There are certain things that just go together.
Hamburgers and fries, rice and beans, Batman and Robin.
Any of them could have had a successful solo career. But they were so much better together.
To that list you can add Bruce Arena and Dave Sarachan, the most successful coaching pairing in U.S. Soccer history. In 17 years as a couple, at the University of Virginia, two MLS stops and with the U.S. national team, Arena and Sarachan won three MLS Cups, a CONCACAF Champions League title, advanced to the quarterfinals of a World Cup and qualified for the NCAA tournament four times.
“We have a chemistry that works,” Sarachan said.
“Sometimes you go out on your own, but timing and life sometimes brings those forces back together.”
The latest reunion came in December when Arena asked Sarachan to rejoin him as an assistant with the national team. Weeks earlier, the pair had split for a fourth time when Sarachan abruptly resigned as associate head coach of the Galaxy, where he had worked under Arena for 8 1/2 years.
At the time, Sarachan said he left to pursue new challenges. But that’s only half the story: Sarachan didn’t so much walk away as he was pushed, with the Galaxy cutting his pay by about half in an effort to entice him to leave.
Under Arena, the Galaxy was one of two MLS teams with a five-man coaching staff — the norm is four — and Sarachan, by virtue of his special relationship with Arena, was the league’s only associate head coach. He also was believed to be the best-paid assistant in the league.
The Galaxy wanted to restructure their technical staff and under new Coach Curt Onalfo, Arena’s successor, they eliminated Sarachan’s position and added a strength/conditioning coach and a dietitian.
“It was us wanting to take the next step in how our staff was approached,” Galaxy President Chris Klein said. “It wasn’t something that necessarily had to do with Dave. We needed to move the club forward and do some different things in sports performance and video and other areas.”
Sarachan wasn’t unemployed for long, however. Less than a week after Sarachan left the Galaxy, Arena was asked to rescue a national team that had gotten off to a disastrous start in World Cup qualifying. And he, in turn, reached out to Sarachan and his other Galaxy assistants, Pat Noonan, Kenny Arena and Matt Reis.
They were getting the band back together.
“Dave has been around me for a lot of years. He’s very loyal,” Bruce Arena said of his longtime sidekick. “Dave’s best quality is he likes to be on the field coaching. He’s not, maybe, the guy for all the other things outside.
“On the field is the thing he loves to do.”
Sarachan said the relationship has been so long and successful because the two men trust and complement each other. Arena, 65, is the strategist, a big-picture guy who sets the tone and direction for the team. Sarachan, 62, is hands-on, a high-energy details guy who understands Arena’s vision and implements it.
“Whether you want to call it a long marriage or whatever kind of analogy, there’s always periods … where it’s going really good, and then there moments when you just need your separation. But at the end of the day, we each have each other’s back,” Sarachan said. “Bruce doesn’t verbalize it. And I don’t need to verbalize it. But we kind of know each other well enough where we cover most of the bases that need to be covered.”
Sarachan first worked under Arena at the University of Virginia, replacing Bob Bradley, another Arena protégé. That was a scenario that would play out repeatedly, with Sarachan following Bradley onto Arena’s staff at D.C. United in 1997, then taking over the Chicago Fire after Bradley resigned in 2002.
In between, he assisted Arena during his first stint with the national team, helping take a team that had been winless in 1998 to the World Cup quarterfinals four years later. Shortly after that tournament, Sarachan set out on his own, leading the Fire to a Supporters’ Shield, an Open Cup title and the MLS Cup final in his first season as coach.
Without him, the U.S. didn’t win a game in the next World Cup, and Arena’s contract was not renewed. He would never coach another game without Sarachan by his side, reuniting with his assistant when the Galaxy asked him to fix a dysfunctional team midway through the 2008 season.
Arena and Sarachan would reach the playoffs in each of their eight full seasons in Carson, advancing to the conference final five times and playing in four MLS Cup title games. It is the most successful streak in league history.
Now they face an even greater challenge. After losing the first two qualifiers under former Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. is in danger of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. That’s what Arena was hired to prevent, and when Sarachan was asked to help, he said he didn’t have to think long before answering.
Did Robin ever say no to Batman?
“The passion we all have for our national team and my experience having done it, it was a no-brainer in terms of a decision,” Sarachan said. “It’s just too important for this thing not to succeed.
“I love a challenge. This is the ultimate challenge.”