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Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
Most press conferences are dull as all hell. Any time Bruce Arena is at the dais, however, the potential for a golden quote or two to escape from the mouth of the most successful coach in the history of American soccer — and one of its most outspoken personalities — is enough to keep even the most cynical reporter’s attention rapt.
Arena was formally introduced as the new head coach and sporting director of the hapless New England Revolution on Thursday and, with phones and cameras recording, he didn’t disappoint. Arena, who resigned from his last job shortly after his U.S. men’s national team became the first in 32 years not to qualify for a World Cup, even got emotional toward the end of the 25-minute event, when asked if part of the reason he took the job was to ensure that what happened on that fateful night in Trinidad in October of 2017 isn’t his lasting legacy.
“I was actually proud of the job I did in 2017,” said the ever-defiant Arena. “We had a great group of players and they worked real hard and we fell short. That’s life, unfortunately. Sometimes people don’t understand that. We played 18 games and lost two of them in 2017. So, overall, I thought it was a positive experience. Certainly I was disappointed as anybody in that failure. I don’t define that as my legacy, personally. I know others do.
“Did I have to do this?” Arena continued. “No, I didn’t have to do it. But I love coaching. I love the sport. I love the challenge in building the game in this country. It’s something that I’ve done for 40 years and it’s not easy to walk away from. It’s something that’s very important to me. Arena’s voice seemed to quiver a bit on the penultimate sentence. Clearly, he’s not taking the opportunity in New England lightly.
1. The comments above echoed ones Arena made a day earlier to Sam Stejskal of The Athletic. Look, Arena’s a winner. He’s probably never going to admit that he should’ve deployed a second defensive midfielder on that waterlogged field in Couva no matter how many years pass. Maybe he’s right not to. While history shows that he made a fatal tactical miscalculation that night, it was only one of dozens, maybe hundreds of factors that contributed to the World Cup apocalypse, most of them nothing to do with Arena.
2. Whatever he says, and despite the record five MLS Cups and the trip to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, Arena has plenty to prove. In 2019, Arena’s name is still synonymous with the qualifying disaster. That’s not fair, but it’s true. And it’s got to eat at him. You don’t accomplish what Arena has by eschewing challenges or standing pat. Late last year, he interviewed for the Galaxy GM job that went to Dennis te Klose and for a similar position in Columbus that was eventually filled by former Toronto FC architect Tim Bezbatchenko. Arena was always going to work again. Stejskal reported that Arena was first approached by the Revs in late 2017, not long after the loss in T&T.
3. Say what you want about Arena, but the Revs are extremely lucky to have him. His track record of success in MLS remains unrivaled. Arena was quick to remind those in attendance on Thursday. “I’ve coached in MLS I think 13 years and I’ve been to seven MLS Cup finals and won five of them.” For me, there’s no doubt that Arena will make the Revs better, even if he sounded a lot like Jose Mourinho in his last days at Manchester United at that moment.
4. I don’t doubt that Arena has missed coaching, but I doubt he’d still be on the sidelines had the U.S. reached the 2018 World Cup. There were rumblings as far back as late 2015 that Bruce was going to transition to a full-time front office role, either with the Galaxy or elsewhere.
5. It was sort of stunning to hear Revs president Brian Bilello talk about how bad things had gotten under Brad Friedel, who lasted just over a year as the club’s coach before being fired last week. “We had a string of holistically unacceptable performances on the field that caused us to say that we have to make an immediate change in the coaching position,” Bilello said. “We were having unprecedented results on the field in a bad way.”
6. Arena appeared to defend his former star goalkeeper — Friedel played every minute in goal for the U.S at Korea/Japan 2002 — when asked how he would clean up the mess in Foxborough. “I don’t attribute failure to one person,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons why teams aren’t successful. It’s not because of [just] the coach or the owner, or the players. It’s a lot of things.”
7. The same holds true for success. Arena pointed out that during his highly successful stints with D.C. United and the LA Galaxy, the players, coaching staff and front office operated as one. (That definitely wasn’t the case with the New York Red Bulls in 2006-07, the lone blemish on his otherwise-pristine MLS record.) This is the culture he’ll try to instill when he finally steps in for interim boss Mike Lapper, who will guide New England in Montreal on Saturday and on May 25 versus D.C.
8. For long-suffering Revolution diehards, the most promising part of Arena’s hiring is that it signals that the Kraft family (which owns the team) actually cares about its soccer operation. To what degree? That part remains to be seen. Arena will have money to spend, that much is clear. But he sure won’t have the budget he did in LA or even Washington. In those early years, Arena’s DCU teams were similarly stacked.
9. “I don’t think any club in the league needs to spend the way Atlanta spends,” Arena said, referring to the defending champs. “You can be successful without being the top spender in the league. If you follow the history of the league, the team that spends the most money doesn’t win every year and actually in most cases they don’t. So I think we can be smart about how we spend and still be positioned to be much more competitive and ultimately one day win an MLS Cup.”
10. David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane headlined Arena’s Galaxy dynasty. He had all-time MLS greats like Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry in the nation’s capital. But part of the reason Arena was successful in both places was his ability surround those stars with team-first role players like Alan Gordon and Richie Williams.
11. Speaking of Williams, Paul Tenorio reported Thursday that the Revs have asked D.C. United for permission to speak to the former U.S. under-17 coach, who served as Arena’s assistant with the Red Bulls and the USMNT.
12. Williams is currently at the helm of Loudoun United, D.C.’s USL affiliate. Not many guys would give up a professional head coaching job in the second tier to work as an MLS assistant. That’s the sort of pull Arena still has.
13. Arena’s hiring in New England has already done two things. One, people are actually talking about the Revolution again. And two, the conversation about a downtown Boston stadium for the club has been reignited. To hear Arena tell it, the potential for the sport and the club in the area was one of the things that sold him on the job during conversations with the Krafts.
14. “I admire the Kraft family for everything they’ve done in the sport,” he said. “This league wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Robert Kraft and Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz. I admire that, and I am confident that they’re also driven to build a stadium here which will make this sport outstanding in this city. Because I think this city is a potential home run for the sport of soccer.”
15. Columbus didn’t do much to its roster after Bezbatchenko and new coach Caleb Porter arrived during the offseason. But over the last few weeks, with the Crew having lost six of their last seven games, the duo has been been shuffling their deck like card sharks. Justin Meram was shipped to Atlanta last week before the transfer window shut, while David Accam and David Guzman arrived from Philadelphia and Portland, respectively. On Thursday, Accam’s rights were dealt to 2020 expansion club Nashville for $450,000 in cash. With the deal post-dated to January, the Ghanian forward will remain in Ohio until the end of the year.
16. “Obviously we’re evaluating the roster now that Caleb and myself are here,” Bezbatchenko told Yahoo Sports this week. “We’re going to actively search for better players. We’re certainly in the market for players that are going to improve the team.”
17. How much more tinkering is in store this summer, when the secondary transfer window opens? “The players decide that,” Bezbatchenko said. “We want to take a long-term approach, and don’t want to do anything in the short term that’s going to hinder our ability to make this team better on a three- to five-year basis. We’re still getting to know our players. Obviously we’re going through a rough period in terms of results. You learn more about your team when you go through these periods. We’ll have to determine if more changes are needed.”
18. One the Crew’s biggest recent moves didn’t involve a new recruit: The club announced this week that it had signed forward Gyasi Zardes to a new designated player contract. Zardes, 27, has been the league’s top American scorer since the start of the 2018 season. Only four players in MLS have more than Zardes’s 23 goals over that span: Josef Martinez (Atlanta United), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Galaxy), Carlos Vela (LAFC) and Mauro Manotas (Houston Dynamo).
19. With Zardes in the final year of his contract, negotiations on an extension began over the winter. “It became clear very early on with Gyasi and his representative that our interests and goals align,” Bezbatchenko said. “Gyasi showed last year that he has tremendous potential when he’s put in the right environment. And playing for the national team, has the ability to take his game to new heights.”
20. With Jozy Altidore injured yet again — the veteran U.S. forward, who had just returned from a hamstring strain, missed Toronto FC’s scoreless draw with D.C. midweek because of a sore heel — Zardes could end up starting up top for the U.S. at next month’s Gold Cup. A strong performance there would boost Zardes’ value. Bezbatchenko, who said he could still add another DP to the Crew’s squad before the end of the season, was thus eager to get a deal done with Zardes before the tournament kicked off.
21. Zardes’ contributions in Columbus go well beyond the scoresheet. He’s a beloved locker room presence who sets an example with his tireless work ethic. “When you’re trying to set a culture inside your club, you look for players to lead the way,” Bezbatchenko said. “Gyasi competes on and off the ball. There are few players in this league that work as hard as Gyasi does on defense.”
22. “My family loves Columbus,” Zardes, the married father of three young children, told me on Tuesday. Still, it’s a short career. Did playing out his contract ever appeal to him? “If I’m loving the team I’m playing with and have faith in the coaching staff, then I’m going to be loyal. I know that if I excel here, other great things will come,” he said.
23. Despite the Crew’s recent slide, Zardes sees a bright future under Porter. “I have a lot of confidence in Caleb,” he said. “We’ve been playing well; things have just been off by a few inches in the attacking half. If things go our way the way they’ve been going for [our opponents], we’ll be successful. And for me personally, I’m getting on the ball more than I did last year. I feel like I’m learning more as a player.”
24. I couldn’t let Zardes go without asking about Arena. The Los Angeles native spent his first four MLS seasons with the Galaxy and helped Arena hoist his most recent MLS Cup in 2014. Zardes was also a member of Arena’s 2017 Gold Cup-winning U.S. squad. “I’m extremely excited for Bruce,” he said. “He knows how to get the most out of his players and he’ll do a good job in New England. It’s great to see him come back. The Bruce I know enjoys coaching a lot.”
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