta’s opening day win over Nashville, won’t be available for the Campeones Cup rematch.
23. Carlos Vela posterized Miami keeper Luis Robles with an oh-so-delicate chip that stood up as the difference in the 1-0 victory. That’s unfortunate for Robles, who was excellent otherwise. I think the New York Red Bulls are going to miss him desperately this season.
24. I’m feeling a lot less confident about Javier “Chichartio” Hernandez’s ability to challenge for the Golden Boot after watching him struggle mightily in his first match with the Galaxy. Was kicking myself for not picking Martinez afterward, at least for a couple hours. By the way, how much is Atlanta going to miss Julian Gressel now?
25. Chicharito needs service to score, and I’m not sure former Chicago Fire midfielder Aleksandar Katai is the guy to get him the ball. (Cristian Pavon, on the other hand, will eventually figure out Hernandez’s runs.) Is Katai even a winger? Either way, the Galaxy might have been better off keeping Romain Alessandrini, who is now playing in China.
26. Per multiple sources, the new contract that USMNT defender Reggie Cannon signed with FC Dallas Thursday includes a release clause should a foreign team come calling for the 21-year-old right back. Not sure yet what the dollar figure that would trigger it is, but traditionally the MLS teams have not included such clauses in deals signed by domestic players. Progress.
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