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“This team has not been great,” Bruce Arena said after his first game as head coach of the New England Revolution. “That’s probably why I have this job and I’m not relaxing in Manhattan Beach right now.”
The quote, coupled with the June 2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy, was an early indicator of two themes of Arena’s tenure with the Revolution: He’s not afraid to speak his mind, and he’s overseen a New England revival in Major League Soccer.
With the team headed to its first playoff game since 2015 on Oct. 19 in Atlanta, Arena remains characteristically unmoved.
“I’m not sure you call what we’ve done special,” Arena said after the Revolution clinched a postseason berth on Sept. 29 with a 2-0 win over top-seeded New York City FC. Having led New England from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to the playoffs in a span of four months, he still wasn’t getting carried away.
“I’d like to think our best years are ahead of us,” Arena explained. “I’m not ready to be dancing in the woods or having parades and stuff because we made the playoffs. I think the goal here is to get this club better positioned to be one of the top clubs in the league and one day win an MLS Cup. We’re not there yet.”
Quotes like that cut to the core of his style. He’s won five MLS Cups, more than any other manager in the history of the league. In fact, Arena won the cup in the league’s inaugural season (1996), lifting his first championship at — of all places — the old Foxboro Stadium as his D.C. United side beat the Galaxy amid a nor’easter.
Yet for all of his past success in MLS, Arena is looking ahead to his “best years” to come. New England fans are hoping he can get them a long-sought championship of their own, having finished second five times.
He’s been labeled egotistical and overconfident, but his habitual ability to generate both memorable quotes and wins in MLS could be exactly what the Revolution need to achieve relevance in the crowded space of New England’s sports landscape.
‘We have no excuses.’
Before coming to New England, Arena suffered the highest profile loss of his coaching career. In his second tenure as coach of the U.S. men’s national team, he oversaw the team’s first failure to reach a World Cup since 1986.
An infamous 2-1 defeat in Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of qualifying left the U.S. out of the World Cup. It was a shocking disaster for a coach who had taken the Americans on their greatest tournament run during his first stint. The circumstances had been admittedly tough — Arena was brought in midway through qualifying to coach after the team had already suffered multiple defeats and had a razor thin margin of error — but all that mattered was the result (or lack thereof).
In the immediate aftermath, Arena didn’t run away from the failure.
“We have no excuses,” he told reporters following the 2-1 defeat. “We failed today.”
Shortly after the qualifying failure, Arena resigned as U.S. coach.
Simultaneous to Arena’s low point, the Revolution was in a nadir of its own. The club — with Kraft ownership that has long been accused of treating it as an afterthought — was mired in a multi-year playoff drought.
By early 2019, events had come to a head. Then-coach Brad Friedel, who had been the goalkeeper of Arena’s 2002 U.S. World Cup team, was failing to achieve anything close to the results that ownership desired. After 2-8-2 start, good for last in the Eastern Conference — including a pair of losses by five-goal margins — a change was made.
Friedel was fired, and so too was general manager Michael Burns. Arena was brought in to fill both roles, being named head coach and sporting director of the Revolution.
With both a club and a manager looking for redemption, it was theoretically a good match, though the odds appeared long that there would be success in the short term.
‘We don’t have ice cream and cake every day and balloons in the locker room.’
Building on the work started by interim coach Mike Lapper, Arena produced instant results for the Revolution. As has been well chronicled, the team embarked on a club record 11-game unbeaten run from May through July.
As usual, Arena refused to get carried away. Asked during the run of summer success about bringing “fun” back to the team, he joked about it.
“I don’t know if that’s the word: ‘fun,'” Arena said. “We don’t have ice cream and cake every day and balloons in the locker room.”
Still, the results spoke volumes, as New England inched its way back up the standings. His methodology wasn’t complicated. Notably, one of his pregame speeches during the run was an almost verbatim call-back to his U.S. team pep talk prior to the famous 3-2 upset of Portugal in the 2002 World Cup.
“Step on the field tonight, we make the first tackle, we take the first shot, we score the first goal,” Arena said, echoing his 2002 instructions.
— X- New England Revolution (@NERevolution) July 31, 2019
In both instances, his teams scored in the first five minutes.
It’s not surprising that he’s been able to connect with players over the years. As Arena has explained before, his old office from his days as an assistant coach at the University of Virginia from 1978-1985 was adjacent to the visiting basketball locker room. From time to time, he would silently listen as legendary coaches like Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Valvano prepared their teams to play against Virginia.
“Coaching is teaching, and for a long time I got a chance to listen to the elite coaches teaching the elite athletes of this country,” Arena once told Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated of his eavesdropping. “Other soccer coaches were making trips to Europe, but I don’t think that was half as educational as what I was doing.”
‘I had no idea what I was getting into, to be honest with you.’
Though he shares the same building — and a mutual love of lacrosse — with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Arena is the polar opposite when it comes to soundbites.
His June comment about the team having “not been great” prior to his arrival was an early demonstration of his unsparing assessments. Another example came during a halftime interview in Seattle in August, when he shared some straightforward thoughts on a video assistant referee (VAR) decision that cost his team.
“This VAR is a nightmare,” Arena began. “It’s a nice concept, but the people that are in charge of it don’t know what they’re doing.”
It was about as far away from Belichick’s “We’re on to Cincinnati” as could be.
— X- New England Revolution (@NERevolution) July 5, 2019
Of course, the soundbites have endeared him to fans because the results have also been there on the field. After leading the team from the depths of the standings to a playoff game, he was asked if he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the position in May.
“No, I had no idea what I was getting into, to be honest with you,” Arena said. “Still don’t know why the hell I took this job. I’m here, there’s nothing I can do about it now, right?”
The reality is Arena’s enjoyed himself so far in New England, and has authored some of the most memorable lines by a local coach since Bill Parcells.
Whether his blunt style will produce results in the playoffs or beyond 2019 remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Arena isn’t running away from telling hard truths, even if it means creating a colorful quote in the process.
He even referenced his Trinidad and Tobago failure during the press conference after clinching a playoff spot.
“I always see the probability of doing this and that,” Arena said of the low postseason odds the Revolution received when he took over. “When the U.S. played Trinidad [and Tobago] in the last [World Cup] qualifying game, they might tell you we had a 99 percent chance of winning that game, and I think we had a 99 percent chance of not making the playoffs, so as they say, s*** happens, you know?”
The coach who’s unafraid to speak his mind could bring the right kind of fearlessness that the Revolution need to spring a playoff run, and — almost more challenging — break into the mainstream of the New England sports scene.