When Bruce Arena was appointed US MNT coach last November I had serious doubts. We were taking a big step back in my view, but I suspect that this probably was the ‘safe’ option for Sunil Gulati. At a minimum it lacked leadership.
Bruce has now left the arena (pardon the pun) but the coaching quality issue goes much deeper and broader than this. It’s one of the fundamental weaknesses of player development in our country, across all age groups and levels, including all the way up to our elite academies.
I’m going to share below parts of an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in March about Bruce Arena that explains much of what is comically deficient about the breadth and depth of coaching quality in our country. Bruce’s views are shared by too many soccer coaches in our country.
And during the news conference immediately after the elimination Bruce Arena had this to say: “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. Certainly, as our league grows, it advances the national team program. We have some good young players come up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish.”
It is frankly unbelievable that our soccer leadership would even remotely consider a coach with these kinds of views to lead our national team to compete in today’s soccer world. If we want to move forward we can’t have any coaches like this at any of our youth academies.
In fact, this should disqualify any coach from being involved in ANY player development environment. There might be a place for them at high schools or college soccer programs.
In other words, if the coach of your competitive/travel youth team has this kind of background and/or has shared this kind of views on soccer coaching then you should be very wary.
Sit down before you read this. And your jaw might hit the floor by the time you’re done – place some padding just in case.
“I could learn as much or more from Bill Belichick as I could from the manager of Manchester City,” Arena, 65 years old, said in a recent interview. “I think it’s critical to understand what coaching is and how to manage a team, and the sport is immaterial.”
By the standards of international soccer, Arena has zero pedigree. He had barely heard of the sport until his first years in high school, when he saw one of his teachers, a Ukrainian, juggling a ball effortlessly in a business suit on a steamy June day.
He didn’t join his high school team until his final years. He played goalkeeper at Nassau Community College and Cornell, then peaked at the semi-professional level. At Cornell and the University of Virginia, he was hired to coach both the soccer and lacrosse teams.
To believe that he is now the best person to lead the U.S. men is to believe that soccer knowledge and coaching can be learned, rather than lived. But Arena believes that coaching is mostly about molding and motivating a team rather than exploiting technical superiority.
“Sports is sports,” Arena said.
Arena has had some interesting chats with Chelsea’s Antonio Conte and follows Manchester United ’s Jose Mourinho and Bayern Munich’s Carlo Ancelotti. But he says nothing he learns from them can compare with his time at Virginia in the early 1980s, when his office was cut in half to make way for a new visiting locker room for basketball.
That enabled him to eavesdrop on locker room talks by the likes of North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Maryland’s Lefty Driesell. He also spent hours trading coaching ideas with a young women’s basketball assistant named Geno Auriemma, now a legend at the University of Connecticut.
Even today, Arena can’t name a soccer book that influenced him. Instead, he studies other sports hunting strategies for soccer. He sees a full-court press in basketball as not-so-different from blitzing in football or pressing in soccer; the pressure at the front of the defense usually leaves someone unmarked in the back, creating a coverage problem.
The folks in Europe can obsess about their biggest sport all day and night if they want, Arena says. The U.S. is just as good a place to learn to coach, he said, because of the diversity of sports.
“There is nothing about soccer we don’t know,” Arena said. “A lot of coaching is just about having an eye for players, and knowing what they do well and don’t do well, and communicating with them.”
[The article also quotes Kasey Keller who shares Bruce’s views:] “It’s about getting the right combination of players on the field with the right attitude and mental approach who can execute better than the other team. The game isn’t that complicated. Mark the unmarked man. Fill space. Work harder that the opponent. And hope a deflection goes your way in a key moment.”
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with taking ideas from other sports and comparing notes with coaches in other sports. And learning how to motivate players is very important too, of course. But that is elementary school stuff.
You cannot coach soccer at any meaningful level unless you have a deep understanding of the game. And you need to study it year in, year out. You need to stay current. You need to breathe it. You need to understand the deeper fabric of the beautiful game, and be able to teach it to players.
It takes decades of watching, playing, studying, and coaching to achieve mastery and even then only very few ever reach the elite level.
It’s time to wake up and demand more of your coaches, across all levels and age groups. Don’t be fooled anymore!