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Q&A with Former U.S. Men’s National Team Coach Bruce Arena

Bruce Arena participated in numerous sports growing up and played both soccer and lacrosse at the professional level. After his playing days, he started his coaching career at the University of Virginia where he remained for 18 years. At UVA he created a college soccer dynasty, winning five NCAA National Championships and training several future National Team players such as Claudio Reyna, Jeff Agoos, John Harkes, and Tony Meola. He then moved on to professional soccer, coaching D.C. United in the inaugural season of Major League Soccer. During his time there from 1996-1998, D.C. United won two MLS Cups and the 1996 Open Cup.

Arena was hired as the U.S. Men’s National Team coach in late 1998. During his time in charge, he led the team to many significant achievements and created a name for himself as one of the best soccer coaches in U.S. history. His record with the team includes the best World Cup showing since 1930 (2002), two CONCACAF Gold Cup Championships (2002 and 2005), and an all-time best international FIFA ranking (4th place, April 2006).

Still prominent in coaching today, Arena currently serves as head coach for the LA Galaxy, who won back to back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012. He recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak with and share with coaches how he got to where he is today.  Growing up playing multiple sports, and playing professionally both soccer and lacrosse, when did you start to have aspirations to make coaching a profession?
Bruce Arena: “Well like most kids of my generation, my sports background was in high school. I played American football, soccer, lacrosse, and I wrestled. My junior year of high school I came across our rival coach in lacrosse, Richie Moran. I always thought that there was something special that he did with his teams. I noticed the spirit they had and how they were prepared. I was only 16 years old, but I said to myself, ‘I’d like to play for that gentleman one day’. Moran eventually went to Cornell as a lacrosse coach, which is where I ended up going to school. Once I met him during my early years in college, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a living one day. I was surrounded throughout my life with great coaches and they made great impressions on me. I was determined that I would eventually be a coach one day.” Richie Moran was one of your first mentors. Were there other coaches you looked up to at that time?BA: “There were two gentlemen - Mike Candel and Bill Stevenson - that I met at Nassau Community College as my lacrosse coaches. They were very influential people with the way they handled their athletes and it really meant a lot to me and helped develop in me a burning desire to do that one day.

“When I eventually went to the University of Virginia, the man I worked with in lacrosse, Jim Adams, was wonderful. Also, our football and basketball coaches George Welsh and Terry Holland were influential. I think one of the mistakes that we make in the sport of soccer is that we look at other soccer coaches as our only means of preparing ourselves as coaches. I really believe that in the United States we have an incredible resource of coaches in various sports and professional leagues. There are a lot of coaches we can look at to pick up ways to improve. I think we are in the absolute best coaching environment in the world here.” You played both soccer and lacrosse at the professional level. What made you eventually decide to focus on soccer when it became time to coach?
BA: “I played professional lacrosse first and the league I was in folded. Then I played professional soccer and the league I was in folded. I was kind of caught. I said, ‘Do I want to keep doing this and keep trying to play when every league I’m part of is folding?’

“Then I got in to coaching. I went back to Cornell and started coaching there mainly in lacrosse and a little in soccer. Eventually when I got the position at the University of Virginia, I was the head soccer coach and the assistant lacrosse coach. After seven years of doing both, I decided to put everything in to soccer because one, I was the head coach, and two, I realized the potential soccer had in this country.” You coached at the University of Virginia for 18 years. Virginia was perhaps the first college soccer dynasty. How did you develop such a successful program?
BA: “It’s like anything else, whether at the professional level or collegiate level: recruiting good players and utilizing your resources the right way. I had a great institution to build on. I had great support from the administration and a great environment to improve as a coach. When you put all of those things together and you get a little bit of luck, you can develop a good program. That’s really what I’ve been able to do in each of the jobs I’ve had.” During your time at Virginia you coached several future professional players. What was it like to coach them in the college environment?
BA: “I coached these players when they first started at the university level. It was during a time when we didn’t have a professional league in our country. These were talented athletes; I’m referencing, for example, John Harkes, Tony Meola, Claudio Reyna and many others. My goal was to keep them inspired to play and to help get them opportunities after UVA.

“I was fortunate that I got involved at the right time when the sport started to take off and players then had the opportunity to play professionally. The experience of watching them grow as people as well as players was fabulous. It’s something that I haven’t experienced as much where I’ve been over the last 15 years or so because it’s all about winning and losing now and about money. At that time it was great at a personal level because I had a lot of opportunities to influence young men and hopefully make them into something one day. That was a really great experience.” After UVA you became head coach of D.C. United in the inaugural season of MLS. Describe the transition from coaching college athletes to coaching professionals.
BA: “It was an interesting challenge, not just from the professional end and the demands on being successful, but also because of the cultural differences that needed to be understood. We had players from different parts of the world and that was a learning experience for me. Coaching fabulous players like Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno from Bolivia and others like them was new. Like anything else you have to make adjustments and it takes time. I think if you’re a good player and you have the right fundamentals you can grow to be a very good player at any level. It’s the same thing with coaching. I had the right fundamentals because I came from a background where I learned how to coach. It was natural that I could make the next step but it did take time to adjust.” What were some of those adjustments you had to make?
BA: “I think it’s important to understand the environment you’re in, to understand the tactics at the professional level, to be able to organize teams at those different levels, and to deal with the players. At the professional level, man management is critically important. Everybody knows how to put a team on the field and how to run a training session. To be able to piece everything together and have an eye for talent is critical. The success I had at UVA was created by recruiting good players. Having an eye for talent and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of players and being able to take those qualities and build a team out of that is the key.” During that first season, D.C. United started out 1-5 but later went on to win the first-ever MLS Cup. What adjustments did you make to win that first title?
BA: “During the beginning of that season I was growing as a coach at the professional level. In a short period of time though, it was obvious that we didn’t have the right players. So early in the season I made some pretty radical changes to our roster. After those changes and some time to build a team and get everyone on the same page, we got better. In the first year one of the key acquisitions that D.C. United had was the acquisition of Jaime Moreno. With Jaime’s addition in July and the combination of Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope, Richie Williams, etc., we grew into a very good team.” Let’s move on to your National Team career. During your time with the team, you accomplished a great deal including leading the team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and an all-time best international FIFA Ranking (4th place – April, 2006). What would you say is your proudest accomplishment as head coach of the National Team?
BA: “I think the obvious answer would be the 2002 World Cup, however, I think both of those four year runs were unique in themselves. From 2002 to 2006, we positioned U.S. Soccer to be the strongest team in CONCACAF. We grew greatly in world rankings, and by the time we got to the 2006 World Cup, we were a well-respected team around the world and I believe the dominant team in CONCACAF. I was equally as proud of that as I was from the accomplishments we made from 1998 to 2002.

“Another thing I was proud of was that when I accepted the position in November of 1998, the program was in a bit of turmoil. In my view, U.S. Soccer really didn’t understand at that point how to build a national team program with a winning mentality. I tried to bring that on board. We grew the team. I think the Federation grew as well from operating probably at a negative cash flow to being pretty successful. We weren’t in good shape financially; we weren’t in great shape on the field. I was proud to be part of U.S. Soccer during that eight-year period when we really grew the organization both on and off the field.” Let’s look more specifically at the 2002 World Cup. When the draw was first announced, you made a statement saying ‘we can beat Portugal.’ How did you know at that time that the U.S. MNT could beat such a strong Portuguese team?
BA: “I think their style of play was conducive to our team in terms of getting on the field and being able to deal with them. They had one of the most elite players in the world in Figo, but as we studied their team, we felt that we had favorable matchups and if we did certain things the right way, we could have enough of a presence to control the game and be successful. That turned out to be the case.

“Four years later in the 2006 World Cup, we knew when we played the Czech Republic that it wasn’t going to be like that. The Czech Republic was dominant to us in a lot of ways. We knew going in to that game that it was going to be very difficult. You get a great sense of these things in coaching. If you have enough experience you can figure it out. Going into 2002 we felt that there was a chance we could get a result in that game. Our team played unbelievably well in the first half and held on to beat a very good Portuguese team.” In the Round of 16 the U.S. faced regional rival Mexico and beat them 2-0. In this game you changed your line-up formation from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2. What led you to make this change in such a big game?
BA: “If I remember correctly, one issue was that we had Frankie Hejduk suspended in the last game of group play so he wasn’t available as a right back or right midfielder. We also wanted to find a way to get a number of players on the field together, especially our talented midfield players. We placed Claudio Reyna on the right side of midfield in the 3-5-2. We had Eddie Lewis on the left and John O’Brien and Pablo Mastroeni holding in the midfield with Landon Donovan underneath them and Brian McBride and Josh Wolff up top.

“We felt that formation allowed us to place our best players on the field and exploit what we felt were the weaknesses of the Mexican team out wide. It allowed us to get certain advantages around the field. Our second goal against Mexico was a classic counter attack that ended up with Donovan finishing off the play. We were fortunate that we played well enough that day to be successful.” How do you think the formation change impacted Mexico?
BA: “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.” The U.S. didn’t achieve the same results in the 2006 World Cup as the 2002 World Cup. However, there were still a lot of positives in that tournament. What were some of the lessons you learned from that tournament?
BA: “Well, because of our success in 2002, we weren’t coming in unknown in 2006. Our opponents were well prepared for us. I’ll be honest, I think if we played the Czech Republic 10 times, they’d probably beat us eight times. They were just a better team than us. The second game we played Italy, who won the World Cup.  The third game, the game that we needed to win, we didn’t beat Ghana. I think we were well prepared and were also well-positioned to win that game. Obviously the penalty kick call right at the end of the first half turned that game a little bit. But we fell short and certainly were disappointed.

“Realistically going into that World Cup we knew it was going to be very challenging because we were in what many people felt was the Group of Death. Our goal was to get to the third game in group play and be in a position to advance, which we were. We fell short and that’s something we all live with. But I was so proud of the effort our guys showed after a difficult opening game against a very good Czech Republic team. We battled Italy really hard and got an important point. We did our best against Ghana in the third game and just fell short.” Looking forward, what are your thoughts on the next generation of coaches in the U.S.?
BA: “I think the sport continues to grow. I think our coaches are much more experienced today than they were 20 years ago. I think having a professional league now that’s going to be around for a long time helps. It gives coaches the opportunity to witness what we’re doing each and every day on the professional level. Those are opportunities that allow coaches to grow. Our Academy programs are growing. Everything in this country is growing.

“I would again mention the fact that I think our coaching environment in the United States is fabulous. Having the opportunity to be a coach in this country with MLS and the Academy programs growing is great. Then on top of that, witnessing the top professional leagues in the world for any sports with the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS, is a fabulous environment to learn to be a coach. This is a great time for coaches in our country, in our sport.” With that said, do you feel the U.S. has ground to make up in coaching development with the rest of the world?
BA: “You can always be better, there’s no question about that. We know that. But we’re a lot better than advertised. We have a lot of former players now that are getting into coaching, which is a real positive. As I watch them getting involved, not only at the MLS level, but in the Academy programs, it just shows me that the game is in good hands with these young coaches. They have a great future and I think they’re going to help build the sport.” What are your thoughts on players that have played for you and have recently retired such as Jovan Kirovski, Gregg Berhalter and Clint Mathis?  Is it important for former players to get involved in coaching?
BA: “Sure, but coaching’s coaching. I think people make a natural assumption that if you were a player you can become a coach. They’re two different animals. Not everyone has the right make-up and the right mentality to be a coach. Having a great background as a player certainly can be an advantage, but it’s no guarantee. There’s not necessarily a prescribed formula for making a great coach. It takes a lot of time and effort and being in the right environment. I think now the United States has an environment that will help move along any aspiring coach.” What are some of the attributes for someone to be a great coach?
BA: “Be willing to work hard. Understand the game and really get a good feel for qualities of players. Understand how to build teams based on the resources you have in terms of players, your organization and those types of things. It’s an evolving process becoming a good coach and a good team. It takes time and patience and experience. Again, I think the environment now in the United States for young soccer coaches is as good as it’s ever been.”