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Column: The Galaxy head to Yankee Stadium, where coach has many fond memories, but not of soccer

Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena walks on the pitch following an MLS game against the Sounders in Seattle on July 31.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Like many kids growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and ‘60s, Bruce Arena dreamed of some day roaming the outfield at Yankee Stadium. So he honed his arm by throwing thousands of pitches against a brick wall across the street from his home and taught himself to switch-hit by emulating his idol, Mickey Mantle.

“Greatest athlete I ever saw,” Arena still fawns, two decades after Mantle’s death.

But unlike those other kids, Arena grew up to become the greatest coach in U.S. soccer history, a hall of famer who guided the U.S. national team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and won a record five MLS titles with D.C. United and his current team, the Galaxy.

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And in a roundabout way, Arena will finally realize his childhood dream next Saturday when he strides onto the manicured Kentucky bluegrass at Yankee Stadium to coach the Galaxy against New York City FC.

Yet it’s an honor about which Arena remains ambivalent; soccer may be his profession but baseball is his passion. So it seems sacrilegious to him to practice another faith in baseball’s holiest cathedral.

The starters for New York City FC pose for a photo before their inaugural game against the New England Revolution at Yankee Stadium on March 15, 2015.
The starters for New York City FC pose for a photo before their inaugural game against the New England Revolution at Yankee Stadium on March 15, 2015.
(Elsa / Getty Images )

“Yankee fans can’t be happy a soccer team’s playing in their stadium,” Arena, speaking as a Yankee fan, said. “To be honest, I can’t wait for the day that they have a stadium for that [soccer] team.

“It makes no sense that that they’re playing at Yankee Stadium.”

The original Yankee Stadium, the one Arena visited as a kid, is gone, replaced by a cleaner, modern replica nearby with a $1.5-billion price tag — the most expensive sports stadium ever built when it opened in 2009.

But many iconic features of the old ballpark, such as the curved frieze atop the three-tiered grandstand, have been preserved. So when Arena, 64, looks up from the Galaxy bench next weekend, the bleacher seats in right-center field won’t seem all that different from the ones where he, his brothers and his father, Vinny, a butcher, used to sit.

“We’d go to doubleheaders so we’d be in the stadium all day,” Arena said. “I didn’t come from a family with a lot of money, so it was a big deal.”

Arena is doing quite a bit better financially these days, but a game at Yankee Stadium is still a big deal.

“He’s always been a Yankee fan,” said Phyllis, his wife of 40 years. “Everyone that knows him knows that he likes the Yankees. “He’s not fanatical. Like we don’t have signs hanging all over our house. But it’s one of his favorite things.”

Arena’s son, Galaxy assistant coach Kenny Arena, said that when he was growing up in Virginia, his father limited his TV viewing to little more than “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and Yankees games. It came as no surprise, then, that the elder Arena took his staff across the river to a Yankees game during the Galaxy’s visit to New Jersey to play the Red Bulls last season.

“It’s hard to describe when you go back to New York and go to Yankee Stadium for guys our age,” said Dave Sarachan, 62, the Galaxy’s associate head coach and an Arena assistant for much of the last 30 years. “It does give you the chills.

“I think he relives a lot of memories. We all grew up with baseball.”

With New York City FC in its second MLS season, Arena said Saturday’s game will mark the first time he’ll visit the Bronx to participate in a game rather than watch one. And the trip is to going to be all business.

New York will enter this weekend leading the Eastern Conference standings while the Galaxy, with the same number of points, is third in the Western Conference. Both need a victory next weekend to improve their chances of winning the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the MLS team with the best regular-season record. It brings home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Yankee Stadium will make that difficult, though. Although FIFA and MLS rules mandate fields must have a minimum width of 70 yards and a length of 110 yards, the challenges of squeezing a soccer pitch onto a baseball field has left it short at both ends, with one MLS coach saying the tight Yankee Stadium soccer field measures only 68 yards by 106 yards.

By way of comparison, the Galaxy’s home field at the StubHub Center is among the largest in the league at 75 yards by 120 yards.

And because the Yankees play a home game on Wednesday, the grounds crew has an uncomfortably tight 72 hours to convert the field from baseball to soccer. So the Galaxy won’t get a look at the field until they step on it Saturday afternoon.

“I don’t think it’s right,” said Arena, speaking as a soccer coach.

But then just as quickly he puts his Yankee cap back on and admits that the ghosts of Yankee Stadium make this game, for him, more special than those played in Columbus or Kansas City or Salt Lake City.

“It’s going to be a thrill to be back there. Also awkward,” he said. “Because I keep thinking that maybe Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle and all those guys wouldn’t be happy that there’s a soccer game going on there.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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