Bruce Arena doesn’t know Bill Belichick personally, and in point of fact, has never actually met the man. So when it comes to admiring Belichick’s body of work, Arena sounds pretty much the same as the rest of the football fans who know the Patriots coach only by his sterling résumé.
“I certainly appreciate the fact that he’s obviously, arguably the finest football coach in the history of the NFL,” Arena said Monday. “It’s amazing to watch his team, even last year in a year where they weren’t at their best, to see the coaching. And this year’s been absolutely spectacular.”
Then Arena added one more thought. And with it, he reminded the sports world that when it comes to understanding coaching greatness, he’s a whole lot more like Belichick than he is like the rest of us.
“It’s an honor to be in the same building with him at times,” Arena said.
If Gillette Stadium walls could talk, what a story they might tell. Indeed, the building plays host to two of the most accomplished, successful, occasionally irascible coaches in the history of American men’s team sports. And while there is no surprise, nor argument, that Belichick gets the lion’s share of the spotlight, working as he does in the uber-popular NFL, surging as he is toward a banger of a “Monday Night Football” clash in Buffalo, Arena is on the cusp of matching one of Belichick’s most impressive statistics.
As he takes his Revolution into their first game of the postseason Tuesday night against New York City FC, Arena is eyeing a sixth MLS Cup, which would tie him with Belichick for most titles by an active coach in US pro team sports.
But the truth of Arena’s career is that it needs no comparison to anyone else to define his greatness. He is in a class by himself, changing the face of American soccer at every conceivable level. He was the best in the college game when he worked at Virginia. He’s the best national team coach we’ve ever had, with two World Cup appearances. He’s the best in the MLS from his days in Washington, D.C., to the Los Angeles Galaxy and now, in New England.
What he’s done with the Revolution might be the most impressive of all, a stunning rebuild that began the moment Robert and Jonathan Kraft convinced him to take over their long-suffering franchise, tasking him not simply with fixing the tactics on the field but with rebuilding the roster from the front office.
That was back in May 2019, when the team was 3-8-4. Now they begin a third consecutive playoff run, in front of the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year (Matt Turner), behind the favorite for league MVP (Carles Gil), and owners of their first Supporters’ Shield (won with a league-record 73 points). All of it under the tutelage of the newly named MLS Coach of the Year, who set yet another record with that award, the first to win it four times and the only to do it with three clubs.
“He’s obviously one of, or I’d say the best American manager that we’ve seen and produced in this country,” veteran midfielder Tommy McNamara said recently. “His consistency, what he’s been able to achieve here in such a short time, I’ve really enjoyed playing for him.
“He understands players’ strengths and weaknesses and asks players to do things they are good at and puts them in positions to succeed on the field. He has so much experience, managed so many groups and so many people, he’s very good at managing individually and collectively, things off the field, the mentality and attitude of the group, holding us accountable.
“It’s been a pleasure to play for him so far. I think everyone has shown that with how they’ve responded.”
Though he acknowledged Monday he has softened over the years, that at 70, he is probably “more patient” than he was in his younger days, Arena hasn’t quite turned into Ted Lasso. It wasn’t that long ago he was reminding us of the “[expletive] show” he took over with the Revolution, a comment that drew a laugh out of Alexi Lalas, an original Revolution player, former national team member, and current Fox analyst.
“I do think it was a little unnecessary to be honest and a little revisionist,” Lalas said. “It doesn’t take away anything from the amount of credit and praise for where he has taken this team, but it’s not as if he wiped out everything that was there. He did a good job of what I do think was the bones of a successful team and putting real meat on it.
“But I would expect nothing less from Bruce Arena. It takes an egomaniac to know one.”
I asked Arena how, if at all, he has changed over the years.
“Maybe 30 years ago I knew everything, today I realize I don’t,” he said. “That’s a big change for sure. I have changed. I think I’m a little bit more patient than I was in the past. I’ve enjoyed coaching every bit of the way. It’s been a great experience for me.”
Even better for those in his charge.
“He is a legendary coach and a legendary manager of soccer players at all levels. I love him for his intellect and his wit,” Lalas said. “He is no-nonsense. I think he understands what buttons to push, and he does not suffer fools.”
Sounds a lot like someone else in the building over there in Foxborough. Perhaps they could meet each other.