Bruce Arena is the only American born coach to reach legendary status. In spite of his many detractors, he is by far the most accomplished manager our nation has ever produced. However since 2003 when the US flamed out of the Confederations Cup with a last place group finish, Bruce Arena has lost his way, his edge so to speak.
The same troubles that ailed Arena’s last few years as US National Team manager ailed his short tenure with the Red Bulls. The late Arena years on the National Team were typified by a non merit based system for player selection and a clear bias towards players who played their club football in the domestic league (MLS) or in England. Arena allowed many quality American players to drift off the radar who happened to play their club football in places like Denmark and Norway. While every spot on the national team was open for competition in the 1999 to 2002 time period, including during World Cup 2002 when Arena played all but one field player he took the World Cup, in 2006 Arena took several players to Germany who either weren’t fully fit or had no hope of contributing positively to a World Cup campaign. While I would argue that the talent pool of Americans had regressed between 2002 and 2006, no doubt exists Arena bungled the team selection badly.
As Red Bull manager Arena immediately added John Harkes and Jeff Agoos favorites from his time at DC United and the University of Virginia. Neither Harkes nor Agoos were ready for the roles thrust upon them and when New York used their initial designated player spot to sign Claudio Reyna another Arena favorite from UVA and the National Team it was obvious that crony ism was reigning supreme ahead of merit in Arena’s eyes.
Much like World Cup 2006, Arena’s lack tactical savvy was exposed in MLS 2007. He often times couldn’t figure out how to play with Jozy Altidore and Juan Pablo Angel together. This was surprising since Arena found a way to use Raul Diaz Arce/Roy Lassiter and Jaime Moreno together with DC United, but then with the USA was so impressed with what either Landon Donovan or Clint Mathis could provide that he liked to use a withdrawn striker behind Brian McBride. Also Arena didn’t seem to understand how to instill an organized defensive system into his backline. Throughout much of the season, it appeared the Red Bulls didn’t have a clear structure on the pitch and many of the players did not understand their roles.
MLS is becoming a much more tactically sophisticated league as Juan Carlos Osorio and Preki among others have taught us. Bruce Arena’s greatest qualities were his player/talent evaluation and his ability to motivate his team. But from a tactical standpoint, we already see his former Assistant Bob Bradley as more tactically savvy in his year as USA manager. The US National Team is actually running a clear organized system instead of the shambolic mess that Arena’s later USA years yielded.
Bruce Arena’s contribution to soccer in this country have been invaluable. But what we learned this season is that National Team program and MLS itself have both moved past his abilities. Give Red Bull management credit for recognizing this and cutting their losses after a disappointing season.