Commentary: Bruce Arena’s ugly exit from MLS shouldn’t tarnish his immense legacy

Bruce Arena watches from the sideline while coaching the U.S. men's national team during a World Cup qualifying match.
Bruce Arena watches from the sideline while coaching the U.S. men’s national team during a World Cup qualifying match in 2017.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
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Bruce Arena deserved to leave soccer on his own terms rather than be forced out before he was ready to leave. He deserved to go out with a ticker-tape parade rather than be shunted aside under a cloud of doubt and suspicion that raises more questions than answers.

That didn’t happen.

Instead Arena, the most successful men’s coach in U.S. Soccer history, resigned his positions with the New England Revolution late Saturday, six weeks after he was placed on administrative leave by MLS due to “allegations that he made insensitive and inappropriate remarks.”

What the allegations are and just how insensitive and inappropriate they were, we don’t know. Neither the league, the club, the unnamed accusers nor Arena have shared any details. Arena offered something of a mea culpa late Saturday night just the same.

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Nov. 21, 2021

“After much soul searching, I have decided to resign my position as head coach and sporting director of the New England Revolution,” Arena said in a statement. “The investigation has been a hard and difficult process for me and my family.


“I know that I have made some mistakes and moving forward I plan to spend some time reflecting on this situation and taking corrective steps to address what has transpired. And while this has not been an easy decision, I am confident that it is in the best interest of both the New England Revolution organization and my family that we part ways at this time.”

In a text message exchange with The Times Sunday, Arena declined to say more. So did some of Arena’s confidants, wary that should the MLS release the results of its investigation into l’affaire Arena, it could prove embarrassing.

But others who know the Hall of Fame coach well weren’t waiting.

“I don’t need to wait for the results of any report,” Mike Magee, a former league MVP who won two MLS Cup titles with Arena in Los Angeles, wrote on social media. “Bruce Arena is one of the most loyal, caring humans [and coach] I’ve ever met. In a world where most don’t give a s— about anyone anymore, this man cares.”

Landon Donovan holds up the MLS Cup while Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, David Beckham and teammates celebrate beside him
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, center; Landon Donovan, holding the MLS Cup; David Beckham, front left, and more Galaxy players celebrate after winning the league championship on Dec. 1, 2012, in Carson.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“He is the most successful coach in the history of MLS,” said Tim Leiweke who, as president of AEG, brought Arena out of retirement to the Galaxy, where he won three league titles. “As none of use know what happened in New England, I can only judge Bruce on what I know.”

“I’m a Bruce guy,” added Dave Sarachan, Arena’s assistant in the 2002 World Cup and on all three MLS Cup winners with the Galaxy. “The whole thing is sad. His body of work and the people in his corner says it all.”

Arena, 71, led Virginia to five NCAA titles before jumping to D.C. United for the inaugural MLS season in 1996. In his first three years, Arena won two league titles, a Supporters’ Shield, the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League title. It remains the most successful three-year stretch for a coach in MLS history.


Arena would go on to become the winningest coach in league history, capturing three more MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields with the Galaxy.

But his greatest success may have come with the U.S. national team. Arena is the only coach to take the U.S. men to two World Cups, reaching the quarterfinals in 2002, the best performance by an American team in the modern era. He came with the width of a goalpost of taking the team to a third World Cup in 2018 after replacing Jurgen Klinsmann as coach two games into the 10-game qualifying tournament. His 81 wins in two stints with the USWMT is 26 more than anyone else.

Coach Bruce Arena talks to the U.S. men's national soccer team members during a 2017 practice in Carson
Coach Bruce Arena, center, talks to the U.S. men’s national soccer team in 2017 in Carson.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

For an encore he came out of retirement a third time to take over the Revolution midway through the 2019 season, guiding a team that hadn’t qualified for the playoffs in three years to three straight postseason appearances and its first Supporters’ Shield.

Yet for all his winning Arena is notoriously difficult to work for. He has a big personality and can be blunt, demanding and acerbic, more likely to bury his assistant coaches with belittling criticism than to share with them the credit for his success.

“Bruce,” one former assistant one told me “is an a—,” an assessment I heard from others in less flamboyant language.


And while that may be true, Arena nonetheless inspired loyalty — and returned that in spades with assistants, including Sarachan, Richie Williams, Curt Onalfo and Pat Noonan. They followed Arena to multiple jobs. Players did, too. Exactly how and when it all went off the rails remains hidden in the findings of an MLS investigation the league said “confirmed” certain allegations.

Arena was placed on administrative leave on July 30 and The Athletic reported during the weekend that said the subsequent MLS probe, conducted by the Los Angeles law firm Proskauer Rose, centered around comments Arena made to his staff behind closed doors. Relying on eight unnamed sources the story said Williams, who has replaced Arena as New England’s manager, was responsible for some of the complaints. Williams, who has played and coached for Arena at six stops during his career, and Onalfo, who was with Arena with D.C. United, the Galaxy, New England and the national team, reportedly clashed with Arena over the Revolution’s sporting direction, tactics and player signings repeatedly over the last two seasons, The Athletic said.

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Given the league’s penchant for opaqueness over transparency, we may never know exactly who said what when.

“It’s crazy how the winningest coach in MLS and USMNT history goes MIA for over a month and no transparency from the league when he ‘resigns’,” said Herculez Gomez, a former MLS and national player turned soccer commentator. “It’s a bad look.”

Perhaps the details are worse than we might imagine. But in the meantime, we do know what Arena meant to the game he dedicated his life too, breathing life into the nascent MLS and taking a national team with little tradition of accomplishment to the final eight of a World Cup.

And for that he deserved to leave to cheers not suspicion, to praise rather than doubt.