By Clemente Lisi – FOXBOROUGH, MA (May 15, 2023) US Soccer Players – New England is one of several MLS teams that have achieved great success over the past few years. While it’s easy to start that discussion with the teams that have won MLS Cups, the Revolution were the ones setting a new regular season standard in 2021. Despite a 2-1 road defeat this past Saturday, the Revolution remains in 1st-place in the Eastern Conference, tied with Cincinnati FC, with 24 points.
New England coach Bruce Arena is widely regarded as one of the greatest in American soccer history, a career highlighted by leading the USMNT to a World Cup quarterfinal appearance in 2002 along with winning five NCAA titles with Virginia and five MLS Cups.
In a league with so many talented American coaches, the 71-year-old remains the bar for success. Arena has won MLS Coach of the Year four times (in 1997 with DC United, 2009 and 2011 with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and 2021 with the Revolution) and entered the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010. A master tactician capable of building team chemistry and developing talent, Arena has put together another squad in pursuit of an MLS Cup.
But Arena can be blunt when his team does not perform well. After a 1-0 upset last Tuesday by USL side Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the US Open Cup, Arena told reporters: “I don’t think our forwards played very well tonight.”
Focus on quality over quantity
True to the Arena style, the Revs are a team that applies a high press to an opponent’s build-up. They initially press with the two center forwards, while the midfielders move from left to right in order to block passes through the middle of the field. This forces opponents to play wide or long, often resulting in turnovers.
Tactically, Arena is also known for his ability to adapt to different situations. He has favored a 4-2-3-1 lineup in recent years with the Revs, but has switched to a 4-3-3 depending on the opponent. Arena has used these formations to great effect with the Revs since arriving in 2019.
“It’s a team that’s very characteristic of the way Bruce works,” Toronto FC coach Bob Bradley said of this season’s Revolution. Bradley, a former assistant under Arena at the University of Virginia, added, “It is well put together. They are solid in everything that they do. They are athletic and they create chances.”
Arena is also a pragmatist. When he coached the USMNT, he used a 3-5-2 in that massive 2-0 win against Mexico at the 2002 World Cup. When he managed the US a second time in 2017, Arena used a 3-4-3.
The one through-line is that Arena’s teams often fail to get the majority of possession or shots on goal. That’s because Arena’s system relies heavily on accuracy and carving out quality chances in the offensive third. They typically win when they do that.
New England’s team that won the 2021 Supporters’ Shield ranked 14th out of 27 when it came to pass accuracy at 81.6% during the regular season. Regarding total scoring attempts and accurate shooting percentage, the Revs that year ranked fourth and sixth, respectively.
Building a winning culture
One of the main reasons for Arena’s longevity goes beyond the Xs and Os. It is his ability to build cohesive teams and create a winning culture that defines Arena’s coaching philosophy. He is known for his strong leadership skills, attention to detail, and ability to motivate players to perform at their best.
Former Galaxy striker Mike Magee agreed that was the reason why Arena’s teams have been successful. “He, better than anyone, recognizes winners,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2021. “He surrounds himself with the best people then kind of lets them do their thing. He demands you be a good person, a good teammate and understand your role. That makes it really simple. If you can’t do that, he kindly shows you the door.”
Arena’s DC United captured the first MLS Cup in 1996, repeating a year later. In his years as Galaxy coach and general manager, he managed a star-studded roster to back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012, then another in 2014.
Asked recently by listeners to his State of the Union podcast to name the best coach in USMNT history, host and former US defender Alexi Lalas named Arena for his ability to succeed at “man management” throughout his career and particularly during the 2002 World Cup. “We all know what Bruce Arena has done – it’s not just about the World Cup,” Lalas said. “But ultimately, let’s be honest, it’s what you’re judged on for the most part.”
Another factor to Arena’s success has been his ability to develop players. He has a proven track record of identifying and nurturing talent, which is key to being successful in MLS. Many of the players he has coached, for example, have gone on to have successful careers at the club and international levels. They included Gregg Berhalter, who coached the US at last year’s World Cup, and Steve Cherundolo at LAFC.
Arena continues to develop talent in New England. The Revs made club history on March 25 by starting three players 18 or younger for the first time in a 2-1 win against DC United. Academy players Esmir Bajraktarevic and Jack Panayotou, both 18, and Noel Buck, 17, all started that day.
“With these guys playing like this, it’s going to push everyone on the team to up our level in training, and it’s going to make it harder on Bruce to decide on who is in the starting lineup, who is on the bench,” Revs defender DeJuan Jones told MLSSoccer.com. “So, great performance from all three of them … I’m looking forward to more from them.”
Arena has also praised the trio, especially Bajraktarevic for his ability to adapt to the speed of MLS. “Any young player, at any level and any sport, as you advance the game becomes faster and more physical,” Arena told reporters recently. “You’ve got to adjust to that. It’s what separates the men from the boys.”
But Arena also likes to get philosophical when it comes to young talent. After all, he’s seen it before. “When they get it right, they make it. When they don’t get it right, they fail,” he said. “That’s all part of the development of young players.”
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of the new book “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.”
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Photo by the New England Revolution