Dissecting Bruce: Inside Arena's legend, from those who know him best

Who is Bruce Arena? A lot of people think they know, but those closest to him spoke with FourFourTwo's Scott French to set the record straight.

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Bruce Arena has built three of American soccer's greatest dynasties, shepherded our national team to its greatest successes, and mentored so many of our best coaches and most vital players in a career that's spanned four decades.

He's won championships nearly everywhere he's been -- five at the University of Virginia, two with D.C. United, three with the LA Galaxy -- while creating a culture that has guided the United States through four World Cups and continues to be built upon today.

Those who have followed directly in his wake include Swansea City boss Bob Bradley, his assistant at UVa and with D.C. and the 1996 Olympic team, and four current or former MLS head coaches: D.C. United's Ben Olsen, Columbus Crew's Gregg Berhalter, plus former Chicago Fire coach Dave Sarachan and former Kansas City/D.C. manager Curt Onalfo, both of whom are on his Galaxy staff.

Bruce is a builder. He's built teams, he's built organizations, he's built the sport. I think he's truly one of the Mount Rushmore caricatures that would go up on the mountain."

- Jeff Agoos, MLS VP of Competition

Arena has a reputation of being an arrogant bastard -- he's celebrated for his dry, sarcastic wit, just not always by its targets -- but those who have played or worked with him largely worship the man, his methods and, yes, his ability to carve you up with a few well-chosen phrases.

He's generally considered the greatest coach this country has produced -- Bradley seems his only competition -- and there's plenty of evidence in all those trophies, in the Yanks' 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run and their dominance over Mexico during his eight-year tenure with the national team. It's all so impressive, but what makes him tick, on and off the field?

To find out, we asked some pivotal figures from Arena's career -- those who have played for him or worked with him -- for a little insight. (For biographies of who we spoke with, click here.)

The Godfather

Who is the real Bruce Arena? And what does he get that other coaches don't?

Dave Sarachan: I get this question 50 times a year: What is Bruce so good at? Why is Bruce so successful? I can't pigeonhole it into one thing, but I would broaden that by saying he has good instincts and his experience tells him a lot. Like all good coaches, he thinks about the game often, he's detailed -- sometimes it's ridiculous how much of the overkill there is -- and that's kind of what I would say about his coaching. Yes, systems, tactics, game management, he’s very good. But his instincts and his sense of what it takes to build a team and put the pieces together maybe puts him a little bit at the level that others may not be at.

Gregg Berhalter: It's about winning. If most coaches were half as successful as Bruce, they'd be doing a good job.

Working with Bruce is a life lesson in humility."

- Michael Kammarman, USMNT press officer

George Gelnovatch: Bruce is persuasive. By the time you're done with a conversation, he could talk you into or convince you of anything. He's very, very persuasive. He's got that Long Island accent, and he's a persuasive and intelligent and articulate guy. I think people realize that, but it's probably more so than people realize. I think that's part of his success.

Sarachan: Mo Johnston called him “The Godfather,” and I think that's great. In a group setting, if he's not the lead, he's not going to be in that group. That's his personality.

Michael Kammarman: Working with Bruce is a life lesson in humility.

Sarachan: When he puts his guard down, he's got a good sense of humor and he keeps it light. But he has a hard time putting his guard down. I don't have an answer for that. That goes back to Sigmund Freud days, let them analyze why. He's a guy that needs to have control.

Sunil Gulati: Bruce has a great sense of humor. Sometimes it can be very cutting, and if you're the target of that, it's less fun, but he's great to be with and have a laugh with.

Jeff Agoos: Bruce always thinks he knows everything, and [his wife] Phyllis tells everyone that Bruce has a doctorate in Knowology. Now whether he believes that or not, who knows.

Curt Onalfo: He's got a great personality. He's very funny. It's a really great balance of knowing when you can enjoy yourself and have fun, and then when it's business, it's business. He always made the environment as a player one in which you thrive, because it's competitive, but at the same time you're enjoying yourself. You're winning, but you can still have a laugh.

Kenny Arena: I never played for him. He firmly believed in me figuring out my own path. He would never say no to me if I wanted to go out and kick the ball, play basketball, lacrosse. He would never say no. He would always come out with me. But he would come out just to play. He wouldn't tell me what to do. He wouldn't, like, say, “Let's go out there and kick the ball.” It had to come from me.

Dan Flynn: He's not a horn-tootin' kind of guy. He just goes out and does his job. Look, he's got strong opinions. But, generally speaking, I don't know Bruce to ever toot his horn or make a statement that's about him as much as it's about trying to make the team better, the team environment better. You may not like what he says, but he gets it off his chest and he says what he believes. You don't have to agree with him, and he's OK if you don't agree with him, but he's comfortable in his shoes taking the leadership position. I think that's recognized by people, and I think people like to be around leaders, and players respond to that as well.


Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Arena's gruff manner, marked by caustic sarcasm and pointed barbs for friend and foe alike, is legendary. He's a New Yorker -- born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island -- so whaddya expect? Some love it. Some don't.

Michael Kammarman: He's hilarious. Makes fun of everybody, himself included. He's got so many stories to tell and loves the banter, so it doesn't feel like, “Oh, great, here's Bruce taking over.” It can be a blast. When you're sitting around a table with Bruce, he's definitely holding court, but everybody is having fun.

Kenny Arena: He's sharp, obnoxious, vulgar. Good sense of humor. He likes to make fun of people.

Dan Flynn: He's got a great sense of humor. He likes to dish it out a little bit, but I'll tell you what, you can give it back to him, and he'll smile and laugh. I think he probably likes giving it out a little more than taking it, but if he's not saying anything to you, I'm not sure he likes you too much. When he gives you a little stick and a little poke here and there, that's how he engages you.

Kammarman: For sure, he enjoys the back and forth. But I think a lot of people have learned, if there's forth and no back, you're going to have a really hard time. You've got to be able to stick up for yourself with Bruce, and if you do, he respects that.

Sunil Gulati: He's got a lot of stories, and like many people, over time those stories get better because they veer further and further from the actual occurrence.

Dave Sarachan: He's hysterical on the golf course. It's nonstop talking. He will do what he can to needle you, just needle you and needle you, just to derail you just enough.

Gulati: You'll be on your backswing on the first tee, and Bruce will be doing commentary. Which is throwing you off your game.

Continue: Arena's a players' coach