Coaching at international soccer’s top levels is often a vagabond existence.
Three of the last four men to lead the U.S. team, for example, have coached multiple national teams. And Bora Milutinovic, the man who preceded the quartet, has been to more countries than FedEx.
Then there is Bruce Arena, whose coaching resume includes less international experience than Sarah Palin’s.
“I had an interest after the 2006 World Cup, and U.S. soccer made it very difficult for me,” says Arena, who once hoped to parlay his U.S. coaching job and World Cup success into a job in England or Scotland. “That would have been the time I would have taken a leap.”
Turns out the United Kingdom’s loss has been the Galaxy’s gain, because Arena has histeam in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final for the third season in a row. And by staying put, Arena has perhaps become more closely linked to U.S. soccer than any other coach in a generation.
“And I’m proud of that,” Arena says, lounging after practice on an overstuffed sofa in the Galaxy’s coaching office as a UEFA Championship League game plays unnoticed on a TV in the corner. “I’m a great believer in the future of the game in this country. It has to be led by Americans.
“Whether that’s a legacy or not, I’ll leave that to others.”
There’s undeniably a pattern there, however.
Arena coached for 23 years at the college level at a time when many schools were building their teams around international players. But Arena resisted the temptation. And that hasn’t changed since he got to the professional ranks.
In the Galaxy’s two-leg playoff series against New York, the Red Bulls started nine foreign-born players, three times as many as Arena used. The Galaxy won both games.
“It’s no secret that I’m still a believer in American players,” he says. “We have a large number of American players that play here. Some of the teams in this league have very few. I think that’s foolish.
“There has to be the right balance. This league is here to help develop the game in this country. And it’s got to be developed with American players and American coaches. And that’s always been my philosophy.”
That’s why Arena made former U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter a Galaxy player-coach this season, allowing Berhalter to build the skills he’ll need to develop the U.S. game in his own way. It’s partly why he traded for young forward Mike Magee and helped mold twentysomething defenders Sean Franklin and Omar Gonzalez.
“It’s awesome playing for him,” says Magee, who also played under Arena for two seasons in New York. “I’ve known Bruce for a long time. … He kind of gives you confidence when you need it and then he puts you back in place when you need a reality check.
“As a competitor I believe I could play well in any circumstance. But it’s a hell of a lot easier when you’re playing for a guy that believes in you and puts you in the best situation to succeed.”
It only works when Arena’s teams win, though — and he has won at every level, from the five NCAA titles he won at the University of Virginia, to the eight years with the U.S. team — in which he won more games than any other U.S. men’s national team coach — to MLS, where he won championships in the league’s first two seasons.
And in his three full years in Los Angeles, the Galaxy has won more games than any other team in the league. What Arena’s (almost) all-American boys haven’t won yet is an MLS Cup.
That’s something he has a chance to correct over the next two weeks.
If the Galaxy beats Real Salt Lake on Sunday in the Western Conference final at the Home Depot Center, it will advance to the MLS Cup final Nov. 20, also in Carson, where the Galaxy has yet to lose in 22 games this season.
“There’s something to accomplish here,” says Arena, 60, who last year was inducted into the national soccer Hall of Fame. “Whether you’re an athlete, a player or a coach, if you’re not motivated and you don’t set goals for yourself, you stop being successful.
“I want to help produce the best team we can possibly produce. That’s my responsibility. I grew up where you had to have a value system,” the New York native continues. “You worked hard, you had values. So if I have a job and if there’s expectations on how I’m supposed to do that job, I’m going to do it.”
And he’s proven perfectly content to do it all at home.