Bruce Arena: US soccer’s Alex Ferguson approaches a murky end | Bruce Arena

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The most successful coach in the history of MLS and the US men’s national team must beg the league commissioner for permission if he ever wants to return to a job in MLS. And yet, six weeks after Bruce Arena was placed on leave and a couple of days after he resigned as New England Revolution head coach and sporting director, it’s still unclear precisely what he did to deserve such a severe sanction.

Allegations of inappropriate comments were followed by a virtual omerta from the club, the league and Arena himself, resulting in a level of transparency during the disciplinary process that’s in inverse proportion to his status in the American game.

A giant of the sport in the US, coaching a title contender in the middle of the season, has been ousted in what look like career-ending circumstances. But what should feel momentous mainly seems mysterious.

A news vacuum engulfed the story after it was announced on 1 August that Arena was on administrative leave pending a league review into allegations of “insensitive and inappropriate remarks”. Substantial additional details did not emerge from official channels.

Finally, just as their match against Minnesota United ended last Saturday night, the Revolution issued a terse statement saying they had accepted Arena’s resignation. They then cancelled their postgame press conference, The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer reported, “in light of the major news”. In other words, the team scrapped a news conference because there was news.

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An MLS statement said the investigation confirmed “certain of these allegations”, indicating it found that Arena did not “conduct [himself] appropriately in the workplace”, making comments that did not foster a “safe and welcoming work environment”.

When US Soccer hired a law firm to investigate a domestic violence incident involving USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, the federation published the 36-page report. Findings from two investigations into widespread misconduct in the NWSL were made public last year. So far from MLS we have two paragraphs of muted corporate-speak disclosing what amounts to an indefinite suspension for a coach who has been a monumental presence in the American soccer landscape since the inception of MLS in 1996.

Arena himself said, in an atypically contrite statement: “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.” Spokespeople for the Revolution and MLS did not respond to requests for comment.

Arena is the American equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson due to his long track record of success, overbearing and unrepentant character, the loyalty he inspires from players and his antagonistic relationships with officials and the media. While Ferguson managed Manchester United for 27 years before retiring on his own terms aged 71, Arena, who turns 72 later this month, coached DC United, the New York Red Bulls, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Revolution and had two spells in charge of the USMNT.

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While Ferguson was often apoplectic, Arena tended to be sarcastic – so caustic that the quotes from some of his press conferences could corrode a notepad. He does not suffer fools gladly. (His definition of a fool appeared to be: anyone who doubts, disagrees with or rigorously questions Bruce Arena.)

Now a man who was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame back in 2010 can’t even lay out the cones at an MLS training session unless commissioner Don Garber says so. That is a stinging humiliation, and the two have repeatedly clashed down the years, with Garber fining and suspending Arena for critical comments and lamenting that he preferred to be an antagonist rather than an ambassador.

“Bruce has the opportunity to be our Tom Landry, our Pat Riley, and he continually puts himself in a position where he acts unprofessionally and he emotionally misstates the facts,” Garber told in 2014.

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Like Ferguson, Arena faithfully defended his players from media criticism and official punishments, even when Nigel de Jong tackled like, well, Nigel de Jong. A “them against us” mentality seemed to be a sincerely held belief as well as a shrewd morale-boosting tactic.

A former Revolution player and current assistant coach, Shalrie Joseph, lauded Arena on social media last week, writing: “Thank you for being the man you are. I appreciate every lesson and early morning conversations we used to have… love you big guy.”

But the allegations include complaints by Richie Williams, a 53-year-old assistant coach who joined Arena’s staff in 2019, according to The Athletic. Their long association began when Arena coached Williams at the University of Virginia, where Arena won five national titles over 18 seasons. Arena then signed Williams for DC United in 1996 and hired him as an assistant at the New York Red Bulls a decade later, also bringing him into the USMNT as a player and a coach. Williams has been interim coach since Arena was placed on leave.

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Arena has expressed retrograde views. In 2013 he implicitly criticised then-US head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s recruitment of dual-nationals, telling ESPN, “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.” (He later said that passion matters more than birthplace.) Old-fashioned or not, he has clearly adapted – the top MLS coach in the mid-90s was still one of the best in a vastly-transformed competition in 2023. His exit robs American soccer of a figure who has bridged generations and made the most of MLS’s pathway to professionalism and increasingly generous rewards.

Born in New York, and a goalkeeper who was briefly on the books of the New York Cosmos, he won his solitary cap for the US while coaching his primary sport, lacrosse, at Cornell University and teaching business management in a junior high school in 1973. He was also called up for another match but was unable to get the time off work.

By 2017, the sport had developed so much that Arena was paid nearly $1.3m for less than 10 months of work coaching the US before resigning after the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup. Following the debacle he co-wrote a book on the state of American soccer titled What’s Wrong with US?

Back-to-back MLS titles with DC United in 1996 and 1997, the league’s debut seasons, led to his first stint in charge of the national team. Arena coached the US from 1998 to 2006, taking them to two World Cups. Reaching the quarter-finals in 2002 is the nation’s best achievement in the modern era and his 81 victories from 148 games is far ahead of the runner-up, Klinsmann, who won 55 of 98 matches.

Arena then had a short and fruitless spell in New York before joining the Galaxy, coaching David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan and winning MLS Cup three times in four seasons. He returned to the USMNT in 2016, replacing Klinsmann two fixtures into the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, but resigned when a shocking loss to Trinidad & Tobago saw the team fail to reach the finals for the first time since 1986.

Named New England head coach and sporting director in May 2019, replacing Brad Friedel, his arrival sparked a dramatic uptick in results. The Revolution reached the Eastern Conference final the following year and claimed the Supporters Shield for the first time in 2021, setting an MLS points record but bowing out of the playoffs in the Conference semi-finals on penalties to eventual MLS Cup winners New York City FC.

A woeful 2022 saw the Revolution miss out on the playoffs but the team rebounded and are presently second in the Eastern Conference and virtually certain to make the playoffs.

Perhaps Arena’s defenestration signals a cultural shift for the men’s game in the US: that it is entering an era when unacceptable behaviour is not ignored or excused on the basis of reputation and results, and conduct that would not be tolerated in an office or factory is no longer accepted at a stadium or training ground. That would be progress. But a lack of candour from those involved means that the career of one of American soccer’s most visible and forthright personalities appears to be concluding in a murk of reticence and obscurity.

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