Bruce Arena is not a patient man.
This is by his own admission, reflecting a career built on strong, decisive decisions that yield immediate, successful dividends. Arena is a program builder, a culture changer, an iconic figure in American soccer’s climb toward the highest echelons of the game.
When Robert Kraft hired Arena to take over the Revolution last season, the decision revealed a deeper commitment to rebuilding one of Major League Soccer’s longest-running runs of mediocrity, tapping into not simply the most successful coach in league history, but in US national team history as well.
Arena, per usual, delivered immediately, revitalizing the Revolution to a playoff berth that while not unprecedented definitely felt different. As if it represented the first sprout of a newly planted tree, excited and expectant eyes cast their view toward 2020 and what might come next.
Of course we all know what happened. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world.
It meant a pause in the MLS season, followed by a World Cup-style tournament in a bubble, and eventually, back in August, the resumption of a schedule that has been both compressed and absent of fans.
Yet as strange and difficult as the changes have been, the Revolution are back in the playoffs again, the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference facing No. 9 seed Montreal in Friday night’s play-in game at Gillette Stadium.
Not quite the huge leap some might have wished for, but with a single-elimination format that represents another concession to the ongoing pandemic, Arena understands the value of a game like this. Every game nourishes those roots.
“I think it’s good we have a first game, because 1. we’re playing at home, which is nice even though we didn’t have a great season at home, and 2. it’s another game for us,” he said Tuesday, talking on the phone after practice. “It’s all part of the process of learning.
"I hope we can be successful. But the playoffs are the playoffs, and you have to expect the unexpected. It’s just another step for our team, to be in a position where you have to win a playoff game.”
That in itself is a tool.
“I think during the regular season everyone relaxes a little mentally and they don’t give the right kind of attention to detail,” Arena said. “This time around, now it’s win or go home. So the attention to detail is critical.
"You’ve got to get the team focused the right way. That means at times you sound like a real ass in front of your team, not letting them get away with anything, staying on top of them.
"You know from experience that it’s important over the next 48-72 hours to make sure our team is focused, prepared the right way to step on the field.”
With a league-high 32 MLS playoff victories as a coach, including two titles with D.C. United and three more with the Los Angeles Galaxy, also the most in league history, Arena speaks from experience that doesn’t just celebrate past achievement but fuels the desire to experience it again.
“I’m not sure I’m going to have butterflies, but I’m going to be excited,” he said. "This is why we work the whole year, to get in this position.
"It’s unfortunate we won’t have anyone in the stands, but that’s all part of it this year. I’ve had great experiences in this league, and I want more of those.
“I’m greedy. I’d like to have some more.”
No matter what happens Friday, Arena’s view remains long, and even if the 69-year-old coach won’t disclose how many years remain on his contract or how many more he plans on working, he is not a man to do any job halfway. He is as committed as ever, and after seeing the sparkling new training facility completed in the shadow of Gillette, as he remains optimistic that plans for a soccer-only stadium will happen, as he continues to feel the support of ownership that wants the Revolution to join in New England’s long history of championships, he is building his program his way.
“We’ve made progress, but I would say baby steps,” he said. "We still have to improve the roster, we still need to improve ourselves in the organization to compete with the top teams in the league, but we’re making progress.
"It’s been such an absolutely awkward year, and throughout the year, the Krafts have been great with support, and the league has done tremendous work to pull this off. I never thought we could have gotten a regular season and playoffs. It’s an awkward year, but one of these things where you appreciate everything.
“I enjoy doing this, so I was happy we got back to work. But it is frustrating, no question about it. I think it slowed us down a little bit because the four months we were idle really hurt our team. I think we would have made good progress. I don’t feel like we’ve ever been together in the right kind of rhythm to improve. But it’s been the same for everyone.”
The Revolution head in having beaten Montreal in the final three of their four meetings this year, Arena staying a step ahead of one of the many great players he once coached and now battles from the sidelines in Montreal’s Thierry Henry.
But again, when playoffs start, convention usually stops.
“It’ll be a real scrap,” he said. “They’ve all been really close contests.”
Now I’m the one who’s impatient. Can’t wait.