Bruce Arena stalks the perimeter of the Revolution training field, often checking the timer in his left hand and the watch on his left wrist, making sure this practice moves with purpose and pace. His shouted instructions punch their way into the late-summer sunshine, staccato bursts whose pugilistic edge seems even heavier thanks to the New York tinge that decades of a peripatetic coaching life cannot rob from his voice.
With a reminder that the team will be off the following day, the coach asks for two more minutes of this current, and final, drill.
The players happily comply.
Why wouldn’t they?
This is Bruce Arena, the most decorated coach in American soccer history, the man with a trail of championships on his résumé and a world of experience in his head. Two more minutes? The majority of these players remain on the field for voluntary extra work too, providing small yet compelling evidence as to how much they have bought into Arena’s New England soccer renaissance.
Hired in May by team president Brian Bilello with the backing of owners Robert Kraft and family, Arena set out to fix years of dysfunction that had made the Revolution one of the longest-struggling franchises in the 24-year history of Major League Soccer.
Within weeks, he has taken a cellar-dwelling, aimless team and put it on the brink of the playoffs, a 7-1-4 record on his watch that makes the 2-8-2 mark through May 8 feel like a distant memory. With an impact both immediate and impressive, the 67-year-old soccer lifer is conducting one of the best stories of the New England summer, positioning himself to finally bring the Revolution into the true Boston sports fold.
“They’re winners,” Arena says later, over salads at Tavolino at nearby Patriot Place. “How do I know? I watched the Red Sox beat the Yankees, I follow basketball, hockey, it’s all there. And I happen to be working for owners who own the most successful franchise in the history of the NFL. There’s something there.”
And now he’s here, drawn by that very tradition of winning, driven to make the Revolution worthy members of the local landscape.
Make no mistake: Arena is a winner too. Five MLS titles with two different franchises in D.C. and Los Angeles, five NCAA titles (including four in a row) at Virginia, and a winning tenure with the US national team that includes a stirring run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals separate him from the small pack of influencers on a sport that demands its leaders don’t simply coach the game, but grow it too.
By all rights, he could have been done, legacy secure, living happily in California, where his son Kenny is an assistant to his close friend and fellow coaching icon Bob Bradley for Los Angeles FC. He had plenty of overtures elsewhere, but then the Revolution reached out, and Arena was intrigued. His brain started churning, listening to an offer to basically do everything from the front office to the field.
How many more chances like this would he get? How much longer should he listen to the inner voice insisting he was ready to retire to the golf course? How much could it mean to burnish an already amazing résumé with one more challenging turnaround? Ultimately, he opted for one more swing at a job he’s proven over and over again he’s one of the best ever to do.
“It was Kenny who said it to me, ‘You’ve got to do it. That’s what you do,’ ” Arena says. “I think when you coach your whole career, once you start doing it, you’re right back in it right away. You enjoy it. I enjoy this. I don’t necessarily enjoy having to move again and all that crap, but this is what I do.”
How he does it is difficult to quantify, but much of it is rooted in an honest, direct, and respectful approach with players and an uncanny ability to work with the skill set they have rather than force a prescribed framework over them. Those tenets make it clear why he wasn’t quick to take the coaching reins right away, needing some time to evaluate not only what was happening on the field, but what the franchise-wide efforts were like off it too.
But once he dipped his toe in the pool, he knew he’d be better off jumping in.
“I sensed that it was a group of players that wanted to be coached,” he says. “I think they were better than they had played.”
The results have proven him right, and with an enormous game this Saturday against fellow playoff hopeful Toronto FC, the playoff picture will soon become clearer. But given what expectations were when he arrived — “I came in thinking this season, don’t even worry about it, it was done,” he admits — the excitement is growing for the future as well as the present. The team’s new training facility is set to open within weeks, complete with new offices, two fields (one heated), and a community dining room with one large team table.
The real prize is more than a few years away, the promise of a downtown soccer stadium positively lighting up Arena’s eyes with the crowds and energy it could draw to the city.
As Arena recalls how Kraft said to him in a clinching phone call, “We’ll support you, we want this thing to be successful,” he can see how he’ll help make it happen.
“A couple of things were important to me,” he says. “One, I want to be in a major city. Two, it can only go up here, they had the worst team in the league. Three, they committed they were going to build a soccer stadium. And fourth, you need an influential owner, and I like having a local owner.
“Listen, what I should be able to do here is get this headed in the right direction by the time they get a stadium. That is my goal.”
I wouldn’t doubt him. It was in the first few moments of sitting down to lunch when I began an opening question meant to get to the heart of his decision to do this. He stopped me before I could finish.
“ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ” he laughs. “That is the real question.”
He answers it himself: It’s what he does.