Last week, when he was introduced as head coach of the wayward New England Revolution, Bruce Arena was asked about his treasured memories of the Massachusetts hamlet that has housed soccer in NFL stadiums since he entered pro circles more than two decades ago.
“My fondest memory of Foxboro is still 1996 in the rain in the old stadium,” he said. “It was an incredible day for the sport and country.”
Since the first MLS Cup, an overtime thriller played in a nor’easter and won by his D.C. United squad, Arena has experienced many incredible days during American soccer’s growth, both with the pro league and national team. Before those experiences, he directed the University of Virginia’s dynasty.
However, Arena also played a part in U.S. soccer’s darkest turn, the failed 2018 World Cup campaign.
And after 18 months away from the game, Arena has accepted the herculean task of reversing the Revolution, an organization neglected by ownership (the Kraft family of Patriots fame) and left in the dust by MLS teams building proper stadiums and increasing spending on players and infrastructure.
In a way, both the new coach and the team are seeking a fresh start.
Arena, 67, will not take the formal coaching reins until next weekend at the earliest, which is too bad, because United, which he led to two titles and a runner-up spot, is visiting Gillette Stadium on Saturday. Instead of pacing the sideline, he will observe from above in his dual capacity as the Revolution’s sporting director.
“It’s great he’s back in the league,” said United coach Ben Olsen, whose rookie season, in 1998, was spent with Arena. “They will be better for it. Any time there is transition, there is new energy and new hope. It’s a lot of fun to coach against him. He’ll make them better, that’s for sure.”
Arena’s first coaching gig with New England is likely to come next weekend against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the club he guided to MLS Cup titles in 2011, ‘12 and ‘14.
“It’s not going to happen in the next two weeks,” Arena said of a Revolution turnaround, “but I’m confident over the next couple of years that we can make very good progress and make this team much more competitive than it is today.”
Arena’s predecessor, Brad Friedel, was fired May 9 after a 2-8-2 start and 18 goals conceded in a four-game span. Four days later, general manager Mike Burns was ousted by the Krafts, original MLS investors who, longtime fans hope, have begun to embrace the financial commitment necessary to compete in a growing league.
In accepting the jobs, Arena seems to have received assurances about the Revolution’s direction. New England is the last team still playing in a venue far too large for its purposes, and by remaining in the distant suburbs, it has failed to tap into the league’s younger, cosmopolitan demographic.
“There are aspirations to build a stadium (in or close to Boston) one day and we’ll have the resources to make the team better,” Arena said. “Everything will be here to be successful — the new training facility that will come on board at some point this year is fabulous.
“We want to have the energy to be a team that can attract free agents out of the league, as well as players from abroad. There are going to be a lot of resources here to allow us to make this team much more successful.”
Questions have been raised about Arena’s ability to navigate MLS’ complicated player-acquisition methods — among other dizzying terms, there is general allocation money, targeted allocation money, discretionary targeted allocation money.
He is 2½ years removed from the Galaxy job, which he left when the U.S. Soccer Federation fired Jurgen Klinsmann amid the national team’s bumbling start to the World Cup qualifying effort. Arena steered the Americans back into contention, but on the last day of competition, a 2-1 defeat at last-place Trinidad and Tobago sunk their hopes and sparked outrage and introspection.
His illustrious portfolio was suddenly tarnished.
“I’m as disappointed as anybody in that failure,” he said. “I don’t define that as my legacy, personally. I know others do. I’m working and trying to be as good as I can be. I’m 67 years old in a country where the president is in his seventies. His likely competition in the next election is 70-something, so I’m the young kid on the block.
“Did I have to do this? No. But I love coaching, I love the sport, I love the challenge in building the game in this country; it’s something I’ve done for 40 years and it’s not easy to walk away from. It’s something that’s very important for me and that’s why I’m here today.”
D.C. United at New England Revolution
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Records: United 7-4-3, 24 points; Revolution 3-8-3, 12 points.
Live streams: FloSports, ESPN+. Both are subscription services. ESPN+ subject to blackout in D.C. area.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Leonardo Jara, Frederic Brillant, Steve Birnbaum, Marquinhos Pedroso; MFs Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno, Luciano Acosta, Lucas Rodriguez; F Wayne Rooney.
New England probable starters: GK Matt Turner; Ds Brandon Bye, Andrew Farrell, Jalil Anibaba, DeJuan Jones; MFs Juan Agudelo, Carles Gil, Luis Calcedo, Diego Fagundez, Cristian Penilla; F Teal Bunbury.