Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy: Part III – Change Agent

This article is the third in a multi-part series on Bruce Arena’s impact on the LA Galaxy. Click HERE to view the first part and HERE to view the second part. This article outlines Arena’s youth and early career before focusing on the ways in which Arena has acted as a catalyst for change within Major League Soccer.

“The best thing I can say about Bruce is nothing that he has ever done since I met him would ever, ever surprise me.  He won five national championships at Virginia. He won two more in the MLS [with D.C. United].  It’s just not surprising.  Take a last-place team [in 1998] and get them into the final eight in the World Cup in 2002?  It’s just unbelievable, the force of his personality… Imagine if a guy from Yugoslavia came over here and was at a clinic with Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, John Wooden and Red Auerbach.  And the guy from Yugoslavia comes in and goes, ‘Hey, you know you guys have been doing this all wrong. Let me show you how to do it.’  The way Bruce is, I think he has a great appreciation for soccer and he is a tremendous student of the game.  I think he respects the heritage of the game and all that.  But he actually believes when his team takes the field against Italy or Czech Republic, he’s convinced his guys were going to win.”
—Geno Auriemma (Coach, University of Connecticut), in an interview with Jeff Jacobs, (May 29, 2006) “Arena Has Geno’s Support”, The Hartford Courant

If one surveys the dozens of articles, interviews, game recaps and coaching critiques of Bruce Arena that have been published over the past thirty years, certain patterns emerge — including that since MLS’ inception Bruce Arena has agitated for change and challenged those in positions of authority over him to improve the league. More remarkably, he has repeatedly done so at his own expense and to his own detriment.

Of course, Bruce’s indifference to offending his overseers extends beyond the league: in the course of his career, Arena has questioned FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, the NCAA, CONCACAF, MLS, and its owners, officials and various commissioners. My favorite example of Arena’s particular brand of commitment to do what is right for the game, even when it comes at his own expense, occurred at the 2006 World Cup.

After Arena’s motley crew stunned the world with a run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, Arena signed up for a second ride on the World Cup merry-go-round by staying on as USMNT manager. During the 2006 group stages, the United States lost to the Czech Republic but pulled off a heroic tie against Italy with nine men against ten which meant that the U.S. had to win its game against Ghana to get out of the group.

On June 22, 2006, in Nürenberg, Germany, in what would become an all-too familiar scenario for U.S. fans, the United States played the Ghanaian National Team at the World Cup. Ghana’s defense was excellent. The U.S. attacking players were stifled offensively, largely due to the efforts of Chelsea midfielder, Michael Essien. Before the match, Arena had identified Essien as the biggest threat to the U.S.’ prospects of beating Ghana, concluding that the U.S. needed to deny Essien control of the midfield in order to win. True to Bruce’s words, Essien proved invaluable to Ghana that day, and the U.S. lost by a score of 2-1. Certain U.S. fans will always remember that game for the questionable penalty kick that was called after Oguchi Onyewu took down Razak Pimpong in the penalty area two minutes into stoppage time. But for that penalty kick, the game would have ended a tie. Alas, it was not to be, and after failing to get the U.S. past the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, U.S. Soccer fired Bruce Arena as the national team coach.

There is an interesting footnote to the U.S. loss to Ghana in 2006. During the fifth minute of that game, Essien picked up a yellow card following a tackle on Claudio Reyna. Though the tackle appeared legal, Reyna left the game later with an injury.  Since Essien had picked up a yellow card earlier in the tournament, the second yellow ensured Essien would be precluded from playing Ghana’s knockout game against Brazil.

Arena, whose team had undoubtedly been wronged by the officiating during the Ghana game, and had been beaten in no small part as a result of Essien’s efforts, and who would immediately thereafter be fired for losing the game to Ghana, leapt to Essien’s defense. Arena argued that FIFA was pressuring officials to make more foul calls and that this had led to a dramatic increase in the number of yellow cards being issued as compared to 2002. Arena said:

“Not every contact is a foul and not every foul warrants a caution,.. This insistence on yellow cards is crazy. It’s taking good players like Essien out of the tournament. It’s just unfair. His tackle [on Reyna] was actually good.  This mandate to show yellow cards has gone overboard.  I feel bad for Essien.  They need him for the next game.  But it’s been mandated and I think that’s wrong….This policy is taking good players out of the game and is affecting this tournament. FIFA has to reexamine this.”
–Bruce Arena, article by Paul Kelso (June 22, 2006) “Black Stars general earns sympathy of his rivals”, The Guardian

Thumbing one’s nose at FIFA may be all the rage these days but historically FIFA has shown no quarter to those who provoke it. Arena surely understood he was opening himself up to retaliation by FIFA but made the public statement on Essien’s behalf anyway. Moreover, if Arena had argued the tackle on Reyna justified the yellow card and contributed to Reyna leaving the game, he possibly could have saved himself from being fired for the loss.

What kind of coach, and man, defends a player on the opposing team whose performance knocked his team out of the World Cup, and in so doing guaranteed he would lose his job?

Bruce Arena’s Working Class Roots and Early Days in Sports

Bruce Arena was born on September 21, 1951, in Brooklyn, NY. Shortly thereafter, his parents, Vincent and Adeline Arena, moved their growing family (Bruce had a twin sister, Barbara, and two older brothers, Paul and Mike) to what was then a bucolic community of potato and corn fields on Long Island. Vincent Arena worked as a butcher six days a week for fifty years. Adeline would wake up at five a.m. every day to do laundry, cook her family breakfast, work all day driving a school bus, come home and whip up a homemade dinner for her children.

Growing up, Bruce and his brothers would bolt from their house at daybreak and not return until supper. In an interview with Grant Wahl for Sports Illustrated’s May 1, 2006 piece, “Taking On the World”, Bruce’s older brother Mike reflected that “Bruce was a little, fat kid, like a bowling ball almost.” The older boys in the neighborhood would constantly razz Bruce – they would shout “Alley beating!” and then chase Bruce through the fields and streets of Franklin Square. “That’s one reason he became so fast and elusive as an athlete,” Bruce’s other brother, Paul, told Wahl.

Both of Arena’s brothers were the starting quarterbacks for the H. Frank Carey High School football team. Arena tried out to be a quarterback but proved too small for the sport at the time.

”We had a starting tackle, a friend of mine, who was 6-9, 320 pounds… I was maybe 5-1, 100 pounds. I started for the freshman team, but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be a football player.”
–Bruce Arena, interview with George Vecsey (October 28, 1998) “Sports of The Times; New American Coach Tried Football First”, The New York Times

Instead, Bruce wrestled on the varsity wrestling team and played on the lacrosse team as a midfielder.

Arena grew up worshipping Mickey Mantle, not Pelé. Upon being inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Arena said, “Lacrosse, American football and baseball were the sports in my childhood household… Soccer was nowhere to be seen or heard.” His grandfather kept a poster of the Italian National Team in his Brooklyn sandwich deli but according to Arena, “As a 10-year-old, I simply made a mental note of what, to me at the time, was an incredibly unusual sport.”

Indeed, Arena came to soccer by sheer fluke. When the Carey High School goalkeeper hit an opponent and was suspended for the year, Arena volunteered to take his spot and never left. Arena went on to be an All-American lacrosse player at Nassau Community College and Cornell University and, as a soccer goalkeeper, was the most valuable defensive player of the 1972 NCAA soccer finals.

“I first met Arena in 1972. Cornell University had surprisingly advanced to the Division I college soccer final four in the Orange Bowl. I went to talk with their coach, Dan Wood, in his hotel room.  Wood was not alone. He sat primly at the little desk, while on the bed, lounging with a knowing smile, was the team’s goalkeeper, Bruce Arena. I expected him to leave. He didn’t; he even joined in the discussion occasionally, though I don’t remember anything that he said. What did stick in my mind was his self-assurance, how he seemed to be present by right, totally comfortable as the uninvited guest.”
—Paul Gardner, (July 25, 2006) “Arena Takes an Old Formula to a New Job”, The New York Sun

He was drafted by the New York Cosmos but never played for them. Instead, Arena played professional lacrosse in Montreal for the Quebecois before returning to the U.S. to play soccer for the Tacoma Tides. Arena only played soccer once for his country, in 1973, as a substitute in a 2-0 loss to Israel.

“Playing for your national team in those days was not the greatest of experiences. The coach at the time was Gordon Bradley and in those days they did not have practices. If you were called up you would just show up at the airport and play. I was first called to play in Haiti but I bypassed that trip and flew with team to Rome to play against Italy’s Under-21 squad… At that time a young player by the name of Paulo Rossi was playing and I thought he was pretty good. I did not play in that game, we then went to Israel and played against the Israel National team and I was the captain… I played the second half but you have to realize that the country was at war and we were completely isolated.”
–Bruce Arena, to U.S. Soccer (October 27, 1998) “Introduction of Bruce Arena as U.S. Men’s National Team Head Coach

Bruce Arena’s Coaching Education and Early Career

Arena embraced coaching as his calling at the conclusion of his own athletic career. After a brief stint as an assistant coach at Cornell, Arena coached for the University of Puget Sound in 1976, and was eventually hired as the lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia in 1978. Pulling double duty as a UVA soccer coach was an afterthought.

Early in his career, Arena enjoyed a unique educational opportunity when he discovered that his office at UVA shared a wall with the visiting team’s locker room – Arena took to eavesdropping on the pregame speeches given by visiting team coaches, including Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, and Lefty Driscoll. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2006, Bruce Arena told Grant Wahl that, “I could hear how they managed their players and got through to them… It was a fantastic education.”

“ACC basketball has been my greatest influence as a coach. … 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. Other soccer coaches were making trips to Europe, but I don’t think that was half as educational as what I was doing.”
–Bruce Arena, to Grant Wahl, (March 23, 1998) “Amazingly Graceless Honest-to-a-fault coach Bruce Arena has D.C. United poised to win another MLS title”, Sports Illustrated

Eventually, Arena stopped coaching lacrosse and focused his attention exclusively on soccer. During eighteen seasons at UVA, Arena established one of the nation’s best soccer programs, winning five national championships, including four consecutive championships from 1991 to 1994. Arena had the good fortune at UVA to coach a number of players who would later play for him on the U.S. Men’s National Team, including Jeff Agoos, Tony Meola, Claudio Reyna and John Harkes.

It was also during Arena’s tenure at UVA that his twin sister, Barbara, passed away at the age of 37 to cancer, the same illness that had forced his mother to undergo two radical mastectomies decades earlier.

“I was only eight when my mother had her first surgery,” Bruce says. “They removed not only the breast but all the muscle tissue around the area. They basically ripped my mother apart. But she always had that quiet toughness.” He pauses, then gathers himself. “My mother had five sisters. Four of them died of cancer, and a number of their daughters did too, including my sister.”

“Barbara’s death was an awakening to me. It forced me to be more committed to what I did and to being the right kind of person.”
– Bruce Arena, to Grant Wahl, (May 1, 2006) “Taking On the World”, Sports Illustrated

Fourteen months after Bruce’s sister died, his mother passed away.

Bruce Arena’s Success in MLS Launches Him Onto the International Stage

In 1996, Arena left UVA to become D.C. United‘s first head coach during MLS’ inaugural season. Under Arena, D.C. United won the first two MLS championships and was MLS Cup runner-up in 1998. Arena also coached D.C. United to win the U.S. Open Cup in 1996, the Supporters’ Shield in 1997, and the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998, bringing a continental trophy to MLS for the first time in history.

bruce arena

Photo – USA Today Sports

After the U.S.’ terrible showing at the 1998 World Cup, U.S. Soccer hired Arena to coach the USMNT. When asked what changes he would make as head coach of the national team, Arena gave a quintessentially blunt response:

“I am going to identify a pool of players, identify a style, and let them play. Put the right players in the right places and let them play.”
– Bruce Arena, to U.S. Soccer (October 27, 1998) “Introduction of Bruce Arena as U.S. Men’s National Team Head Coach

At the 2002 World Cup the USMNT proceeded to the quarterfinals, the team’s best showing in eighty years, and but for a wrongly-denied penalty kick on a Torsten Frings handball, the United States could have gone through to the semi-finals. Indeed, famed German striker and current USMNT head coach Jürgen Klinsmann later said of the USMNT’s game against Germany that Arena’s U.S. side was the better team that day.

At the 2006 World Cup four years later, despite the fact that the team was knocked out in the group stages, Arena nonetheless expressed enormous pride that the USMNT managed to draw the eventual winners of that tournament, Italy. Indeed, Arena carried the mass card that had belonged to his father, who passed away in 2004, to the USMNT’s game against Italy.

“Our team fought courageously that day… Getting that result against Italy … was a very special experience.”
–Bruce Arena, upon being inducted into the National Soccer Hall Of Fame, August 10, 2010

However, when the USMNT failed to get out of the group stage in 2006, Arena was fired as head coach. Shortly thereafter he returned to coach in MLS.

Bruce Arena As Gadfly for Change in MLS

“From afar, critics say Bruce Arena personifies cockiness in action, emitting an aura of self-absorbance rarely seen in his profession outside the likes of a Pat Riley, Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells. (But based on that trio’s resumes, it’s not such a bad company.) His relationship with employers, colleagues and the media isn’t always exemplary, with occasional comments leaving some red-faced and others seething. And it only gets worse for rivals, since he creates the means for victory everywhere he goes. As his detractors quickly point out, you can’t spell the word ‘arrogance’ without using the letters A-R-E-N-A.”
–Richard Gonzalez (January 23, 2000) “US Soccer Coach Arena Looks to Silent Critics”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Having researched Arena’s legacy of combativeness with MLS leadership, it is somewhat amusing to read the deeply distressed opinion pieces on the tête-à-têtes between Jürgen Klinsmann and Don Garber that occasionally poke their way through to the American soccer landscape. In truth, conflict between the national team coach and MLS is positively de rigueur. It is somewhat more surprising when Arena, a coach in MLS, stands up to league officials. And Jürgen, take note: Arena’s skirmishes with MLS put yours to shame.

One thing that struck me when perusing Arena’s history of being chastised by league officials is that Arena is almost always reprimanded for defending a player or voicing criticism of MLS policies with which he disagrees. Further, since many of the policies which Arena disparaged are no longer in effect, one could conclude Arena’s criticisms were either prescient or that they laid the groundwork for the league amending the policy at issue.

In the early years of MLS, Arena fought openly with former MLS commissioner Doug Logan. One thing they fought about was roster size – back then the roster size of each MLS team was twenty players. Convinced that the small roster size prevented MLS teams from being able to compete in CONCACAF and unreasonably increased the likelihood of injuries, Arena called upon the league to increase the roster size to give the players more time to rest before continental competitions.

“The way our league is operating, this is one of the worst coaching jobs in the world, in MLS. There’s so much you don’t have control over. It’s a young league in terms of not only our development on the field, but off the field… It’s such a mess, and the coaches are really painted into a corner sometimes… But that’s something that obviously you would like to believe, as we move along, is going to be better. We need to have the right roster sizes, the right scheduling. We need fixture dates for Open Cups and other competitions. We need clarity on the salary cap, player movement, a lot of things. Once you are able to understand that going into the season you have better control of how you organize your team.”
–Bruce Arena, to Steven Goff, September 17, 1997, “United’s Arena Takes a Direct Kick at MLS” The Washington Post

Logan did not respond favorably to Arena’s comments, stating that “[Arena] frequently only opens his mouth to lace his shoes.” However, MLS eventually did increase roster size, to twenty-six players, and then to thirty. It was only after most teams affiliated themselves with USL sides this year that the league reduced the roster size to 28.

For many years, Arena has criticized the elaborate mechanisms the league employs to create parity among teams, stating:

“Trying to have a league where everyone is equal in a competitive sense is an impossible venture… You can’t take the human equation out of it. You can’t create a fantasy soccer league.”
–Bruce Arena, to Grant Wahl, (March 23, 1998) “Amazingly Graceless Honest-to-a-fault coach Bruce Arena has D.C. United poised to win another MLS title”, Sports Illustrated

In 2013, Arena once again found himself in hot water after levying criticism against one of these ridiculous and opaque MLS mechanisms, the allocation process. Arena attacked the league in an interview with the Washington Post for interfering with Arena’s efforts to sign midfielder Sacha Kljestan (who now plays for the New York Red Bulls). The Galaxy had traded Kofi Opare to D.C. United to move up in the MLS allocation order, and Arena said the Galaxy had the budget room and space to sign Kljestan (which means he met all the ostensible requirements to sign a player through the allocation process), but the league refused to allow the Galaxy to sign him. Arena accused the league of lacking transparency and said that “I won’t go into detail and just say forces within the league worked real hard to make sure that didn’t happen.” Arena then needled MLS by adding that:

“They are children, and there have to be adults in the process, and we didn’t have enough of them. I think we are back into the old days in the league where the rules are somewhat arbitrary.”
—Bruce Arena, to Steven Goff, (August 25, 2014) “A Few Good Minutes With Los Angeles Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena” The Washington Post

MLS responded quickly, fining Arena $20,000 for his comments.  Current MLS Commissioner, Don Garber, for his part, has repeatedly expressed ambivalence towards Arena, lauding him has a coach but condemning his criticism of the league, stating:

“Bruce has the opportunity to be our Tom Landry, our Pat Riley, and he continually puts himself in a position where he acts unprofessionally and he emotionally misstates the facts. And I think that’s a shame.”
—Don Garber, to Grant Wahl, (September 16, 2014) “Don Garber: Bruce Arena to receive ‘major fine’ over critical comments”, Sports Illustrated

Arena is not the first person (nor will he be the last) to criticize MLS as desperately needing more transparency. It is noteworthy, though, that after Arena made those comments, MLS published the list of players eligible to be signed through the allocation process for the first time. The current allocation ranking also appears on the MLS website for anyone to see.

“Bruce was the first guy I met that I figured if people don’t like me for being a smart ass, I’ll hang around with him and they’ll think I’m Mother Teresa”
—Geno Auriemma (Coach, University of Connecticut), Interview with Jeff Jacobs, (May 29, 2006) “Arena Has Geno’s Support”, The Hartford Courant


Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

What makes Arena’s battles with MLS remarkable is that they reflect a total commitment to Arena’s vision for the future of soccer in this country, even when his job is on the line. For example, in September 28, 2004, New York Times article, Arena called MLS “insane” for scheduling games during World Cup qualifying and blasted MLS and U.S. Soccer officials for not having “any soccer skills, in terms of knowing the game.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber responded by sending a letter to the then president of U.S. Soccer, Bob Contiguglia, demanding that Contiguglia take action against Arena. Contiguglia called Arena to a meeting with the MLS leadership and Arena almost lost his job. “There was a lot of pressure from MLS owners to do something, but we didn’t,” said Contiguglia later. According to Contiguglia, MLS urged Contiguglia to fire Arena but Contiguglia refused, stating that Arena’s dismissal “was close, but I stood in the way.” Instead, Arena was forced to read the least convincing apology letter of all time in a teleconference several days later. During that teleconference, Arena announced in a monotone voice that he regretted the “spirit” of his comments but refused to retract anything. “The tone was wrong,” Arena stated. “The content was not.”

“He’s the same old Bruce. He says what’s on his mind. He doesn’t hold back anything,… He still has that brash New York attitude. That’s never left him.”
—Claudio Reyna, to Ronald Blum, (June 1, 2002) “Bruce Arena: America’s funny, caustic World Cup coach” Associated Press

Despite the fact that Arena’s comments have almost lost him his job before, he still says exactly what he thinks. In 2013, Arena was fined $2,000 for criticizing officials and indicating his dissatisfaction with the financial restrictions of the single-entity league.

Indeed, only last month Arena took a swing at MLS when he described the discovery process a “sped-up blackmail job” when the Galaxy was forced to pay the New England Revolution $50,000 in allocation money in order to sign Sebastian Lletget from West Ham United. Despite the fact that Lletget had trained with the Galaxy during their preseason trip to Ireland earlier this year, the Revolution added Lletget to their discovery list even though they had no previous contact with him. Arena stated that:

“Discovery lists should be that you’re pursuing a player and have interest in a player. You’re discovering them because you want to sign them…That should be the mechanism, but through the years teams in the league have attempted to use the rule as much as possible to hold back players from other teams….Now it just becomes a sped-up blackmail job. Now you get the player, but eventually, you have to pay money for it….We should, in my view, be able to sign players that are outside the league…You discover them, you sign them. It shouldn’t be an issue.”
—Bruce Arena, to Adam Serrano, May 12, 2015, “Bruce Arena labels new MLS discovery signing a process a ‘blackmail job’“,

Naturally, MLS responded to Arena’s comments by fining Arena an “undisclosed amount.”

As an aside, while the other articles in this series have focused exclusively on how Arena has improved the LA Galaxy, clearly Arena’s quarrels with MLS have impacted the entire league.   However, by pushing for reform it is undoubtedly true that Arena has improved the LA Galaxy.  Further, if Arena’s wrangling with MLS has a prognosticative quality to it, then the discovery process may be the next policy on the reformative chopping block.

MLS is a novel model for a sports league, brilliantly conceived to minimize the risk of failure and maximize the benefits of collective bargaining, a totally sensible approach in light of the NASL’s failure in the 1980’s.  However, one of MLS’ major deficits is that, because each team falls under the MLS superstructure, the debate normally fostered by independent ownership (teams competing with one another over players, facilities, etc.) does not exist, which means not only is MLS exposed to less criticism than other leagues but it is uniquely immune to the criticism it does receive.  Moreover, since soccer is not as widely followed as other sports in the country, it earns less journalistic attention than the NFL, NBA or MLB.  Finally, since MLS is not popular abroad, even in countries where soccer is the sport of first choice, its functions are largely ignored.

It is for this reason that Arena’s feuds with MLS have peculiar significance.  Arena’s detractors may crow that Arena is arrogant and antagonistic, but if no one within the league challenges MLS openly because they share the same interests or fear reprisal, and no one outside the league challenges MLS out of indifference, then MLS has much less incentive to improve as compared to other sports leagues (and by “improve” I am not referring to MLS improving its profit margins, but rather its rules, organization and management).  MLS is doing a very good job of improving its revenue streams and profitability.  It is doing a much worse job of improving the quality of its product.  Arena cares deeply about the quality of soccer being played in MLS, and he challenges other teams in the league to keep up by constantly improving that product.  By acting as a change agent from behind the lines, Arena gives voice to those fans who bridle against MLS’ tepid rate of improvement.  Arena continues to light fires under MLS’ collective rear-end twenty years on- even though he also winds up getting burned in the process.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final part in our series on Bruce Arena’s impact on the LA Galaxy.