Dissecting Bruce: Inside Arena's legend, from those who know him best
A nation calls (1998-2006)
D.C. United was upset by the Chicago Fire, guided by former D.C. assistant coach Bob Bradley, in the 1998 MLS Cup final. That was it for Arena's tenure with the club; he succeeded Steve Sampson as U.S. national team coach after the Yanks finished last at the 1998 World Cup in France, and Arena began building toward the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan.
Kevin Payne: I actually tried to convince the federation that they should try to hire Bruce while I still had Bob. Frankly, we were paying Bob as much or more than some head coaches were making in the league, and a lot of the reason I did that was I always believed that Bruce would wind up being the national team coach, and I was thinking about a succession plan. I had tried to convince the federation that it should hire Bruce before it did, because we hadn't yet lost Bob to Chicago. When Bob left and then Bruce left, that was challenging, but Thomas Rongen came in and did a great job, and we won the championship again in 1999.
Jeff Agoos: Everything changed when Bruce came in. Literally everything. I came home from the World Cup in 1998 completely dejected and disappointed; disappointed in our performance, with the process, with essentially wasting four years of what could have been very special. And the first practice that we had after 1998 [with Arena], everything changed. It was a better environment. Players felt more comfortable. There weren't strict limitations on players and what they could and couldn't do on and off the field. Bruce treated everybody as a professional and allowed everybody to play within a certain framework but be themselves. I give Bruce the most credit in changing the culture.
With the national team, his job was to take this group of really talented players, throw out all the crap -- the travel, the club teams, whatever -- and just get them to gel. And he was a master of it, as good as anyone I've ever been around."
Claudio Reyna: The national team needed a different direction, and it's just part and parcel of an evolution of a national team. And Bruce was the perfect fit for where we were as a national team. He brought a new freshness and confidence to the team, and expectations instantly were that we were going to be competitive and we were not going to fear anybody. We had a more aggressive approach to our games. I think everybody could see that, and it was very welcome. What I really liked was that we focused on the U.S. and what we could do and let other teams worry about our qualities, our speed, our strengths, our togetherness, our creativity. The whole mindset of the team changed.
I think he also did a good job in terms of turning over the team and bringing in new players, introducing new players into the squad. Before that it felt like a lot of the same players always played, regardless of performances, and Bruce threw that right out the window. Guys who didn't play well wouldn't play or sometimes wouldn't be called back into camps.
Landon Donovan: With the national team, his job was to take this group of really talented players, throw out all the crap -- the travel, the club teams, whatever -- and just get them to gel. And he was a master of it, as good as anyone I've ever been around. He gave us all respect as men, he let us [breathe] off the field -- he said, “If you guys want to go to dinner, do whatever you want, go do it. When you come to train, come to train.”
Dan Flynn: Bruce had a way to push the [U.S. Soccer] organization. I say that in a super-positive way. When we qualified for '02, I sat with him in the locker room at Foxboro, the old stadium, and he was literally outlining what we need to do, and he was pushing. I'll never forget him saying, “Dan, we've got to work with the league and get this group of players, whatever group we end up with, for an extended period of time.” And I said that might be really difficult, that they're trying to build the league, and he said, “No, I understand that. This is it. Of all the things we can do, this is it.” He prioritized it. We called [MLS deputy commissioner] Ivan Gazidis, and Bruce pushed it. He pushed harder and faster, and from a management point of view, during that preparation for 2002, I think we grew as an organization, and I have to give Bruce a great deal of credit. He pushed the organization, and it was like, “You know what? If he's making that team better, we've got to be better supporting it.”
The U.S., with a dynamic side featuring youngsters Landon Donovan, John O'Brien and DaMarcus Beasley, stunned Portugal in its opener of the 2002 World Cup, beat Mexico in the round of 16, and narrowly lost in the quarterfinals to Germany after Torsten Frings got away with a hand ball on the goal line.
Gregg Berhalter: Bruce never wavered in his confidence in the team, and I think that's an important concept, because, obviously, the group was a difficult group and we hit teams head on. We weren't afraid of teams, and he gave us that confidence.
Dave Sarachan: You look at that roster, many of those players had played for Bruce or me already, at some point or another. Guys like Gregg Berhalter, these East Coast guys, we either had them when they were youth players or in college. So he trusted certain players that he coached, and the blend between veterans and youth in that team was almost a perfect storm. We had Beasley and Landon and John O'Brien. And you've got veterans like Pope, Llamosa, Jeff Agoos. That goalkeeping core of Friedel and Keller was incredible. Eddie Lewis. It was the perfect blend.
The 2006 World Cup didn't go so well. The Americans were pounded by the Czech Republic in their opener, then they held eventual champion Italy to a draw, then lost a controversial clash against Ghana and went out. Arena was relieved of his duties after the tournament.
This is going to sound very strange, but one of the reasons '06 looked as bad as some people have described it is because of Bruce, but in a good way. He set the bar very very high in '02."
Donovan: Expectations were, I think, unmanageable for any coach in any situation, because, one, we were not accustomed to playing as the favorite, so we had always been underdogs in almost every game we'd played at that level. Two, everybody who thought they were experts all of a sudden, because they'd watched the 2002 World Cup, were saying how great we were, and they had no idea. These stupid FIFA rankings had us ranked whatever, fourth or fifth? We went into it, I think, with a lot to lose and very little to gain.
Now, that being said, the team didn't play well. I didn't play well. I actually think, on balance, Bruce did a very good job to get us from an embarrassing opening game to what for me was probably the best World Cup game I ever played in, against Italy. Not for me, personally, but the best game I was a part of. And that kind of effort, to get something out of that game -- we were the only team to get a point off of Italy in the whole World Cup -- was pretty special. And the Ghana game was a little unfortunate. We didn't play well enough, and that was it. For him to get criticism for that was pretty unfair.
Flynn: This is going to sound very strange, but one of the reasons '06 looked as bad as some people have described it is because of Bruce, but in a good way. He set the bar very very high in '02. And I don't only mean quarterfinals. I think the way we competed, the way we carried ourselves, all of that. He set the bar so darn high that I think the disappointment was probably steeper than it warranted, in some respects. It wasn't too long before that if we qualified, we were doing cartwheels. And I think the mindshift there, the culture shift, was driven a lot by the results in '02.
Reyna: Bruce did a really good job in terms of getting the team the respect that it wanted and deserved, and at the same time, because of the national team playing well, you had a lot of players getting the opportunity to move to good clubs, to earn more money, to get commercial deals. Sometimes players forget the success of a team is what brings these opportunities. On the backs of those World Cups and those performances, you had so many different players that moved to a new club or launched a European career, and I think a lot of players would give Bruce so much credit for what they did for their careers.