Bruce Arena is referred to by many soccer fans and pundits as the greatest American coach ever.
An article on Grantland by Andrew Lewellen is yet another voice affirming that. He writes about how Arena has taken on the job of coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, turning around a team neck deep in pressure, tension and turmoil.
Lewellen also noted Arena’s success in developing successful teams at the University of Virginia, D.C. United and the United State’s men’s national team.
One high profile job (and failure) conveniently left out was his year and a half stint with the New York Red Bulls. Arena was hired by the franchise after the 2006 FIFA World Cup and resigned two days after their 2007 season ended.
The failing aspect of the job was not as much Arena’s fault, however, as it was the failure for the Red Bulls organization to be patient, highlighting why in 17 seasons there have been 13 head coaches (including current interim Mike Petke) and a revolving door of players but zero trophies to brag about.
In the two years Arena was the head coach of the Red Bulls, he compiled a record of 18-19-11. It was the lowest winning percentage he has had at any job he’s held in MLS or with the USMNT. But he did make the playoffs in both seasons.
He brought in talented players like Juan Pablo Angel—one of the best Designated Players in league history—Dave van den Bergh and Dane Richards. Team legend Clint Mathis was reacquired. Claudio Reyna, despite a disappointing tenure in the league, added some legitimacy and veteran leadership to the team. Two rookies drafted before Arena became coach, Marvelle Wynne and Jozy Altidore, flourished under Arena.
The first-round exits were typical Red Bull disappointments. How much can one man do in a season and a half, however?
Once Arena left, Altidore was sold, Marvelle Wynne was traded and van den Bergh was traded a season later. Jorge Rojas, Juan Pietravallo, Gabriel Cichero and Oscar Echeverry were all signed and all failed to make a positive impact on the team and the league.
The 2008 Red Bulls did reach the MLS Cup, their best finish ever, but lost in the finals and then fell to last in the league in 2009 with a league-worst 21 points. The roster development that Arena laid the foundation for was gone.
Arena is known in the league for his player scouting and development abilities. As documented in Lewellen’s article, he is popular for building chemistry in a team that leads to success.
With the Galaxy, Arena took the Galaxy to the 2009 MLS Cup, the 2010 Western Conference finals and won the 2011 MLS Cup. They’re back in the 2012 MLS Cup this year. The Galaxy won the Supporter’s Shield in 2010 and 2011 and Arena won the MLS Coach of the Year award in 2009.
In that time frame the Red Bulls never got further than the quarterfinals of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Bruce Arena drafted Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza, two backline mainstays and players that would earn USMNT caps. Along with Arena acquisitions Todd Dunivant and goalie Donovan Ricketts, the Galaxy defense is arguably the best in the league; conveniently the Red Bulls struggle to maintain any consistency on defense.
Valuable Galaxy players like Robbie Keane, former Red Bull Mike Magee, Juninho and Jack McBean were Arena signings.
Arena has been able to field a championship contender balancing a team with three Designated Players under contract (just like New York) with good draft picks and shrewd international signings (unlike New York).
Had Arena stayed on with the Red Bulls they too might have developed a consistent roster with chemistry, pricey and inexpensive players and a good mix of youngsters and veterans.
Instead, while the Galaxy are in the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years, the Red Bulls experienced another early exit in the playoffs.
It’s the same old routine for the Red Bulls. They are in win-now mode, yet have never won.
Maybe if they had the patience and vision that Arena has and utilizes, things could be different.