COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Bruce Arena has never lacked confidence.
The brash Brooklyn-born coach has piled up championships dating back to his days coaching the University of Virginia to his more recent stint building a dynasty with the LA Galaxy. In between was his impressive first go-round as head coach of the U.S. national team. Now, a decade after that first stint in charge, Arena not only believes he's better equipped to handle the job of U.S. coach, he believes there isn't a coaching job he can't handle.
"I think I can coach anywhere," Arena told Goal. "I think every situation you go into takes a little bit of time, and you’ve got to get adjusted to it. But I’ve met the top coaches in the world — you can do it. Every situation is different. When you look at Bob Bradley at Swansea, that might have been a no-win situation, and probably due to ownership more than anything. He was kind of set up, in some ways, to fail.
"Everyone has to be in the right position," Arena added. "Look at David Moyes, an incredibly good coach. All those good years at Preston North End and Everton, then you go to Man U, now that’s a tough job. Am I saying I’m qualified to coach at Man U? That’s a whole different animal, and it’s made it tough on his career and he’s had some challenging times over the last five, six years at different clubs.
"I think, unfortunately, there’s still the notion that Americans can't play, and Americans can’t coach in our game."
The most successful American soccer coach in history believing he could take on any job shouldn't really surprise anybody, even though some will scoff at the notion. Talk to his current and former players, including ones who have spent time in Europe, and the consensus is there aren't many jobs he couldn't handle.
"There’s no question he could coach anywhere," former U.S. and Galaxy star Landon Donovon told Goal. "Now, can he coach at Real Madrid or Barcelona? I don’t know. I don’t think Bruce would have any problem coaching anywhere. And he proved that because coaching anywhere means being able to deal with the pressure, which Bruce deals with as well as anybody I know. It means being able to deal with the egos, which between myself, Robbie [Keane], David [Beckham] and others over his career, that wasn't an issue. He would be fine coaching anywhere.
"Let’s just say if he didn’t succeed, it wouldn’t be because he was in over his head or wasn’t capable," Donovan continued. "It would be because things didn’t go right. He has all the ability to coach anywhere, no question."
Arena has stepped in and helped give the U.S. some much-needed stability and confidence after the disastrous start to the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying. He didn't come in and make any drastic changes, but his impact on the current group has been clear to see, and you can hear the not-so-subtle comparisons between Arena and his predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann when players discuss why the coach has been able to help the U.S. turn things around.
"I think his ability to size up the group, and his ability to understand that you are always going to have different personalities," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said when asked what makes Arena so effective. "You can’t necessarily treat every guy and every group the same way. You have to use your experience, your feel for people, and allow that to shape the way you coach a team. I think his experience and his ability to find the right ways to put together teams is certainly at the highest level. I think we’ve all seen that for the past few months."
Goalkeeper Tim Howard believes there's a big difference between the U.S. now and a year ago.
"Well, I think there is less experimentation," Howard said. "As you look at these guys walking around, every single guy contributes. They have a purpose here. Any of them can step on the field and we feel like we are not really going to lose too much. In a lot of positions, we gain with the fresh legs. This is a very balanced team from top to bottom."
Arena's second stint as U.S. coach was an encore few would have envisioned after his exit as coach following the 2006 World Cup. It was an acrimonious split at the time, with Arena taking his share of shots at U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati on his way out the door.
"At times I’ve voiced my opinions in the wrong ways," Arena admitted. "I think you all do that. Probably, I’d say, our president of the United States does that as well, but we all learn from our mistakes and our experiences. At this point I think I’m much more prepared to deal with anything that comes my way."
Arena's return to the U.S. national team almost never happened. A short-lived stint as coach of the New York Red Bulls followed his departure from the U.S. national team, and his dismissal from that job left him feeling much less enthusiastic about the profession he had excelled in for the better part of two decades.
"In 2008 I didn’t think I was going to coach again," Arena said. "I didn’t necessarily have the desire to do it again.
"New York was a bad decision on my part. I should not have taken the job," he continued. "I was probably pushed into it and shouldn’t have taken that job. And no fault of them. They weren’t ready to have that franchise yet. Red Bull didn’t understand what they were getting into. And then when I got there, there weren’t the things I was told that were going to be there, and it was pretty surprising to me.
"And given all of that we made the playoffs both years, but people didn’t think that was good enough."
Arena embarked on a life away from coaching after his exit from the Red Bulls, and began teaching courses at the University of Virginia. He filled his days with rounds of golf and anyone who spent time with him during that stint came across a much happier person. Only a very attractive offer from the Galaxy kept him from veering down a path toward the alternative universe where coach Arena no longer existed, replaced instead by professor Arena.
"I went out to LA and interviewed not thinking that I was going to take the job," Arena said. "I had my nice little plan of teaching some courses at UVA, and hanging out and seeing what that was going to be like."
Luckily for the Galaxy and U.S. national team, Arena is still a coach. Now he has the task of molding the current U.S. squad into a winning team, while also handling the responsibility of integrating a generational talent in 18-year-old sensation Christian Pulisic. Arena has some experience in that area, having successfully kicked off Donovan's incredible national team career as a teenager, and having helped lead the U.S. to the World Cup quarterfinals while playing a pair of precious 20-year-olds in Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.
What was Arena's secret to pulling off what, to this day, stands a truly impressive coaching feat?
"What he did is he just let us go do what we were good at, and we never knew until many years later what the pressure was like. We never knew how important those (World Cup) games were," Donovan said. "We were just having fun playing and he was smart enough to just stay out of the way and let us be kids.
"A lot of coaches overthink it. They don’t trust the players so they give them too much info. Bruce basically said, 'Guys, just go play. You know what you’re doing. Just go play.' And we were able to just go play and we were successful because of it."
Arena appears to be following a similar approach with Pulisic, who has already responded well to playing under his new coach with a pair of excellent performances in the March qualifiers. Arena isn't one to take credit for that, though, much like he still doesn't take credit for how well the U.S. played for him at the 2002 World Cup.
"The players also played well, you know," Arena said of that team. "Why don’t you give guys on the field some credit for that?"
Don't let that flash of humility fool you. Arena is a supremely confident coach who, 15 years after enjoying success on the sports biggest stage, believes he is a much better coach and the right man to lead the U.S. back to the World Cup for another successful run.
"I know what I’m doing, but at the end of the day we’ll find out if it adds up to anything," Arena said. "I’m pretty confident in the way we have to go about doing our business. Whether we get it done or not remains to be seen."