Bruce Arena’s outspoken MLS coaching career ends, for now, with an apology

On Saturday night, in the moments after the New England Revolution’s 1-1 draw against Minnesota United, the club announced the resignation of Bruce Arena, its decorated, embattled and now-former head coach and sporting director.

Arena, a two-time former USMNT coach, had been on administrative leave and under league investigation for over a month for alleged inappropriate remarks. The Athletic reported on Saturday that complaints lodged by his longtime assistant Richie Williams were part of the investigation. In a statement that accompanied Arena’s resignation, MLS said that “certain” allegations had been confirmed.

In announcing his resignation, Arena spoke publicly for the first time about the investigation and what drove him to call time on his spell with the Revs – and perhaps in MLS as a whole (the league said the 71-year-old will need to submit a petition to the commissioner to be employed in MLS again).

“I know that I have made some mistakes,” Arena said, “and moving forward, I plan to spend some time reflecting on this situation and taking corrective steps to address what has transpired. And while this has not been an easy decision, I am confident that it is in the best interest of both the New England Revolution organization and my family that we part ways at this time.”

In a sense, Arena’s conciliatory tone feels familiar; a common approach in statements where a powerful person is forced to step away. But the words also feel alien coming out of Arena’s mouth. The 71-year-old may be American soccer’s bluntest and most defiant major figure, known as much for his brash, no-nonsense nature as he is for his lengthy list of honors and accomplishments. He is not a man known for apologizing, even after major failures.

Arena was at the helm on the day the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, probably the highest-profile fiasco in the program’s history. He had taken over during the latter stages of a tumultuous qualifying campaign, and a year after the U.S. failure he balked at the idea that his next job as head coach of the Revolution might help redeem him in the eyes of American soccer fans.

“I’ve had a very good career. If somebody wants to surpass it, they’re welcome to,” he told The Athletic. “We fell short (with the U.S.). No excuses there. That’s the way it is. I don’t know if you follow sports, but at the end of the day, not everyone wins. It’s unfortunate, certainly, but I feel really good about what we did.”

Arena’s accurate self-assessment (“I’ve had a very good career”) combined with an unveiled disdain for those who question him (“I don’t know if you follow sports,” said to a sports reporter) more or less sums up his place in the American soccer landscape.

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Many consider Arena the greatest coach in the history of the American men’s game. His 81 wins as U.S. men’s national team coach are easily the most in program history. He won five MLS Cups, four Supporters’ Shields, a U.S. Open Cup and a CONCACAF Championship over 17 seasons as an MLS head coach. A four-time MLS coach of the year, Arena helped craft two of MLS’ most legendary sides — D.C. United and the LA Galaxy.

Before joining MLS, Arena was a dominant college coach, leading the University of Virginia to five NCAA College Cups and six ACC championships in an 18-year college coaching career. During that span he helped raise some of the most influential American players of the 90s and early 00s, including Claudio Reyna, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Tony Meola and Ben Olsen. A former college and professional goalkeeper himself who earned a single cap with the USMNT, Arena got his first college coaching gig in a far humbler setting: The University of Puget Sound, in 1977.

Hired as D.C. United’s first head coach in MLS’s inaugural season, Arena helped assemble and coach a collection of talent that dominated the league in its infancy. They played with a flair and finesse uncommon to the league’s early teams and quickly established themselves as the league’s first dynasty. They won the league’s inaugural championship in 1996 and won the U.S. Open Cup that same year, then repeated as MLS Cup champs in 1997, then made it to the final again in 1998 while becoming the first team to win the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

Yet even as Arena rose in prominence, he continually unleashed the brash, arrogant side of his persona that so many within the game eventually came to recognize as standard-issue Bruce.

“The way our league is operating, this is the worst coaching job in the world,” he told the Washington Post in 1997 of his position at D.C. United, one of many criticisms of MLS commissioners over the course of his career. In 1996, when coaching the U.S. at the Atlanta Olympics, he famously said the U.S. Olympic officials were “too stupid to fix a draw” after his team was matched up against Argentina. A Sports Illustrated article from around that time described him as “amazingly graceless,” and quotes Williams, then a D.C. United midfielder, as saying “Yeah, he’s arrogant.”

“The perception is that he’s a bastard,” longtime Arena assistant Dave Sarachan told Sports Illustrated for that piece. “If you talk to almost anyone in our business, they will say that.”

Arena took over the U.S. in 1998. (JORGE SILVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Arena left United in 1998 to join the USMNT, which had just finished dead last at the World Cup in France. In 2002, Arena’s no-nonsense approach helped earn the USMNT its best World Cup finish since 1930, a memorable run to the quarterfinals of the tournament that included upsets over Portugal and Mexico and a near-upset of eventual finalists Germany. He coached the team again in the 2006 cycle and through a disappointing appearance at that year’s tournament. Arena also led the USMNT to three continental championships during his national team career.

He joined the LA Galaxy in 2008, arriving in Los Angeles not long after English legend David Beckham in 2007 and inheriting a roster in shambles and a divided locker room. Arena eventually led that club to glory as well, winning three MLS Cups in a four-year span. Several of Arena’s Galaxy sides were among MLS’ greatest-ever teams, squads built around Beckham, USMNT legend Landon Donovan and Irish international Robbie Keane.

Flying high, Arena’s continued to push MLS officials into uncomfortable water. Long before criticisms of the league’s single-entity structure became commonplace, Arena was lobbing grenades at the league office over what he perceived to be a potential overreach. In 2014, when the Galaxy tried and failed to sign USMNT midfielder Sascha Klestjan, Arena raged at the league office in an interview with the Washington Post, calling them “children.” The comments drew a fine from MLS commissioner Don Garber.

“Bruce has the opportunity to be our Tom Landry,” Garber told at the time, referring to the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach. “Or 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.”

Though his gruffness had become well-known by this point, Arena had simultaneously earned a reputation as an excellent man-manager who is largely beloved by his players – many of whom spoke out on his behalf during his absence and investigation. He had a shrewd eye for role players at the Galaxy and helped foster the careers of MLS stalwarts like Omar Gonzalez, Mike Magee, A.J. DeLaGarza and many more. He was usually fiercely protective of his players’ individual and collective performances, except in those instances where they were very clearly not up to snuff. And player after player who worked under him will say that they could count on Arena for a straighforward, honest assessment.

“Bruce lets you know where you stand,” said then-U.S. striker Clint Mathis in 2002.

He was, and is, also the last of a dying breed. As the game has progressed and more focus has been laid on tactical details, film study and analytics, Arena has often balked at those changes — sometimes to the chagrin of certain players and, more recently, assistant coaches.

“Actually, analytics in soccer, if no one here has figured it out, doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he said in a postgame press conference in 2016. “Analytics and statistics are used for people who don’t know how to analyze the game. I’ll be very honest with you; this isn’t baseball or football or basketball. We have a very important analytic, and that’s the score. That distorts all the other statistics.”

Occasionally, Arena’s barbs betrayed a kind of old-school conservatism that was mostly out of line with prevailing sentiment among American soccer fans. Perhaps nothing revealed that more than his controversial comments about the direction of the U.S. men’s national team under German head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I believe an American should be coaching the national team,” Arena said in 2014. “I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture.”

He espoused a similar philosophy on foreign-born players for the national team, during the very time that many were being recruited to play for the U.S.

“Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans,” Arena said in 2013. “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”

Arena walked back these comments when he took the reins of the U.S. again in 2016 and was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to coach some of those players. But notably, he didn’t apologize.

“If I made those comments, I certainly don’t believe that that’s my attitude,” Arena said in 2016.

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Arena and Beckham at MLS Cup 2009 (Harry How/Getty Images)

Even after the U.S.’s disastrous qualifying campaign in 2018, Arena continued to throw elbows. In 2018, Arena hit out at U.S. Soccer and a host of others in “What’s Wrong With Us?,” a book he co-authored with commentator and author Steve Kettmann.

“Basically, the same people have remained in control of the sport over the past twenty years,” wrote Arena. “This should not happen. The landscape of the sport has changed drastically, and there is a need for new leaders with technical experience who can bring fresh ideas to the table. There need to be some new blood and new ways of doing things.”

Arena seemed to contradict his own words by taking the Revolution job a year later, but by the same token, the list of current and former MLS coaches who played for or coached under Arena is long and distinguished. Among them: former LAFC, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and U.S. head coach Bob Bradley was one of Arena’s original assistants at D.C. United. Current USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter played for and coached with Arena in LA. Houston Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen was a player for Arena at Virginia and again in D.C..

Arena took over New England during the 2019 season and guided the team to the playoffs after inheriting a poor start. The club then set a new single-season points record en route to winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2021. Arena was named 2021’s MLS Coach of the Year.

The combativeness remained. Arena served a three-game suspension during the “MLS is Back” tournament during the COVID-19 pandemic for using abusive language against a match official. He initially received a red card and a standard one-game suspension but Garber extended that penalty by an additional two games.

Earlier this season, he was issued a fine for criticizing VAR and calling the fourth official in a match “pretty useless for the entire game, and for some reason, she then voiced her opinion 98-and-a-half minutes into the game.”

Amid it all, Arena continued to win. This year, New England is among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. They will be among the favorites to make it to MLS Cup. Behind the scenes, though, the tension Arena brought to outsiders had found its way into his circle. On Saturday, that tension led to Arena, so often the victor in the world of American soccer, issuing an unusual apology as he made an abrupt exit.

(Top photo: Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

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