Bruce Arena looked like the fifth member of The Beatles in 1970. (Photo courtesy of Michael Lewis)
By Michael Lewis
He looked like a Beatle but played like a spider.
Back in the day, Bruce Arena had a haircut not unlike the Fab Four from England, when he guarded the net for the Nassau Community College men’s soccer team.
Sharing the goalkeeping responsibilities with Ben Alberto, the future U.S. men’s national team coach and current New England Revolution boss did a pretty decent job, helping the Lions reach the National Junior College Athletic Association final four in Ferguson, Mo. in 1970.
“Bruce was a great goalkeeper,” said former NCC teammate and center Bob Montgomery said in an interview this week. “I mean, we had a good team in front of them. But he was very aggressive on balls played in the box. There was a lot of times he would be yelling, ‘I got it! I’ve got this one.’
“He was a tough guy. Very good on corners coming out. He had good reflexes to make saves.”
Arena, 69, was a Region XV selection that year, making 134 saves in 19 games that season while registering a 0.94 goals-against average. In The Vignette, the NCC student newspaper, this writer called Arena an “amazing netminder.”
It seemed things out of his control pushed Arena toward playing soccer and in goal. He was too small to play football, so he performed for the Carey High School soccer team on defense. When the starting goalkeeper was suspended, Arena found himself in the net and became proficient at it. He went on to play for the N.Y. Hota/Bavarians, whose home field happened to be in his neighborhood in Franklin Square, N.Y.
As well as he played in the net, Arena was an even better lacrosse player, earning All-American honors as a midfielder after he transferred to Cornell University.
Here’s the full photo of Bruce Arena and Ben Alberto. (Photo courtesy of Michael Lewis)
He did not have plans to play soccer, but injuries to the team’s top two keepers forced head coach Dan Wood to entice Arena to play in the net. He did not disappoint, helping the Big Red reach the 1972 NCAA soccer final four while earning top defensive player honors for the tournament.
The Cosmos made Arena its fifth-round pick, the 45th overall selection in the 1973 college draft. He did not make the team, but he was brought in for a tryout out.
Montgomery said he attended that session under head coach Gordon Bradley, who apparently liked to test his players with some surprise calls when he was “referee” during scrimmages.
“Some days you don’t get to do much. He wanted to take a look at this guy,” he said. “So, the game is going on and all of a sudden he blows a penalty. Guys start bitching, there’s no penalty and Gordon goes, ‘Penalty! Put it down.’ Bruce saved the penalty. He blew his whistle again and he says, retake. Bruce is looking around. ‘What do you mean retake it? He puts the ball down and Bruce saved it a second time. He was good, he was very, very good.”
Arena did play under Bradley – for the U.S. men’s national team as a second-half replacement for Bob Rigby in a 2-0 international friendly loss at Israel Nov. 15, 1973.
After playing for the victorious USA team at the 1974 World Lacrosse Championship, Arena ventured to the University of Virginia as the head men’s soccer coach and assistant lacrosse coach. He eventually turned to soccer fulltime, guiding the Cavaliers to four consecutive NCAA Division I titles and a total of five.
In 1996, Major League Soccer beckoned, and Arena joined D.C. United, directing that club to the first three finals, winning twice. He went on to coach the USMNT in 1998, guiding that side into the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. After a short stint with the Red Bulls, Arena joined the LA Galaxy and coached that squad to three MLS Cup championships before national team job opened up after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired in 2016.
Arena’s second tenure was not as fruitful as the first time as the team failed to reach the 2018 World Cup, the first time since 1986 that a USA men’s side fell short.
He returned to coaching with the Revolution in 2019 after Brad Friedel was given the axe.