One may think that a man who would lead USA Soccer for nearly a decade would have spent his youth with a laser focus on the sport. While Bruce Arena was a fine soccer player, he earned more attention at Cornell as a lacrosse player.
"Bruce was a lacrosse player who also played soccer,'' said Mike Candel, Arena’s first college lacrosse coach, to the New York Times in 2002. Kind of an unusual statement, but it’s true.
Growing up in central Long Island, Arena played lacrosse at Carey High, At nearby Elmont High was future legendary Cornell coach Richie Moran, who in his 29 year Cornell career would win three NCAA titles. When Moran made the move to Ithaca, Arena vowed he would play for him. “I decided to attend Cornell because of the education, but more importantly because of (Head Lacrosse Coach) Richie Moran,” remembers Arena. “I thought he was a fantastic coach and I wanted to play for him.”
But he first had to detour through Nassau County Community College. ''I didn't have the grades, so I went to Nassau,'' he told the Times. ''I had great coaches there.'' He certainly did. An All-American in lacrosse and soccer, he helped the lacrosse team to two national titles before transferring to Cornell.
At Cornell sports came first for Arena. When asked how he balanced academics and athletics he says simply “I made sure I got to practice every day. That was my focus, I knew what I wanted to do - I wanted to be a professional athlete and a coach.”
He had ample opportunity to prepare for his future career by simply observing Richie Moran. “He was such an effective coach of players in the way he communicated and helped them develop as not only athletes, but students as well,” says Arena. “It was something that I cherish and obviously it helped motivate me to get into coaching as a career.” Even as an undergraduate Arena was working into a coaching role. ”Bruce would come up with strategies,'' recalled Moran to the New York Times. ''He would notice if we were overplaying somebody too much. He was always thinking a quarter or a half ahead.''
This thinking showed in his play. A goalkeeper, Arena won first team All-Ivy honors in 1972 as he helped the Big Red to its only NCAA soccer final four appearance, winning Defensive MVP honors in the process. He was even better in lacrosse, a two-time first team All-Ivy midfielder who won 2nd team All-American honors in 1973. “ In soccer certainly our biggest challenges were Harvard and Penn. and in lacrosse it was Brown,” remembers Arena. “I truly enjoyed every game we played in the Ivy League in both sports.”
After Cornell Arena briefly played both lacrosse and soccer professionally. He spent a year as goalkeeper for the Tacoma Tides, and started coaching at the University of Puget Sound. From there he returned to Cornell as Richie Moran’s assistant, then was hired as an assistant lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia, and as the head soccer coach. This position was almost an afterthought. “''He called me up and said, 'By the way, they also want me to coach the soccer team,' '' remembered Candel.
Arena took Virginia to its first NCAA soccer title in 1989, then ran off a string of four straight titles from 1991-94, unmatched in NCAA men’s soccer history. From there he joined Major League Soccer in its initial season, coaching DC United to the league’s first two titles. When he left MLS in 1998 to take over the United States National Team Arena had the highest winning percentage of any coach, a record that still stands.
The U.S. team in 1998 had finished last in the FIFA World Cup, before Arena became coach. He led the team to an historic quarterfinals finish in 2002. The team didn’t reach this level of success under Arena in the 2006 World Cup competition, but they did tie eventual champion Italy in the only game Italy didn’t win.
Leaving the national team after the 2006 World Cup Arena returned to MLS, this time with the New York Red Bulls. In doing so he followed Princeton alum Bob Bradley, who led the team, then known as the MetroStars, until October 2005. Bradley in turn, was recently named Arena’s replacement as U.S. National Team head coach.
“Bob and I have worked together at all different levels,” recalls Arena. “I brought him on with the University of Virginia and with D.C. [United].” Indeed, Arena hired Bradley as an assistant at Virginia in 1982, and from there Bradley returned to Princeton as head soccer coach, winning two Ivy League titles and reaching the NCAA Final Four in 1993.
Becoming Arena’s assistant again at D.C. United in 1996, Bradley followed him as MLS champion when he took the expansion Chicago Fire to the title in 1998. Of their professional relationship Arena says “I think we both cherish the education we received at Ivy League schools and were able to share a lot of our enjoyable experiences in the Ivy League. We certainly attribute a lot of our success to our Ivy League education.”
— Stephen Eschenbach