Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy: Part IV – Player Management

This article is the fourth and final installment in a series on Bruce Arena’s impact on the LA Galaxy. Click HERE to view the first part, HERE to view the second part and HERE to view the third part. This article focuses on Arena’s greatest strength as a coach, player management.

“I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to build teams and have successful teams… But more importantly, to create and develop young people, and to try and build relationships that I could have for the rest of my life.”
– Bruce Arena, upon being inducted into the National Soccer Hall Of Fame (August 10, 2010)

The Arena Experiment

When Bruce Arena assumed control of the LA Galaxy on August 18, 2008, the team was in chaos.  Ruud Gullit, the former Dutch international and two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, had washed out as coach after proving totally inept at adapting to MLS and resigned a week earlier.  Alexi Lalas had been fired as president and general manager.  The team was winless in seven games and had failed to make the playoffs for the past two years.  Tim Leiweke, former chief executive of AEG, described the team as “dysfunctional.”

“Bruce is what changed this team for me four years ago.”
—David Beckham, November 29, 2012, during an MLS press conference before the MLS Cup

The most glaring problem confronting the team was the fact that David Beckham, who had signed with the club a year earlier to much fanfare, had unceremoniously deposed club talisman, Landon Donovan, as its captain, and the two players were at loggerheads with one another.  On the one hand, Beckham was the biggest footballing superstar in the world and his signing with MLS from Real Madrid in 2007 had put the league on the map.  The very future of MLS hinged on Beckham finding success with his new team.  On the other hand, Landon Donovan was a national icon, perhaps the most beloved player in American history, and his decision in 2001 to spend his career in MLS proved pivotal at a time when the league was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

“Bruce is special in the way that he handles players… He has this knack for understanding personalities. What’s good for one is not good for the other which is not always good for another player…. We always had this back-and-forth, give-and-take, and he was very good at understanding that I’m built quite different than other people. I wasn’t the guy who was always after 15 years of playing crazy motivated to go out and train. He worked with me constantly to take a break or get away from it, and still keep me motivated and going.”
—Landon Donovan, on Bruce Arena, to Adam Serrano (July 28, 2015) “Chipotle Homegrown Game head coach Landon Donovan reflects on Bruce Arena’s tutelage”

Beckham and Donovan were the two most important players in league history and they couldn’t stand each other.  When Beckham went out on loan to AC Milan, Donovan became incensed at what he perceived as Beckham’s lack of commitment to Donovan’s beloved hometown team and said Beckham should be benched if he wasn’t going to put in any effort.  Beckham, confronted by an upstart American who many Europeans sneered at as a failure for forsaking Europe, couldn’t believe he had to tolerate Donovan.

“That’s the reason we’ve had the success we’ve had in the last four years,… [Arena’s] a great man-manager. He’s strong and harsh when he needs to be, but he also puts his arm around you and has a joke when you need that. I owe a lot to Bruce and his staff.”
—David Beckham, on Bruce Arena, to Graham Parker (November 30, 2012), “How David Beckham won Galaxy fans over – but his real value was to MLS”, The Guardian

The task that confronted Arena was a daunting one.  Beckham and his wife, Victoria, were regulars on the celebrity circuit.  Beckham was not just a footballer, he was a global brand with multi-million dollar endorsement deals, sponsorships and extensive business interests.  Donovan was the exact opposite, a man who’d foregone fame and a football career in Europe and chosen to honor his heart’s wish to play in his hometown, where he could be close to his family and friends and live a private life kicking around on the beaches of LA.  The league couldn’t afford to lose either of them but also couldn’t afford to let their partnership fail.

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Into this mess stepped Bruce Arena.  Fortunately for MLS, Arena was one of the few coaches with a strong enough personality to force a compromise between a superstar and a national icon.  Before his first team training as LA Galaxy head coach, Arena stood in front of the team and said, “The team is not about Landon Donovan and David Beckham; it’s about all of us. It’s we, it’s us, it’s not I and it’s not me.  If we work together as a group, we can achieve things.”  As for his squabbling stars, Arena forced them to sit down with one another, going to so far as putting them in a room together and saying they couldn’t leave until they’d aired out their grievances with one another.

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The tough love worked.  Very soon thereafter, Donovan’s and Beckham’s team chemistry set the league alight and in the years that followed, the two developed a genuine rapore with one another.  Donovan appreciated Beckham’s devotion to his family while Beckham appreciated what a truly underrated talent Donovan was in the world of football.  Indeed, Donovan took to defending Beckham when his teammate was criticized by the media, and by the time Beckham retired from the Galaxy at the end of the 2012 season, Donovan was singing the English legend’s praises.

The Schools of Man Management

ferguson wooden

The phrase “man management” slips from the lips of players and coaches alike as a proxy for describing how a coach interacts with his players to elicit the best performance from them.  There are as many different schools of thought on what makes a great man-manager as there are trophies to be won.  One style is the outcome-based autocratic coach, who believes the athlete’s job is to comply with the coach’s orders and win games.  Though this style of coaching has the advantages of being clear, organized and highly motivating, the risks with this style of coaching are that it leads players to feel powerless, minimizes creativity, and animates a sense of distrust between the coach and players.  As anyone who has read books written by former Manchester United players knows (e.g., Tim Howard, Roy Keane), Sir Alex Ferguson qualified as an old school dictatorial outcome-based coach.

“Talent is God given.  Be humble.  Fame is man-given.  Be grateful.  Conceit is self-given.  Be careful.”
—John Wooden

On the other end of the spectrum is the process-based coach, who believes his job is to fully develop players to their highest potential regardless of a given game’s outcome and places a high degree of trust in the players.  John Wooden, who ESPN ranked as the greatest coach of all time across all sports,* and who said his personal definition of success was simply that every player does the best that he is capable of, qualifies as a process-based coach.  The upside to the process-based coach is that he empowers his players and creates a sense of freedom and trust in the locker room, but the potential downside to this method is that players can feel they lack clear objectives or feel unmotivated to improve their skill set, and coaches who lack interpersonal skills may be incapable of implementing this coaching style.

“Everybody knows how to draw up a play, how to run a practice. That’s the easiest thing you could possibly do. The biggest key is get to know [the players], and get them to know you. Try to create an honest working relationship. If you can develop a good working relationship, then you can deal with the highs and lows that come your way.”
—Bruce Arena, to Andrew Lewellen (November 30, 2012) “How Bruce Arena Rebuilt the Galaxy”, Grantland

Arena qualifies as a process-based coach more than an outcome-based coach.  Arena cares about his players and though he suffers no fools will go to the mat to defend them.  To discipline his players, Arena often deploys humor, which ensures his message hits home with players while simultaneously softening the impact of criticism.  Though winning games is important to him, Arena does not take himself or the game too seriously.  Instead, he focuses on emphasizing the best attributes of his players and putting them in positions to win.

Arena’s Players Are More Than Just Employees

“I’m not a fan of professional sports,… They’re different, with all the money….[Players] used to be our neighbors, now they’re different. That’s the nice thing about soccer in the United States — they’re like our neighbors.”
–Bruce Arena, to Ronald Blum, (June 1, 2002) “Bruce Arena: America’s funny, caustic World Cup coach”, AP Sports

Arena’s player management style evinced itself years before MLS was even a gleam in Phil Anschutz’s eye.  While coaching at UVA, Arena insisted on being in the operating room whenever one of his players had surgery, even though he twice fainted once the knives came out.  Later, when he coached D.C. United, and MLS was paying its players barely enough to live on, Arena opened the doors of his home to let his players, including Danny Care, Ben Olsen and Carey Talley, live with him in Fairfax, Virginia.

dc united
-Arena’s DC United team, 1999

“I have many children,” Arena’s wife, Phyllis, once said, even though she and Arena only have one child.  Arena developed an ability to joke with his players while still instilling in them a healthy respect for his authority.  Ben Olsen once recalled that when he was living with Arena that most of Arena’s players learned to do impressions of his Long Island accent.  ESPN reporter Scott French once asked Arena what Ben Olsen, current coach of D.C. United, was like as a tenant:

“Rotten kid,” Arena said, barely hiding a smile. “Used to drink beer in the basement with my son.”  Gave him lots of chores, eh? Wash the dishes, mow the lawn?  “Nah, Ben wouldn’t do anything like that. He’s too elite.”
—Bruce Arena, to Scott French (June 3, 2011) “For L.A., D.C. coaches, a family affair”, ESPN.Com

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

Arena’s dry sense of humor is well known to those who cover soccer in the media.  Arena’s use of humor is highly effective with both the media and his players, a fact which stems from Arena’s tendency to poke fun of himself as much as anyone else.  Shortly after he was appointed the United States national team coach, Arena told a story to Grant Wahl about when he was a player at Cornell in the 1970’s, and saw a football coach leaving the Cornell athletic director’s office after being fired:

“So the guy walks by me,” says Arena, “and I’m saying, What a loser he is.” The coach was George Seifert, who went on to win two Super Bowls as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. “Do you realize what that means?” Arena asks. “I’m in my third decade of sticking my foot in my mouth.”
–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

A classic example of Arena’s deadpan style can be found in an interview Washington Post reporter Steven Goff conducted with Bruce Arena shortly before the start of the 2015 season:

Regarding the LA Galaxy’s preseason friendly against Georgetown’s soccer team:

Goff: Do you think a terrific result like this against teenagers foretells another championship season?

Arena: “It tells us everything. It tells us we would be one of the top 10 teams in college soccer.”

Regarding the LA Galaxy signing new players for the 2015 season:

Goff: At this point, what do you think you need?

Arena: “Somebody to possibly make our team better.”

Regarding MLS’ 2015 collective bargaining negotiations with ownership:

Goff: As a coach, you are tight with players but work for management. That’s a unique situation.

Arena: “I am in a very unique situation. I am uniquely positioned to know absolutely nothing.”

–Bruce Arena, to Steven Goff (February 3, 2015) “A few good minutes with Bruce Arena”, The Washington Post

Arena uses humor to communicate with his players, often when conveying the player’s failure to perform.  During Arena’s D.C. United days, when the team’s star, Jaime Moreno, sat out of a number of practices with a minor injury, Arena strolled into the player’s lounge one day and said, “I want to announce that Jaime’s retiring next week. He won’t be playing anymore.” Defender Eddie Pope recalled from that incident that “Everybody laugh[ed], Bruce walks out, and Jaime’s in training the next day.”

mastoreni moreno

By deflating criticism through humor, Arena’s players never feel like Arena has betrayed them or doesn’t believe in them, but they are tipped off to the fact that Arena knows what is going on with the player.  “With Bruce I can make jokes about him, and he makes fun of me,” DaMarcus Beasley once said of Arena.

“I’m moving on, I was not happy in the short term with those games, but now I’ve put it past me, I’m looking for greater things in life. I had a grandchild born, we’re in the middle of a heated Presidential election, [the US] lost a difficult Ryder Cup, the Yankees are hanging on for life so really I don’t give two shits about the last time that we played San Jose.”
—Bruce Arena, to Adam Serrano (October 18, 2012) “Arena: Previous meetings against the Earthquakes mean little to the Galaxy”,

When humor doesn’t work, Arena will openly tell a player that he is failing to perform, but never in a way that causes undue embarrassment to the player.  When the United States was playing qualifying games for the 2006 World Cup, before the USMNT’s match with Jamaica, Bruce Arena spoke to midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, who had recently been suspended after receiving two yellow cards in a game with the Colorado Rapids.  Arena asked Mastroeni in a quasi-joking tone of voice, “You gonna play another game this month?”  When Mastoreni failed to respond, Arena just stated quietly, “You gotta get your head straight.”  It was a conversation that lasted only a few moments, but Mastroeni never forgot it, and would say later how much he appreciated Arena’s candor with him.

“Bruce manages not only the soccer part, but the people part…. It’s amazing. That’s how you get 23 guys fighting for the same cause.”
—Pablo Mastroeni, on Bruce Arena, to Jere Longman, (June 4, 2006) “The Americans, Seriously”, The New York Times

Taking a more recent example, last season when the LA Galaxy played Colorado away, the Galaxy fell behind by two goals before the end of the first half.  At halftime, Arena went to the locker room and demanded that the team show better resolve, telling them that the second half would determine whether the Galaxy “had a good team this season.”  Omar Gonzalez later said of Arena’s half-time speech that, “Bruce just started yelling at us which is something that we all needed.  I’m happy that he gave us a good kick in the butt.”  The Galaxy scored three goals in the second half, taking the victory over the Rapids 4-3, and then stampeded through the rest of the 2014 season to a fifth MLS Cup.

A Coach Who Defends His Players

“I can’t expect loyalty from the army if I do not give it.”
—George C. Marshall, five star General, US Army Chief of Staff during World War II

Player loyalty is hard to cultivate, particularly in the modern era of football, where mercenary footballers dominate the big leagues of Europe.  Players like Steven Gerrard and Landon Donovan, who devoted themselves to their hometown clubs for almost the entire duration of their careers, are a dying breed.  Jose Mourinho foments loyalty in his players by insisting on playing with 24-man squads, fostering a bunker mentality between the team and all outsiders and by tailoring his coaching strategy to each player’s individual psychology.  Arena’s players are also highly loyal.  One way Arena develops player loyalty is by defending them when they fail and publicly challenging calls made against them – though he doesn’t go so far as Mourinho does to suggest conspiracy theories when his team loses.

“Bruce is partly a psychologist…  He understands the way players feel and how to motivate them, because he’s worked with them at every level.”
–Sunil Gulati, to Grant Wahl (May 1, 2006) “Taking On The World”, Sports Illustrated

Arena’s commitment to his players has resulted in disciplinary sanctions being imposed on him on more than one occasion, oftentimes after getting into a fracas with MLS officials or referees.  During MLS’ first season in 1996, Arena received a red card from referees when, upset over an offside call that nullified a tiebreaking goal by John Harkes, Arena followed the referees to their locker room yelling in their faces the whole way.  In September of 2000, Bruce Arena was suspended for three games by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee after a 2-1 loss to Costa Rica when Arena fought with the referee regarding a controversial hand-ball call in injury time which allowed Costa Rica to beat the United States.  In August of 2013, the MLS Disciplinary Committee fined Arena $2,000 following comments he made after a loss to FC Dallas when Arena defended the performance of Landon Donovan and publicly criticized the level of officiating in the league.  Two months later in October of 2013, the MLS Disciplinary Committee suspended Arena after an LA Galaxy loss in Portland wherein Arena left his technical area and entered the field of play to argue a call that had negated a stoppage-time goal for Robbie Keane.  Arena’s loyalty to his players is rewarded in turn by the players being loyal to Arena.

Accepting Responsibility for Failure

If Premier League press conferences were the measure of how a coach is supposed to respond to losing a game, one would conclude it is entirely unacceptable for a coach to accept blame for a loss.  Of course, since coaches are only ever a few losses away from the media calling for their head, the culture of the Premier League almost necessitates childish behavior on the part of its coaches.  However, a coach’s unwillingness to shoulder his team’s failures extends beyond Europe.  One of the media’s primary criticisms of Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach of the national team has been that he never accepts responsibility for losing games, instead preferring to blame his players.

“I don’t think there are too many coaches in Europe who are looking at me and are very impressed, believe me.”
—Bruce Arena, to Jere Longman, (June 4, 2006) “The Americans, Seriously”, The New York Times

Arena does accept responsibility for losses.  Several years ago, when the Galaxy lost to Toronto FC (a team that was having a miserable year) in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, Arena accepted the blame, stating, “We just didn’t do it right, for whatever reason, and I take responsibility.”  Earlier this year, when the Galaxy lost to FC Dallas on the road, Arena assessed his own performance quite harshly, stating, “We didn’t do well at the end of the game in the last 15 minutes or so, and that’s my responsibility. When a team plays that poorly on the road, they’re not well coached…. That’s my responsibility; I have not done a good job with this team to get them tactically ready for games.”

Whether Arena truly believed he was responsible for the loss in Dallas or simply wanted to make his players feel better is irrelevant.  Arena is unafraid to point the finger at himself, which, in an age when middle-aged millionaires put in charge of football teams act with all the gravitas of schoolchildren, must be refreshing for players to hear.  A benefit, one supposes, of having established a legacy for yourself which makes you virtually un-fireable.

Putting Players in Positions to Win

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”
—Winston Churchill

It is one of those questions in soccer that will always be bandied about: should a coach base his team on the best formation and then pick players to suit it, or should a coach find the best players and then pick a formation that best suits them?  Arena eschews the formation-based approach employed by coaches like Louis van Gaal, who often forces players into positions to which they’re ill-suited in order to play in his desired formation (Rooney as a midfielder?  Ummmm, okay).  Arena always prefers to adjust his formation to suit the talents of his players (or to exploit the deficits of his opponents).

“Our rule of thumb is, we’re gonna play with a goalkeeper and try to play with a back four — and the next six, who knows?”
—Bruce Arena, to Jere Longman, (June 4, 2006) “The Americans, Seriously”, The New York Times

There is some irony to the fact that the Galaxy are regarded as one of the glitzy big-name franchises in the league.  The truth is that though the stars do shine brightly for the Galaxy, where the team has really overachieved is in finding little diamonds in the rough who develop into key players.  In fact, Bruce Arena could probably teach a master class in identifying players who, for one reason or another, have been overlooked by other coaches.

husidic juninho2

Five years ago, Bruce signed a sweet little Brazilian who had only made one league appearance for his home team in Brazil, Juninho, to the LA Galaxy.  Juninho, who lacks the size, speed, and strength that would catch the eye of most coaches, has possibly been the single most underrated midfielder in MLS for the past few years.  When the Chicago Fire declined their option on Baggio Husidic after a poor 2011 season, it wasn’t long before Arena acquired his rights and signed him.  Husidic is another example of a player who, though not impressive athletically, is very clever and always positions himself well on the field to create chances.

“In England or Italy, if you decide your right back isn’t good enough, you just go out and buy another one…That option isn’t there in MLS. You need to help your guy become a better right back, and Bruce does that better than anyone.”
–Kevin Payne (Former President/CEO DC United), 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

As I pointed out the first part of this series, Arena is also great at sussing out ability in young players, as he demonstrated when he made Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza his first two Superdraft picks as an LA Galaxy coach.  And lest we forget that Arena picked up Mike Magee in exchange for a second round draft pick in 2010 (Magee made 105 appearances and scored 19 goals for the Galaxy, winning two MLS Cups and two MLS Supporters’ Shields in the process.)

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Only two months ago, Arena picked up twenty-two year old Sebastian Lletget, an attacking midfielder who had been let go by West Ham United, where he’d spent six years in their academy without breaking through to the first team.  The Galaxy hired him without ever having seen him play in a full league game and, on a per-minutes-played basis, he leads the league in scoring (he’s essentially scoring a goal every ninety minutes).

“I think we [Robbie Keane and Arena] grew up together in Brooklyn,” Arena said. “We have the same kind of mentality. He is one tough bastard.”
–Bruce Arena, to Scott French (December 3, 2012) “Arena: Galaxy Hero Keane is ‘One Tough Bastard’”

Arena also excels at overhauling players’ careers by finding latent talent in them or changing their positions on the pitch.  Robbie Rogers, who primarily played as a winger for Heerenveen and Leeds United, announced his retirement from professional football in 2013 around the same that he came out as gay.  However, it wasn’t long before Landon Donovan was inviting him to train with the LA Galaxy.  Arena, cognizant of the fact that Rogers’ previous knee surgeries could limit his future as a winger, cleverly took advantage of the fact that Rogers’ exceptional ability with his weak-foot essentially makes him pedidextrous, and converted him to play at left-back.

“Clint [Dempsey] had a lot of ability. He has a nose for the goal. We have an expression for some players – for Clint, we continually said, ‘He tries shit.’”
—Bruce Arena, on Clint Dempsey

Gyasi Zardes started his career for the LA Galaxy as a left winger.   It does make some sense to play Zardes as a winger – anyone who’s been watching USMNT games this year can appreciate how much width he gives a team in that position.  However, in 2013 Zardes hadn’t developed enough positional or defensive awareness to play on the wing.  Arena’s solution?  He flipped Zardes’ position with that of Landon Donovan.  Putting Gyasi up top exploited his physical gifts and Zardes spent the next year terrorizing opponent’s defensive lines and banging in goals.  And playing on the left wing for Landon was a breeze: Donovan’s vision made him dangerous anywhere in the attacking third and, even at 32, he still had plenty of pace.

rogers zardes


“We’re inefficient in how we allocate resources in the academy. There’s a likely argument where you can say we have improved the ability to move kids to the age of 17 or 18. Where do they go from there? It’s a black hole. It’s insane. We should have a USL type of league [to develop players]. Right now, the kids would be better off going to college, and then we are back to the same thing again.”
—Bruce Arena, to Steven Goff (May 14, 2012) one year before Arena created the first USL side for an MLS reserve team, “Bruce Arena discusses Galaxy, MLS, player development, his future, his son the coach and White House visit”, The Washington Post

How big is Arena’s footprint with the LA Galaxy?  Or with MLS?  Or in U.S. history?  Consider this – five current MLS coaches at one point played on an MLS team coached by Bruce Arena (Gregg Berhalter [LA  Galaxy, 2009-2011], Pablo Mastroeni [LA Galaxy, 2013], Ben Olsen [D.C. United 1998], Jesse Marsch [D.C. United 1996-1997], Greg Vanney [LA Galaxy, 2008]).  Arena still receives notes and well wishes from his former players years after they stop playing for him.  Arena has pushed the league harder than any other coach in MLS both in terms of its ambitions and achievements.  Though league officials and opponents would hate to admit it, MLS wouldn’t be half the league it is today without the LA Galaxy and Bruce Arena.  It’s a testament to Arena’s ability that he’s achieved so much on his own terms.

“He’s a leader… A little compulsive. A decent balance of when to step on guys and when to back off. He knows how to manage…When you add up all these components, you get Bruce.”
—Dave Sarachan, LA Galaxy associate head coach, to Kevin Baxter (November 27, 2012) “Coach Bruce Arena is able to steer Galaxy into making the turn”, The Los Angeles Times

* For those interested, ESPN’s top ten list of the best coaches of all time across all sports was, in order: John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach, Paul Brown, Bear Bryant, Toe Blake, Bill Walsh, Pat Summitt, Joe Torre and Dean Smith.