The best soccer coach in the country attributes his success to
eavesdropping. Chronic eavesdropping, in fact, in one of the
sports world's most sacred precincts: ACC basketball. In the
1980s, long before Bruce Arena's D.C. United won the first two
MLS championships, he would repair to his office in Virginia's
University Hall a half hour before each Cavaliers tip-off, and
just before halftime as well. There without making a sound, he
would sit and listen. What he heard wafting through the air
vents was an education in coaching: Dean Smith's scholarly pep
talks, Jim Valvano's comedic ramblings, Lefty Driesell's
This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue
When your office adjoins the visiting basketball team's locker
room, and you can hear everything that's being said, you don't
waste the opportunity. "ACC basketball has been my greatest
influence as a coach," says Arena. "Coaching is teaching, and
for a long time I got a chance to listen to the elite coaches
teaching the elite athletes of this country. Other soccer
coaches were making trips to Europe, but I don't think that was
half as educational as what I was doing."
The implication is clear. The 46-year-old Arena is above all a
coach, an American coach. That he happens to coach soccer is a
mere detail. Arena's approach is unique among his MLS
counterparts; it's also why his teams win. "If Bruce had started
as a football coach, he would be in the NFL right now," says
United general manager Kevin Payne, "and he would be in the NHL
if he were in hockey."
"Bruce reminds me of Bill Parcells," adds Arena's former
assistant Bob Bradley, who coaches the Chicago Fire. "He's got
the same sarcastic humor, but what's more important is that he
sets a tone for the team. He never gets too caught up in X's and
O's. Bruce's teams are always organized well, but he doesn't
overdo it. He lets his players play."
Yet, like Parcells, Arena is a lightning rod for resentment, not
only because he has succeeded--he won five NCAA titles in a
six-year span at Virginia--but also because he never misses a
chance to speak his mind. Last year, for example, Arena traded
verbal jabs with MLS commissioner Doug Logan in The Washington
Post. Outraged by United's overcrowded schedule, Arena said,
"The way our league is operating, this is the worst coaching job
in the world." (Logan replied that Arena "frequently only opens
his mouth to lace his shoes.") In another memorable line, Arena
said that U.S. Olympic officials were "too stupid to fix a draw"
after his '96 Olympic team was matched against powerful
Argentina in their opener. After his last game with the
Cavaliers, a loss to Duke, Arena concluded that "what college
soccer needs is more teams like Virginia."
"Let's just say his social skills are lacking," says one top
college coach. "He's arrogant and self-serving, and he's not
gracious in winning or losing."
Even Arena's most loyal supporters concede a few points. "Yeah,
he's arrogant," says United defensive midfielder Richie
Williams. "You don't want to get in an argument with him," warns
Arena's wife, Phyllis. "The perception is that he's a bastard,
that he's unapproachable," says D.C. assistant coach Dave
Sarachan. "If you talk to almost anyone in our business, they
will say that."
Arena grew up in Franklin Square, N.Y. His father, Vincent,
worked as a butcher, and his mother, Adeline, drove a school
bus. Bruce attended Cornell and in 1972-73 was All-Ivy League as
a soccer goalkeeper and a lacrosse midfielder. Five years later
he took over at Virginia. He credits his tough-mindedness to
Adeline, who was discovered to have breast cancer and underwent
a radical mastectomy when Bruce was 13. Soon after the surgery
she was back at work. "When my mom passed away [in 1990], we
went through her estate and giggled," Arena says. "She had
managed to save $30,000 in a bank. How could this woman have
saved that much on her income? She was remarkable."
As for his infamous statements, Arena has a single regret. "The
one about the Olympic team draw came out wrong," he says. "Even
though I know I was right."
From its inception, MLS has gone to Leninist extremes to keep
one or two teams from driving the rest into bankruptcy. Beyond
the salary cap, the league itself allocates each new foreign
player, giving preference to the least competitive teams.
Yet by winning the first two titles, United has proved that what
MLS calls "induced parity" may be a well-intentioned pipe dream.
"Trying to have a league where everyone is equal in a
competitive sense is an impossible venture," says Arena. "You
can't take the human equation out of it. You can't create a
fantasy soccer league."
D.C. is favored to three-peat this year, mainly because Arena
has an uncanny aptitude for recognizing and developing young
talent. Shrewd acquisitions like U.S. national team defender
Eddie Pope (the second pick of the 1996 rookie draft out of
North Carolina), midfielder Tony Sanneh (a minor league call-up)
and goalkeeper Scott Garlick (another minor league call-up) have
combined with the team's allocated stars (led by midfielders
Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes and striker Jaime Moreno) to
produce a brand of open, attractive soccer.
No player better exemplifies Arena's skill than the 5'5"
Williams, a fourth-round draft choice in '96 and one of nine
former Virginia players on D.C.'s roster. Not particularly fast,
not particularly strong, Williams nevertheless has become the
team's most tireless worker. "In England or Italy, if you decide
your right back isn't good enough, you just go out and buy
another one," Payne says. "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."
In this era of D.C dominance, it's hard to believe that only two
years ago there were calls in Washington for Arena's head.
United lost its first four games in the league's inaugural
season, a slump for which Arena, who was working simultaneously
as the Olympic team coach, accepts the blame. "I didn't take an
active enough role in the draft that year," he says. "It was
pretty obvious we had some players on the field who didn't
belong in this league." His solution came three days after a 4-0
loss to the Columbus Crew on April 13. Arena released five
players, and by early June, United had climbed to second place.
At the same time Arena was learning that the adjustment from
college to the pros wasn't really an adjustment at all. "I was
ignoring some of the things I have always believed in, like
requiring discipline from every player and a commitment to train
the right way," he says. "One day I decided that if I'm going to
go down, I'm going down doing things almost exactly like I did
them at Virginia."
In Charlottesville, Arena always emphasized togetherness on his
teams. Whenever one of his players had surgery, for example, he
insisted on being in the operating room, even though he twice
fainted after the first incision. That loyalty has carried over
to MLS. To save on expenses, D.C. players Danny Care, Ben Olsen
and Carey Talley have been living in Arena's house.
With two years left on his contract with United, Arena has
started thinking about a move into management, whether with an
MLS team or the league office. Though Arena says he would
consider coaching the national team, he isn't expecting to be
offered the post anytime soon. "There's no relationship there
right now," he says of the U.S. Soccer Federation, "and there
hasn't been since the end of the Olympics [in which the U.S.
failed to get past the opening round]. I haven't thought about
it much. I've got my own job to worry about."
That means that as the MLS season begins, Arena is already
issuing complaints. He's angry that salary-cap rules forced
United to trade its second-best scorer, Raul Diaz Arce, to the
New England Revolution during the off-season. He's angry that
the league hasn't awarded his team a new foreign player in the
past year and a half. And he's angry that United lost three
players last winter to expansion, which he thought came a year
In other words, Arena hasn't changed. To do so would violate a
tradition dating back to '76, when he saw the Cornell football
coach leave the 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."
He grabs one of his sport sandals, inserts it between his teeth
Midfielder Richie Williams (right) and D.C. United began their
MLS title defense with a 2-0 win over the Fusion at Miami on
Sunday. Here's how all 12 teams figure to do in 1998.
1. D.C. UNITED Raul Diaz Arce is gone, but United can
ride Jaime Moreno (a league-high 16
goals in 1997) to a three-peat.
2. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION A front line of Diaz Arce and
Joe-Max Moore will finally give MLS's
most loyal fans reason to cheer.
3. COLUMBUS CREW U.S. national team third-stringer
Jurgen Sommer replaces sometime U.S.
starter Brad Friedel in goal.
4. TAMPA BAY MUTINY Roy Lassiter must try to regain his
27-goal form of 1996 without playmaker
Carlos Valderrama, now in Miami.
5. NEW YORK/NEW JERSEY The acquisition of Alexi Lalas won't
METROSTARS be enough to shore up a woeful
6. MIAMI FUSION Valderrama is a magician, but without a
reliable finisher to handle his passes,
the Fusion is an illusion.
1. DALLAS BURN The 1997 U.S. Open Cup champ has a
creative force in Alain Sutter and a
rugged stopper in Leonel Alvarez.
2. KANSAS CITY WIZARDS Preki, the 1997 league MVP, leads
an attack explosive enough to make up
for a mediocre defense.
3. COLORADO RAPIDS The 1997 MLS Cup finalists retain top
scorer Chris Henderson but won't sneak
up on anyone this year.
4. LOS ANGELES GALAXY Can Eduardo (the Tank) Hurtado revert
to the Sherman he was in 1996, when
he blasted 21 goals?
5. CHICAGO FIRE Behind an offense that lacks punch, the
antics of Day-Glo goalie Jorge Campos
will be even more riveting.
6. SAN JOSE CLASH Eric Wynalda sat out 18 games last
season; he'll miss a bunch this year
because of the World Cup.