The New England Revolution can be presented as a case study on the effect of coaching in soccer.
Incredibly, they have lost just once since Brad Friedel was fired in early May. They experienced a slight new coach bump, as many teams do, but once Bruce Arena took over full-time in June, they flipped a switch and became legitimately competent.
Friedel was a demanding manager, and Arena appears to have provided a refreshing break from his predecessor’s intensity. Players look more confident as Arena has played them in the correct positions and in a compact, flexible system. The acquisition of Gustavo Bou, in theory symbolizing a new Revs outlook, helps an attack that looks much more threatening.
Arena’s tactical improvements
Tactically, Arena has simplified things, but also crafted enough of a tactical understanding to allow the Revs to alternate between formations and playing styles without sacrificing familiarity.
New England have used both four-at-the-back and five-at-the-back looks, playing high lines and deep lines, sometimes possessing the ball and other times playing more defensive. Other teams that have tried that sort of approach in MLS — Veljko Paunovic’s Chicago, notably, as well as prior versions of Dome Torrent’s NYCFC — and failed, tinkering too much and never establishing an identity. Arena is a good enough coach that he does not fall victim to the flaws of Paunovic and Torrent.
The personnel haven’t improved dramatically. Players are just better. Carles Gil has lived up to his DP status. The defense — while there are legitimate concerns — has stayed afloat. A notably less error-prone Wilfried Zahibo has paired well with Luis Caicedo in a double-pivot midfield. Second-year SuperDraft pick Brandon Bye has proven to be a legitimate contributor on the flank, both in his primary job as a right back and as a wingback.
Arena knew these Revs needed a shake-up, and he’s provided it. Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez, who have long been under-utilized as cogs in a broken Revs system, have played all over the field. Striker Teal Bunbury, known for his streakiness, scored five goals in six games in the middle of New England’s 11-game unbeaten streak.
All of a sudden, the Revs are sixth in the Eastern Conference and will likely make the playoffs, despite winning just two of their first 12 games. That is a pretty astounding turnaround. Competent coaching goes a long way.
To finish, let’s take a look at some interesting aspects of their upcoming match against the New York Red Bulls.
Revolution vs. Red Bulls Preview
We know what to expect from the Red Bulls by this point. They’ll press out of a 4-2-3-1 and play a high line, trying to coerce turnovers out of their opponents. It will be interesting to see how the Revs respond, and how conservative Arena is willing to get with his game-plan.
In Seattle last weekend, New England put out a three-at-the-back and played a relatively high line. It was an effort to put an extra defender on the field, knowing that the Revs had traveled cross-country to face an elite attacking opponent. At times they appeared stretched in midfield, but they never looked too disorganized, and they succeeded in generating chances on goal.
The Sounders match turned into a wild goal-fest, finishing 3-3 with a few video reviews and end-to-end action. Arena called it a s—show. It actually was a fairly quality game, though many of the pivotal occurrences ended up being products of luck — Arena called it a “game of accidents.” In spite of the craziness of the game, it is a testament to the Revs’ improvement that they were able to hang with Seattle on the road.
Their next task is hanging with the Red Bulls on the road. They will be up for it. NYRB lack the level of attacking firepower to overpower teams, and no longer are able to dominate the middle of the field the way they have been in the past. Bradley Wright-Phillips is a super-sub. Kaku openly wants out. They just sent dynamic young winger Derrick Etienne on loan to Cincinnati. They will continue to need a difference-making winger.
New England can create chances. Arena could set them up in a deeper block with the intent to attack on the counter, to mitigate the effect of the Red Bulls’ pressing. Cristian Penilla, a speedy winger who came off the bench in Seattle, could return to the starting lineup as an option on the counter. We’ve seen the Revs find success in this style (and others), so it’s reasonable to think they can put fear into NYRB on the road.
Or is that BOOOO!!!???
Today’s announcement that the New England Revolution hired Bruce Arena to take over as both coach and Sporting Director of the moribund MLS originals has drawn both responses.
And despite Arena’s impressive resume, that split reaction to his hiring by a team desperate for, well, everything, comes as no surprise.
Bruce Arena: The Good!
So, let’s take a look at that resume. Arena has won more MLS Cup titles (5) than anyone. He captured the first two in MLS history with DC United (1996 and 1997) and three with the L.A. Galaxy (2011, 2012, 2014).
The reason for the gap in titles is that Arena was coaching the USMNT, advancing the U.S. to the quarterfinals in Japan/South Korea, where a handball on the goalline prevented the U.S. from potentially taking mighty Germany to extra time. That result remains the best for the Americans at the World Cup.
Arena leads MLS coaches in Cup titles, Coach of the Year awards (3), Supporters Shields (tied with Sigi Schmid with 3), and is second in wins with 202 to the late Schmid’s 240.
Bruce Arena: The Bad?
So, that accounts for the positive BRUUCE! reaction. But why would anyone BOOOO! hiring the man behind all of those accomplishments?
The obvious answer:
Trinidad and Tobago, October 10, 2016 (aka The Day that Will Live in US Soccer Infamy)
Too much? Ok, let’s put it another way. The night that the heavily favored Americans lost 2-1 to already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
The aftershocks of that loss are still being felt by players like Michael Bradley (often booed every time he touches the ball at away games–especially in Atlanta) and Jozy Altidore, who fans have raked over the coal to point where it seems some may never forgive them for that night in Couva.
As the coach of the team that failed, Arena likewise has earned the enmity of some who simply will not forgive or forget.
Then there is Arena’s attitude. Has he been humbled at all by missing out on the World Cup? On the one hand, the BRUUCE! hand, Arena took responsibility in the aftermath and quickly resigned.
On the other, the BOOOO! hand, there is Arena’s book, “What’s wrong with Us,” (clever). From his book:
“If I had it all to do over again, I’d take the job again in a second, and even though people don’t want to hear it, I don’t think that, given the limited time I had, there is much I would do differently, either.”
And there is some unease about his final days with Los Angeles. Having won MLS Cup in 2014, L.A. finished fifth in 2015, third in 2016 when Arena left late in the MLS season to replace Jurgen Klinsmann on that failed World Cup rescue mission.
Then with Arena gone the wheels fell off for the Galaxy who finished last in the Western Conference. Arena wasn’t there, so was he absolved? Or did Arena deserve criticism for leaving the cupboard bare for his successor?
Had Arena lost interest?
So which is it for you? BRUUCE! Or BOOOO!
Personally, I was all for bringing Arena back to replace Klinsmann at the time. Klinsmann’s inscrutable act had long worn thin by then and it was clear his players were ready for something different. Arena’s plainspoken (if dipped in sarcasm) style, combined with his deep experience in all things CONCACAF seemed just the ticket to get the U.S. to Russia.
That it didn’t work, that Arena couldn’t coax even one more point out of the USMNT against a group that sent Panama (Panama!!!) to the Word Cup is troubling. Did anyone see Panama at the World Cup and not find themselves screaming- we couldn’t beat out those guys?!
But I digress. Is Arena the right choice to lead New England out of the wilderness? Maybe. As Sporting Director he will be his own boss. If Tom Brady is not playing, the owners don’t care. Maybe that’s good. Especially if they give Arena the Kraft family checkbook.
And Arena is surely a huge upgrade over fired General Manager Mike Burns and first-time coach Brad Friedel. At 67, Arena will have to show he has the energy for one last big project. I believe that his ego is bringing him back for one more tilt at the windmill, one final chance to burnish his reputation before he walks away, and that might be the best motivation of all.
So for me, it’s not BRUUCE! But it’s not BOOOO! either.
I guess it’s just Bruce.