Bruce Arena raised a wry smile as he was asked about a ‘less than perfect’ string of draws for his New England Revolution side.
“We’ve never had a perfect performance,” he quipped.
MLS may have changed some since 1996 when Arena first took charge of D.C. United, but his dry, at times caustic, humour has not. The theme of change is one that shadowed Arena when he took the Revolution job earlier this year.
At the time Arena was still reeling from a difficult spell in charge of the United States Men’s National Team in 2017. The 67-year-old was installed as a fire-fighter midway through the country’s qualifying campaign and tasked with simple job — get to Russia. He failed.
His subsequent decision to release a book about the situation only irked fans further.
When he decided to return to MLS, the site of some of his finest coaching work, the welcome was not universal. Critics questioned if all of his tried and tested methods could handle the rigours of modern MLS.
"Bruce is one of the most successful coaches in American soccer history, and we feel his commitment to excellence, track record of winning championships in Major League Soccer, as well as his success at the international level, makes him the best person to bring the Revolution back to MLS Cup contention," Revolution investor/operator Robert Kraft said in a statement.
A lot had happened in the two-and-a-half-years since Arena held an MLS coaching role. Teams had become better operators in the transfer market, the standard of coaching overall had improved.
“A couple of things were important to me,” he said recently when discussing his decision to take the job. “One, I want to be in a major city. Two, it can only go up here, they had the worst team in the league. Three, they committed they were going to build a soccer stadium. And fourth, you need an influential owner, and I like having a local owner.
The situation left for him by his predecessor Brad Friedel was not a positive one. The team had won just two of their first 12 MLS matches of the season and were bottom of the Eastern Conference. In response, the club decided to not only dispense with Friedel but also GM Robert Burns.
Arena was also appointed Sporting Director, and one of his first acts was to sign Gustavo Bou from the Mexican side, Club Tijuana. The Boston Globe reported that the deal included $12 million in transfer fees and guaranteed salary, and could "exceed $16 million" with bonuses and options. It was a bold first move and one that has seen Bou net 7 goals in his first 10 games.
It was his left-footed thunderbolt against the Chicago Fire that kept the Revolution heading towards the playoffs. It also allowed Arena to get another laugh out of reporters.
“That’s his bad foot,” Arena joked. “You should see his good one. That was a heck of a goal, what can you say?”
It would be unfair to put all of the success on Bou’s arrival. Arena has also been keen to experiment. He has kept instructions simple, but he has also been flexible with his tactics, switching between a back four and a back five. Carles Gil, a creative midfielder signed under Friedel, has forged a dangerous partnership with Bou.
In central midfield, Wilfried Zahibo and Luis Caicedo have given the team grit and steel. Overall, the Revs have gained strength and character that seemed at times absent under Friedel (despite his best efforts). Those qualities have taken the club into the playoff spots, three points ahead of 8th place Chicago with a game in hand.
As expected, however, Arena is not entirely satisfied. An early run of victories has been replaced by some less than impressive draws of late, and Arena had no issue reminding his players of the standards required.
“It’s a disappointing point,” Arena said after his side gave up a 3-1 lead against Orlando City to draw 3-3. “We played poorly in the second half, we need to be a better team in the second half. That game was there for us to walk out of here with three points. We failed to play a good 45 minutes in the second half and, listen, in a lot of ways we’re fortunate to get out of here with a point.”
Despite that frustration, it is clear Arena enjoys being back on the touchline. By his own admission, he was ‘probably playing too much golf’ prior to taking up his role in New England. Now, having guided the club out of the bunker, he has not only back doing what he loves, but given New England’s season a sense of purpose.