Opinion: Bruuuuuuuuce Arena Is THE Man

20170602 MNT Training Bruce Arena

By JACK BELL

US logoIt is the rare coach of a men’s national soccer team who earns an encore.

That is unless your given name happens to be Bruuuuuuuuuuce, as in Bruce Arena (with apologies to Bruce Springsteen and his legion of cigarette-lighting, encore-demanding fans).

As the United States gets ready for Saturday’s exhibition match against Ghana in East Hartford, Conn., (4:45 p.m. Eastern; ESPN, Unimás, UDN) and the start of the CONCACAF Gold Cup a week later (opening vs. Panama in Nashville), the cacophony of praise washing over Arena is nearly akin to the adulation Springsteen has experienced during his hours and hours and hours, years and years and years playing his marathon concerts on the road around the world.

Let’s be clear — Arena is probably the best and most successful coach in the history of American soccer. He has no peer when it comes to results: Five NCAA Division I men’s championships at Virginia; two Major League Soccer championships with D.C. United; three MLS titles with the Los Angeles Galaxy; and a trip to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002.

No one else comes close.

Since he took the job back around the turn of the century, Arena has brought a New Yorker’s sensibility to the position, an attitude that is not always appealing to some. But with Arena at the helm, it became standard procedure to not play Mexico (or any other Hispanic rival) in places like Los Angeles. He would much prefer Alaska, and rightfully so. The coming of the analytics “revolution” has simply washed over the coach as Arena flashes one of his signature scowls in that general direction. Ask him a stupid question and you receive an answer dripping with sarcasm.

Perhaps first and foremost, Arena has never bought into the assertion that a foreign coach, particularly not Jurgen Klinsmann, had the keys to unlock American soccer talent. Arena has more insight into and respect for American players because he has spent his life coaching American players.

What, exactly, makes Arena the guru? From his days at Virginia when Clemson was winning championships with international players, San Francisco was winning with players from Nigeria, Arena always and only recruited Americans. He believes in the American player and the American mentality. He believes there’s something unique about that mentality, a mentality that is tough, has a great work ethic, is intelligent and can receive and retain coaching concepts — and that will battle until the end.

He also has a deep belief in the talent and he believes that they don’t train teams any differently around the world, they just have players who are the byproducts of different countries and cultures that have been married to soccer for 100 years. Our “soccer culture” is only several decades old. Arena believes that we’re more talented than foreigners believe or give us credit for. He’s tired of the rest of the world looking down their noses at our players with a view that our guys are not as talented. Arena views them as talented enough. And what they might lack in talent they make up for in battling, competing and making it tough for the opponent.

After taking over from Klinsmann after the disastrous start to the current World Cup qualifying cycle, Arena came in and got results, instantly. With Arena back, the U.S. has taken 8 of a possible 12 points ahead of the final four matches of qualifying, which begin in September. As he once told me, the national team coach has one job and one job only: “Qualify for the World Cup.” And from all the hand-wringing after the two losses (to Mexico and Costa Rica) word went out that the U.S. was in danger of not making it to Russia (which, really, was nonsensical). Now? Not so much.

When he returned to the job, Arena went to work doing the necessary spade work, preparing his staff and communicating his desires to the players. There’s a word for that, it’s called “coaching.” Arena is a coach who knows how to take the pieces and put them together in a coherent manner so all are on the same page.

There is a fundamental difference between the former and the current coach. Klinsmann liked to make his players uncomfortable, playing them out of position while believing that discomfort was the route to success. Arena has a different approach, actually playing players in positions where they actually feel they’re comfortable. He tends to get better performances from guys who have played those positions their whole career.

While Klinsmann seemed to coach more by a seat-of-the-pants approach (only informing the players about the formation two days before losing to Mexico), Arena talked with his assistants about his approach to the match at Estadio Azteca six months before the match. His audacious plan was not well received. His point was — and is — the system doesn’t matter unless your players do what they’re supposed to do and what they’re coached to do. What are your players’ qualities within a system?

2894503_large-lndIn the mesmerizing 1-1 draw at Mexico on June 11, most observers expected Arena to make two or three changes to the lineup that defeated Trinidad and Tobago, 2-0, a few days before. Wrong. Instead, Arena shook up the system, went with players like Paul Arriola and Omar Gonzalez who play in the Mexican league and were unbowed by Azteca. Into that mix Arena tossed Kellyn Acosta, Bobby Wood and everybody’s wunderkind Christian Pulisic.

Whatever the philosophy, the guy has balls. And there seems to be the feeling, the sense that merely being in the presence of Arena spurs American players to believe they can win. Most of the time he gets it right and he’s not afraid to be bold.

When Arena took over from Klinsmann, the U.S. team was a mess. He brought it together, to being a team and fighting for each other — all of the things American teams are known for.

So now, there is the question of whether the U.S. will advance to Russia. While the job of the national team coach may have once been to qualify for the World Cup, it is now perhaps his job to get the U.S. team out of the group stage.

Question: If the U.S. does well in Russia, which means advancing out of the group stage and perhaps winning a knockout stage game or (gasp!) two, should US Soccer bring back Arena for another cycle?

Answer: Why not?