Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy: Part II – Game Strategy

“Coaching is coaching.  No one in Europe knows anything more about soccer than we do.”

– Bruce Arena, to Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, December 4, 2014

This article is the second in a multi-part series on Bruce Arena’s influence on the LA Galaxy. Click HERE to view the first part.  This article focuses on the impact of Arena’s strategic decision-making during big games.

The two best dynasties in MLS history are the DC United team that won two consecutive MLS Cups between 1996 and 1998 and the LA Galaxy team of the past five years.  Arena coached both teams.  Until Jurgen Klinsmann’s run of form with the national team, Arena also had the highest win percentage of any USMNT coach in modern history.*  While Arena has always received plaudits for his man-management and ability to develop players to their fullest potential, Arena is also a deft tactician who has repeatedly demonstrated throughout his career an uncanny ability to make timely and critical decisions that prove pivotal in big games.  Let’s briefly peruse Arena’s strategic curriculum vitae before evaluating how the tactics he has implemented in the past five years have borne fruit for the LA Galaxy.

The 1996 MLS Cup

Bruce Arena’s DC United team was one of the best in MLS history.  The squad was built around playmaker Marco Etcheverry who created chances for goalscorers Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce, and had a supporting cast that included Eddie Pope, John Harkes, and Jeff Agoos.  Perhaps the single game that best encapsulates the genius of Arena’s management of DC United was the 1996 MLS Cup, which occurred on October 20, 1996, during a howling rainstorm at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts.  In front of 35,000 rain-drenched fans, Arena coached the team back from a two goal deficit in the second half to beat the LA Galaxy 3-2 in extra time.

DC United started the game playing what appeared to be a 4-3-1-2 that looked something like the following:

————-Moreno————-Diaz Arce—————-




—————————Simpson —————————

However, as weather conditions worsened, the open and attractive style of play that had characterized DC United that year proved nigh impossible.  A continuous downpour of rain waterlogged the field, causing the ball to move with all the aerodynamic glide of a concrete boulder doused in tar.

Further, the 1996 LA Galaxy was no scrub team.  Led by club legend, Cobi Jones, the Galaxy grabbed the lead in the fifth minute on a header by Eduardo Hurtado, and doubled its advantage in the 55th minute when Chris Armas put in a left-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area.

It was then that Arena made some astute player and formation changes that altered the outcome of the game.  Realizing that the terrible conditions had curtailed the team’s ability to create chances through the run of play, Arena substituted in two players who could make a difference on set pieces:  Tony Sanneh (a right back who Arena played as a midfielder) came in for John Maessner and only a few minutes later Shawn Medved (forward) was subbed in for Mario Gori (midfielder).  Both substitute players had a height advantage of the players they were replacing (Sanneh [6’2”] replaced Maessner [5’10”] and Medved [5’11”] replaced Gori [5’7”]), and were effective at heading the ball.

Moreover, when the substitutes came in, DC United moved to a 3-4-3, with Etcheverry playing right forward, which caused problems for the LA Galaxy’s Chris Armas who was tasked with man-marking Etcheverry.  Arena’s decision was instantly rewarded when both his substitutes scored goals in the ten minutes that followed.  Etcheverry put in a perfect cross to an unmarked Sanneh who headed the ball in for a goal, and Medved tied the game up in the 82nd minute.  The team rallied in extra time and Eddie Pope sealed it for DC United, winning the league’s inaugural championship game.

20 Oct 1996:  John Harkes #6 and his teammates of DC United celebrate capturing the Alan I Rothenberg Cup after their team defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Major League Soccer MLS Championship game at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. DC Un
20 Oct 1996: John Harkes #6 and his teammates of DC United celebrate capturing the Alan I Rothenberg Cup after their team defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Major League Soccer MLS Championship game at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

The 1996 MLS Cup showcased Arena’s ability to respond to adverse field conditions and make wise substitutions.

The 2002 World Cup

Bruce reminds me of Bill Parcells. He’s got the same sarcastic humor, but what’s more important is that he sets a tone for the team. He never gets too caught up in X’s and O’s. Bruce’s teams are always organized well, but he doesn’t overdo it. He lets his players play.

-Bob Bradley on Bruce Arena, to Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, March 23, 1998

Bruce Arena left DC United in 1998 to coach the U.S. Men’s National Team.  During the eight years that followed, Arena won more than twice as many games as any other U.S. coach to that point in time and made a fairy tale run to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup.  Arena’s decisions at the 2002 World Cup give us a great example of his strategic nous and, in particular, his ability to use the players he has available at the right moment and in the right position.

USMNT v. Portugal

The American style, as Arena sees it, is defined by an ability to adapt, to shape strategies and formations according to various factors: the players available on a particular day, the opponent, the weather.  Style depends on the qualities his players possess, not on predetermined notions about how they should play.

– “The Americans, Seriously” by Jere Longman, The New York Times, June 4, 2006

Portugal’s 2002 team was comprised of world-class but aging players like Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta and Paulo Bento.  Arena lined up the USMNT against the Seleção in a 4-4-2 formation that looked like this:





Arena’s lineup only looks obvious in retrospect.  In 2002, a majority of people expected Kasey Keller to act as the United States’ Number One, not Friedel.  Arena was deploying Hejduk as a left back for only the second time and tasking him with the responsibility of shutting down defending FIFA World Player of the Year Luis Figo.  Damarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan were both twenty year old kids plying their trade in MLS** – there was no reason to believe either of them was equipped to play on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

However, there was method to Arena’s madness.  Portugal was expecting the USMNT to sit back and play conservatively.  Arena appreciated that the Seleção’s weakness lay in its defensive line and so he lined up his team to do the opposite.  It worked to devastating effect.  Four minutes into the game, midfielder John O’Brien blasted home a Brian McBride rebound off an Ernie Stewart cross to jumpstart the scoring for the USMNT.  And though Portugal’s sloppy defending did little to help its cause, Donovan and Beasley, who both had pace to burn, flew down Portugal’s open channels with aplomb.

Arena understood that playing a pressing game against Portugal was the USMNT’s best chance at success.  Portugal had better players than Arena’s side and Arena consequently could not allow Portugal to play its game.  By attacking Portugal in waves, Arena achieved the dual goals of disrupting Portugal’s rhythm and keeping the ball in Portugal’s half, thereby shortening the field and increasing the likelihood of chance creation.  And it worked.  In the 29th minute, Donovan pounced on a lazy attempt by Portugal to play the ball out of the back and slammed in a cross that deflected off of defender Jorge Costa and glided over goalkeeper Vitor Baia into the net.  Only seven minutes later, an unmarked Brian McBride headed in a cross from Earnie Stewart to give the United States a remarkable 3-0 lead.

SUWON - JUNE 5:  Brian McBride of the USA celebrates scoring the third goal against Portugal during the first half during the Portugal v USA, Group D, World Cup Group Stage match played at the Suwon World Cup Stadium, Suwon, South Korea on June 5, 2002. USA won the match 3 - 2. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
SUWON – JUNE 5: Brian McBride of the USA celebrates scoring the third goal against Portugal during the first half during the Portugal v USA, Group D, World Cup Group Stage match played at the Suwon World Cup Stadium, Suwon, South Korea on June 5, 2002. USA won the match 3 – 2. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Portugal, and the world, were stunned.  Arena compounded that shock when he successfully negotiated the team through group play to the knockout rounds.  However, it was the 2002 USMNT game versus Portugal that demonstrated Arena’s willingness to take a risk on untested talent and his ability to adjust a team’s style of play in order to exploit an opponent’s greatest weakness.

USMNT v. Mexico

To be honest, I think a lot of people get hung up on formations. At the end of the day I believe that we had 11 players that played better.  We had a very good team.  Everyone in our business knows that formations fluctuate; they change on each and every play.  It really wasn’t a formation thing; it was 11 good players that beat them on that day.

– Bruce Arena, interview with U.S. Soccer on June 3, 2013, regarding the 2002 USMNT World Cup game against Mexico

The strength of Arena’s 2002 USMNT side was in its midfield whereas the weakness of the 2002 Mexico team was out wide on the flanks.  So when Arena lost Jeff Agoos and Earnie Stewart to injury and Frankie Hejduk to suspension during group play, Arena decided to stack the midfield and put his most talented 11 remaining players on the field, even though it meant abandoning the 4-4-2 formation that he’d used during the first three games of the 2002 World Cup in favor of a 3-5-2.  Arena played Claudio Reyna on the right side of midfield in place of Stewart, Eddie Lewis replaced Beasley on the left, John O’Brien and Pablo Mastroeni were put in holding midfield roles with Landon Donovan perched in a playmaking role between the midfielders and the attackers, Brian McBride and Josh Wolff, up top.

Mexico’s manager, Javier Aguirre, was dumbfounded by the switch and even more dumfounded when, in the eighth minute, McBride played a quick restart to Reyna after a foul and Reyna dribbled down the right flank to the endline only to lay the ball off to Josh Wolff.  Wolff coaxed in two defenders and slid the ball to an unmarked Brian McBride standing in the middle of the box, leaving McBride nothing to do but hammer the ball past three defenders and the Mexican keeper.

Panicking, Aguirre wasted a substitution by putting in Luis Hernandez for Ramón Morales in the 28th minute.  Aguirre’s attempt to add potency to the Mexican attack had little effect due to the USMNT having effectively clogged the midfield.  Though Mexico had the lion’s share of possession, the USMNT ably absorbed the pressure applied by Mexico in the withering heat in Korea and waited for an opportunity to break on the counter.   The second goal of the game, which came in the 65th minute, was just such a classic counterattack.  Tony Sanneh intercepted the ball, knocked it off to O’Brien, who passed it to Lewis on the left flank, who crossed the ball to a lurking Donovan who then niftily headed the ball into the net.

With a two-goal advantage in hand, Arena substituted in Cobi Jones, a master at killing the clock.  Jones proceeded to be fouled by three different Mexican players and, indeed, Mexico’s entire game-plan devolved into a series of nasty fouls on the USMNT, including head-butts, elbows to the ribs, and double-footed tackles.  By the end of the game, though, the USMNT was headed to the quarterfinals of a World Cup for the first time since 1930.  And the 2002 USMNT game versus Mexico perfectly illustrates Arena’s ability to adapt (e.g., when injuries or suspensions occur) and change formation in order to ensure that the players most likely to have an impact get minutes on the ball.

The LA Galaxy

The way the league is, you’ll never have a consistently good team in the league. You’re going to have the peaks and valleys over the course of your history for a variety of reasons. It’s not like you are going to have the Lakers in basketball and be consistently good for 10 or 15 years. You can’t do it in MLS because of the different rules.

– Bruce Arena, interview by Steven Goff, The Washington Post, May 14, 2012

During Arena’s tenure with the LA Galaxy, how has he demonstrated his tactical acumen?  After the fanfare of David Beckham’s signing with MLS in 2007, the former Real Madrid man’s start with the league was pockmarked by locker-room turmoil, backroom layoffs, and loan stints, but not by particularly good football.  Beckham himself said that Arena was pivotal in reversing Beckham’s fortune in MLS, volunteering in a press conference before the 2012 MLS Cup that “Bruce is what changed this team for me four years ago.”

2012 MLS Cup Final

How did Arena use Beckham to maximum effect in MLS?  By the time Beckham arrived in MLS, he had suffered several serious injuries, and those injuries were only exacerbated by the field conditions and rough physical play characteristic of MLS.  However, Beckham’s injuries in no way impaired his world-class aptitude for delivering a long ball from almost anywhere on the pitch.  So when Arena arrived in Los Angeles in 2008, he built the team around Beckham and compensated for Beckham’s failings by bolstering the defense with the additions of Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza, moving Donovan out wide, and eventually gave Beckham a midfield partner in Juninho.

The 2012 MLS Cup Final highlights the manner in which Arena’s decisions paid dividends.  Though Houston came out swinging and opened the scoring in the 44th minute of the championship game, when the hulking Omar Gonzalez collided with Calen Carr in a challenge, it was Carr that went down for the count.

Arena paired Beckham with Juninho in the center of the field.  The two out-passed Houston’s midfield and Beckham repeatedly pinged long balls down the field to be picked up by the Galaxy attack.  Moments after Carr left the field, Beckham helped set up a goal by Gonzalez, who knocked in a header at the far post to equalize the score at 1-1.


header1_medium.gif (382×266)

It was no coincidence that the LA Galaxy prevailed in the 2012 MLS Cup through set pieces and the delivery of long balls from David Beckham to Omar Gonzalez.  Though Gonzalez had spent much of the 2012 MLS season recuperating from a devastating ACL injury, when he returned to the LA Galaxy for the last twelve games of the season, the team’s clean sheet percentage shot up.  The penalty that led to the game-winner also resulted from Gonzalez beating Houston in the air on a long ball lofted in from a wide area.  For the second straight year under Arena, the LA Galaxy won the MLS Cup, beating the Houston Dynamo 3-1.

2014 MLS Playoffs

Real Salt Lake is a recurrent favorite in the MLS Playoffs.  When Jason Kreis took over RSL in 2007, he implemented a possession based style of play, with the diamond midfield and Kyle Beckerman’s mangrove style dreadlocks as two of its most attractive elements.  Both the LA Galaxy’s and RSL’s 2014 teams played narrow through the midfield, though; and since neither team played with wingers the fullbacks on both teams provided the only real width.

And so it was when the LA Galaxy and RSL squared off in the second leg of the 2014 postseason that Arena did his best to dismantle the shape that historically has made RSL such an elegantly lethal team.  Arena replaced Baggio Husidic with Stefan Ishizaki and pushed the Swede out on the wing as far as possible to force RSL wide.  To maximize the LA Galaxy’s ability to get width from its fullbacks, Arena replaced Dan Gargan at right back with the younger and more mobile A.J. DeLaGarza.


View this post on Instagram

FT: #FirstToFive goals. #LAvRSL

A post shared by LA Galaxy (@lagalaxy) on


Arena’s gambit once again paid off.  Both Ishizaki and DeLaGarza participated in the Galaxy’s opening goal.  With RSL’s backline stretched as wide as possible, Ishizaki lofted the ball to Marcelo Sarvas, who passed to DeLaGarza, who then crossed the ball to Donovan, who headed the ball past Nick Rimando.  The eighty minutes that followed saw the LA Galaxy bludgeon RSL into submission, and in one of the best postseason performances in MLS history, Landon Donovan brutalized RSL by scoring the final hat trick of his career.  The LA Galaxy went on to win the 2014 MLS Cup and Arena sent off the league’s all-time goalscorer in style.

Stay tuned for the next in our series on Bruce Arena’s impact on the L.A. Galaxy.

*Bruce Arena had a win percentage with the USMNT of 66%.  Winning percentages by coaches preceding Arena were Steve Sampson 54%, Bora Milutinovic 46%, Bob Gansler 45% and Lothar Osiander 40%.

** Beasley played with the Chicago Fire and Donovan with the San Jose Earthquakes, though Donovan was still on loan from Bayer Leverkeusen in 2002.