Bruce Arena can revive New England, but only if the Revolution buy into his vision
In a bid to change the organization's future, the New England Revolution have looked to MLS' past. Bruce Arena is back, taking on the dual roles of sporting director and manager with the Revs.
It's a move that makes sense on multiple levels. On the NFL side, Kraft Sports Group has given New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick the kind of freedom to run the organization as he sees fit, resulting in six Super Bowl titles in 18 years. Arena is used to operating in a similar fashion, making the relationship, at least outwardly, look like a good match.
The entire Revolution organization on the technical side needs a reboot as well, particularly in terms of allocating more resources. This goes beyond simply shelling out money for another designated player, like the Revs attempted to do with Paul-Jose M'Poku to the tune of a reported $14 million total before the deal fell through. With the advent of targeted allocation money (TAM), there needs to be an increased commitment to scouting to fill out the remainder of the roster. While the hiring of Remi Roy as director of scouting back in 2018 and the subsequent addition of Sergio Neveleff as an international scout were positive steps, more needs to be done to catch up to the rest of the league.
New England's penchant for grinding players down over contracts has long put it near the bottom of players' preferred destinations. While the league's player-acquisition mechanisms do plenty to stifle choice, there are enough holes that when the opportunity to leave presented itself, lots of players voted with their feet, from Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst in the 2000s to Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones in the 2010s. Looked at another way, the Revs haven't signed a single player using the league's free-agent mechanism since its inception in 2015. (Jalil Anibaba was signed via a different mechanism, as his seven service years at the time of his signing meant he wasn't technically a free agent.)
Given Arena's track record in MLS, most recently with the LA Galaxy, he has the know-how in terms of what needs to be done to address these issues. Given free rein in L.A., it didn't take Arena long to turn things around, with the Galaxy finishing atop the Western Conference in his first full season in charge. The Galaxy went on to claim three MLS Cup titles in the next four seasons.
In this time, Arena showed an ability to bend the leagues roster rules to his advantage. Given the current state of the Revs' roster, that will no doubt come in handy.
As for Arena, the decision to join the Revs was easy. The most recent image of him on the sideline is the horrific night in Couva, Trinidad, when the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. This is a way to at least write a different final chapter to his coaching career. Arena is also a soccer junkie, and he has been keen to get back in the game ever since, with sources confirming that Arena sought positions both with the Galaxy and the Columbus Crew before landing with New England. He'll also have the same kind of power and control of the technical side that he had with the Galaxy.
There are no guarantees that this move will be a simple tap-in in terms of success, however. There is the sense that Arena wouldn't have taken the job without assurances from Kraft Sports Group that he will be provided with the requisite resources. Such are the sentiments when the ink on the contract isn't quite dry. The coming months will reveal the extent to which the organization's commitment proves sufficient.
Arena's history is by no means blemish-free, either. The World Cup qualifying failure leaves the kind of stain that can't be washed away, and there's more. His 15-month stint with the New York Red Bulls was middling at best. While the Red Bulls made the playoffs both years, they were bounced in the first round both times. They were also never more than a mid-table side, finishing sixth out of 14 teams in his one full season in charge. This was a team that also had two DPs in Claudio Reyna and Juan Pablo Angel, giving it an advantage over most MLS sides at the time. His final two seasons with the Galaxy witnessed a bit of a drop-off as well in terms of the team's performance.
MLS has also continued to evolve over the past 2½ years. The acquisition and spending of TAM has become more important as more money has been pumped into the system.
Then there is the criticism that Arena has been left behind tactically. Without question, he made his share of mistakes during his most recent stint with the U.S., most notably his insistence on playing with a single holding midfielder in the game against Trinidad & Tobago. The level of coaching in MLS also has more of an international flavor now and become more sophisticated.
But over the course of his career, Arena has proved himself adaptable in terms of dealing with the league's arcane roster rules. That shouldn't be an issue. The tactical element will be one to watch, although Arena's team-building, both in terms of personnel and the interpersonal relationships, on the field can do plenty to mitigate that.
The reality is that the Revs were in danger of being lapped by the rest of the league. Arena has the skill set to revive the franchise, but that will only happen if the rest of the organization buys into his vision.