Bruce Arena on Franklin Square, N.Y.: “This town or Long Island gave me the opportunity to be introduced to the sport at a really late age. But it was something that inspired me. I enjoyed it.” (www.AndyMead/YCJ.com)
To celebrate Bruce Arena’s 70th birthday, here’s a story from way back in 2004, when, as U.S. men’s national team coach, he brought the squad to the youth club he played for on Long Island to train for a World Cup qualifier in Grenada. This story originally was posted June 16, 2004.
By Michael LewisU.
FRANKLIN SQUARE, N.Y. — As the bus carrying the U.S. National Team rumbled through on Hempstead Turnpike on Monday, Bruce Arena told his staff about his boyhood days growing up in this Long Island town.
The U.S. national coach spoke of his old neighborhood, how he grew up and where he went to school.
A little later that day, he drove through his old neighborhood — past his home, elementary school and high school, a bar and a pizzeria where he worked as a teenager.
On Tuesday, he brought his team for the first of three days of practice at the fields where he played his one year of youth soccer — Park Stadium of the N.Y. Hota/Bavarians Soccer Club — before it flies off to Grenada on Friday for Sunday’s second leg of the World Cup qualifying series.
After all, it’s not every day the coach of the U.S. National Team — or any National Team — for that matter — brings his team to train on his hometown youth field.
“I’m not here driving around weeping and all but it was really interesting for me to drive here yesterday to see that nothing has changed,” a relaxed Arena said while sitting on the blue bleachers at Park Stadium on warm Tuesday afternoon. “It’s remarkable. This place looks exactly the same. I drive down Tulip Avenue to my house and it looks exactly the same. That’s what surprises me.
“I was thinking the Cape Cods weren’t going to be there anymore. They’re all there. Nothing has changed. The elementary school, the high school, all of that is the same.”
Arena admitted he hasn’t been back to the island many times since he moved away nearly 30 years ago. “I’ve been back on a couple of occasions and never good occasions,” he said. “Funerals.”
Before he leaves on Friday, he will visit the gravesite of and pay his respects to his mother and sister and a college roommate at Holy Rood Cemetery near St. Brigid’s Church in Westbury and his father, who is in a nursing home in the same town.
“I’ll have a little time to do those things, which I haven’t been able to do in a long time,” he said.
“This town or Long Island gave me the opportunity to be introduced to the sport at a really late age. But it was something that inspired me. I enjoyed it.”
And to reminisce as well. Arena tried football in high school as a ninth-grade quarterback – but he was too small for the sport – 5-2 and 100 pounds – so he turned to soccer. There wasn’t much organized youth soccer around the island at the time.
“You just played because you wanted to play,” he said.
At first he was a midfielder, but then an interesting twist of fate happened in the first match of his junior year when the Carey High School goalkeeper hit an opponent and was suspended for the year. Arena was drafted as the goalkeeper.
“I played 20 minutes as a midfielder and my career was over,” he said.
“I could have been the equivalent of (Johan) Cruyff. It never happened.”
But something else did.
A year later he discovered Hota, then a member of the German-American Soccer League (now called the Cosmopolitan Soccer League), after someone invited him to play for one of the club’s youth teams.
Hota is a throwback to an earlier era of American soccer, where clubs had a clubhouse, field locker room facilities. The club holds its Christmas and Super Bowl parties in the clubhouse.
Its clubhouse is actually a trophy room with dozens of trophies, banners and pictures, reveling in its 82-year history. There are trophies from virtually every conceivable tournament and competition, including the U.S. Open Challenge Cup, Amateur Cup and Cosmopolitan Soccer League, among others.
Hota has merged with other clubs through the decades to remain alive and viable.
The Plattduetsche Home Society, which owns the old-age home and restaurant, gave Hota permission to build tennis courts on its property, which allowed the club some income outside of soccer. Hota donates money to Plattsduetsche every year.
“I lived about a mile away from here,” Arena said. “I didn’t know Hota existed until someone invited me to play. I remember my first game. The big club played. We both played the Greek Americans and there were probably like 4,000-5,000 people here. Those were the days the Cosmos were the senior team. It opened up a world of soccer that I didn’t know.
“I had no clue. It was a very intimidating experience. Interesting.”
Arena played a year at Hota.
“It was actually shocking to me,” he said. “Especially where I was, this whole side of Franklin Square was all Italian and then you came here and all of sudden there were the Greeks, the Germans, the other ethnic groups that we basically didn’t come across and didn’t know existed in those numbers.”
He attended Nassau Community College for two years and earned honors as a goalkeeper and a lacrosse player before transferring to Cornell. Ironically, the hotel Arena and the team is staying at — the Long Island Marriott — is adjacent to NCC.
“My junior college team, I’ve been telling people, it was as good in terms of talent as the teams that I played with at Cornell that made it to the Final Four at Division I,” Arena said. “It had a lot of talented players, maybe athletically not the same as the athletes you put on the field in Division I soccer, but certainly more skillful.”
He also learned some important lessons from NCC coach Bill Stevenson, whom, Arena said, “created an environment, where you wanted to come out everyday. He wasn’t a guy who put a lot of pressure on us, just wanted us to go out and have fun, which I try to do with my teams today.”
In fact, Arena shared a secret, crediting another goalkeeper with sparking his interest in the game — former Cosmos keeper Shep Messing, the MetroStars color announcer.
“This is not known by many, but I think the guy who had the greatest influence on my career was Shep Messing,” he said of his goalkeeper coach at NCC. Messing had taken a year off, transferring from NYU to Harvard. “He really inspired me. I enjoyed listening to his stories and watching him travel with the Olympic team that year.”
Arena grew up in simpler times. His parents moved out here only a month after he and his twin sister Barbara were born in 1951 (he has two older brothers, Paul and Mike). His house was the first on a street amid potato and tomato farms.
His father Vincent was a butcher, his mother Adeline drove a school bus.
“But there was never anything we didn’t have,” he said. “Our view of things those days was pretty simple. Give me a ball, a baseball bat, a glove and I’ll be back in about eight or 10 hours. We didn’t need any of the games, the computers and that kind of stuff.
“I remember my childhood. It was so much fun. Every day was fun, hanging out with the guys in the neighborhood, playing games. All of that stuff, things that kids today don’t do. They jump in the cars with their mothers. They’re catered to their activities and all. It was just a whole different world.”
Arena was just happy to get back to his old stomping ground to see it one more time.