The distress signal from United States Soccer to UVA legend Bruce Arena went out in November. The men’s national team was in last place in World Cup qualifying after losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Who better to replace maligned coach Jürgen Klinsmann and save the U.S. from embarrassment than the man who previously led the program to its greatest success? But was Arena interested? In 2006, after winning more games than any coach in national team history, Arena had been let go. “I was disappointed,” Arena recalls, “but at the same time I understand what the game is about, and hopefully those were some good lessons for me.”
They’re ones that Arena—who led UVA to five NCAA championships during a prolific 18-year run (1978-96)—is putting to use now as he takes an unprecedented second crack; the U.S. returns to action against Honduras on March 24 in what most consider a must-win game. Arena, whose son, Kenny (Col ’10), will be on his staff this time around, is champing at the bit. “It’s something I think I’ve prepared my whole coaching career for,” he says.
In 2006, Arena was criticized by some for his decisions in losses to the Czech Republic and Ghana. “Certainly, 10 years later you can look back and understand how you may have done things differently,” Arena admits. The biggest thing Arena says he’s learned is the importance of selecting the right players for his 23-man roster. Since only 15 or 16 players typically see action, Arena says his job isn’t necessarily assembling the most talented team. “The personalities and the qualities of the players have a big impact,” he says, “so you have to pick the right players that have the right kind of chemistry.”
That’s something the 65-year-old has done quite successfully during his time in Major League Soccer, leading teams to five titles, most recently with the Los Angeles Galaxy. “He’s a winner,” says current Virginia men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch (Col ’87), who played and coached under Arena prior to succeeding him in 1996. “I feel like he could probably coach a tiddlywinks team. He would figure out the rules, the strategies, who’s best at it and win championships in it. He knows how to go about putting together a program to win.”
Arena says two of his biggest influences came from his time at Virginia when, on a weekly basis, he would attend the practices of basketball coach Terry Holland and football coach George Welsh. Arena says he paid close attention to how the storied coaches communicated with their players and staffs, which he says taught him how to be a leader. The fact that Holland and Welsh knew next to nothing about soccer was inconsequential. “When you’re privileged to be around coaches like that, you’d be real stupid not to learn something,” Arena says.
Holland and Welsh say Arena, whose five NCAA titles are the most by any UVA coach, was a natural. “Bruce was very outgoing and very enthusiastic about everything he did,” Holland recalls. Adds Welsh: “I could tell he was going to be able to win by his demeanor. He had confidence in himself.”
Today, that trait stands out as Arena—who led the U.S. to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals (its best showing since 1930) —discusses the challenge awaiting him. “I think the experiences from the past are going to be extremely beneficial,” he says. “You’re not blindsided by anything.”