A conversation with Bruce Arena
Bruce Arena is one of the most successful coaches in the history of Major League Soccer and of the U.S. men's national team program. He is currently in his fifth season as the general manager and coach of the L.A. Galaxy, which has won the MLS Cup the past two seasons.
Arena previously served as head coach for the New York Red Bulls, and was D.C. United's first coach in 1996 (he led the team to two MLS titles). His 128 career regular-season wins are also the second most in MLS history.
As head coach of the U.S. national team, Arena is the program's all-time wins leader, compiling a 71-30-29 record over eight seasons. He led Team USA to the World Cup twice, including a historic quarterfinal berth in 2002, and to two CONCACAF Gold Cup titles, in 2002 and 2005.
Arena started his coaching career in the college ranks. He spent 18 seasons as men's head coach at the University of Virginia, where he led the Cavaliers to five ACC championships and five national championships, including four straight from 1991-94.
Question from Val Ackerman: How would you describe the progress of women's soccer over the past 20 or 25 years?
Answer from Bruce Arena: Women's soccer has progressed tremendously. At the collegiate level, it continues to grow and is much more competitive than it was in the early days when North Carolina dominated. As I go around the country with our professional team, the L.A. Galaxy, and we see the different academy programs, the number of young girls and young women playing today is unbelievable, and they've progressed in so many ways within the game. If we saw the numbers that are published with participation in sports, I would think that on the women's side, soccer is probably the highest-participation sport.
Q: What have been the key factors behind this growth?
A: I first started coaching at the collegiate level, and more seriously in 1978 at the University of Virginia. At that time, I witnessed the early impressions Title IX was making on women's athletics. Title IX has obviously helped women's sports across the board, but soccer in particular. And then, around the world, FIFA is getting behind the sport now and [making] soccer a global sport for women.
Q: Do you see any parallels in the ways that men's and women's soccer have evolved?
A: There are similarities. However, I actually think the growth of the women's game has been much stronger than the men's, which some people would think is an odd statement. But the men have been going at it in this country for close to 100 years, and the women's game has taken off since about 1970.
Although there have obviously been some ups and downs in terms of trying to professionalize the sport, the growth has been tremendous, and we see today [that despite] the obvious physical differences men and women have, tactically and technically there are a lot of similarities in the way the sport has grown on the women's side. I think it's [happened] probably at a little faster rate than it has on the men's side.
Q: Can you expand on the ways the two sports are technically similar or different? For example, is it like basketball, where one version is above the rim and the other is below it?
A: There is a similar analogy in soccer in that the women play on the ground a lot more. Technically, they pass quite well from early ages. The sport isn't as physical as men's soccer, where the ball's up in the air and there's contact. Yes, there's the obvious contact you have with any sport, but the women have gotten better technically in terms of how they pass and take on players. We see that at young ages now, as well.
Q: Is coaching a factor?
A: I think it is. The coaching has really become outstanding over the past 10 years. As in other women's sports, men are deeply involved, as well as women. Our women's national team program is headed up by a gentleman of Scottish descent [Tom Sermanni], but all of our [female youth] national teams involve former players who have helped evolve the game. And the other part I've detected in my experiences with coaching girls or women is, they are much more receptive to coaching than men.
Q: In what ways?
A: They're eager to learn, and I believe they're more disciplined in terms of their concentration and training. We all know, in young kids, that's a little bit of an issue on both sides, but I think in the teens and at the collegiate level, my impressions are that women are much more receptive to coaching. At the professional level, we know in every sport sometimes the athletes are not the most receptive, and there are a lot of other factors they're interested in, including probably the dollar. But I haven't seen that much contamination yet on the women's side.
Q: How much does soccer have to compete with other women's sports in terms of attracting athletes? For example, is soccer competing with field hockey or lacrosse or even basketball for the same player?
A: I think on the men's side, the sport of football really impacts the participation of boys or men in soccer. On the women's side, there are certainly many other possible sports, but women's soccer has been able to attract some outstanding athletes.
Q: You mentioned earlier that North Carolina had been dominant for so long in women's college soccer. What do you see now in terms of parity?
A: We still need to be patient with the growth of the women's game, but at the collegiate level, it has been tremendous. You visit SEC institutions and see the soccer stadiums that have been built over the years. At the Division I level, there are probably 200-some-odd schools that play women's soccer.
In my early days as a collegiate coach, North Carolina won possibly 15 consecutive championships. There might have been one year where George Mason won. Today, it's very competitive. Carolina's not even the dominant team in the ACC anymore. Florida State's very good. The University of Maryland is outstanding. Virginia is [competing at a high level] nationally. Notre Dame continues to be competitive for championships every year. Stanford and the Pac-12 have grown. The Big Ten has grown. The Northeast schools in women's soccer are also very competitive.
It's probably not the kind of parity people want, but each and every year, there are 10 or 15 schools that [could] win the NCAA championship, so that shows you how much the sport has grown at the collegiate level. And although the final four [in women's soccer] perhaps isn't close yet [in popularity] to women's basketball, I think in time it's going to get there.
Q: The next Women's World Cup will be played in 2015 in Canada. Do you have any predictions about the competition there?
A: The women from North Korea have an excellent team. The Chinese and Japanese clubs [are progressing]. The Nigerians are now outstanding on the women's side. The fact that the U.S. isn't automatically the winner in World Cups has made it much more interesting. And now that countries like Germany, France and England are so active, it's become extremely competitive. We saw it at the last World Cup, where the Germans and Canadians gave the U.S. everything they could handle. I think when the World Cup goes to Canada in 2015, there's going to be a lot of unknowns. We believe the U.S. is going to win, but there's legitimately going to be six, seven, eight countries that are going to compete to win.
So, the growth of the game globally is unbelievable, and now FIFA is fully supportive of the sport and has endorsed not only the Women's World Cup, but the various world championships in different age groups, as well.
Q: Are the Americans doing anything special to keep our national team program on top?
A: Around the world, young players turn professional at early ages on the men's side. It's not uncommon that, at 16 years old, you're a professional. In our country, we're very fortunate to have a collegiate system that trains the top women's players in the world. So, if you see a Women's World Cup, there will be a number of women that played collegiate soccer in the United States. We have a great training environment, not only for the women in our country, but from around the world. That's a big difference between the two sports.
We're not as dominant as we used to be, but that's good. The growth of the women's game in the United States has helped grow the sport globally, and now it's much more competitive. In our region, the Mexicans are getting better and the Canadians are outstanding, so the sport is growing in so many ways.
Q: Let's shift gears and talk about women's professional soccer. Why do you think the success of the national team hasn't carried over to the pro leagues that have been attempted up to this point?
A: In this country, professional sports are a lot different than anywhere in the world. The competition for the sports dollar in this country is unique, with the NFL, NBA, hockey, baseball, soccer, and so on. And around the world, it's usually just soccer, so the competition here makes it difficult.
But this time around, with the support of U.S. Soccer, the new [National Women's Soccer League] has gotten the Canadian and Mexican federations to help financially support the league and also get some of their players involved. They have a better financial model in place and, in the early going, I think there is going to be patience. So, if we give it time, the women's professional league is going to be around for many years to come, and hopefully this new plan will make it work.
Q: You talked about the other two federations being involved. That's obviously a new feature. What about the marketing behind the league? What's the most effective approach there?
A: With the right kind of marketing approach, a lot of young ladies are going to be household names because they're very talented athletes. They are very personable and have a great story. Hopefully, in time, that story will get out and people will be more supportive and get behind this league, [so we can] give young girls in this country an opportunity to dream about being a professional in that sport. And again, the most important thing is the right kind of financial model and patience on the part of not only ownership, but the public, as well.
Q: Who do you foresee being in the league's fan base? Will it be different than the base for men's soccer or could we expect crossover?
A: I think it's going to be young girls and young women, and the young women are the women who have had experience as players in the sport. There's really not a crossover [with MLS], but there doesn't need to be because there are so many millions that are involved in the sport. There's a fan base that's certainly able to support a professional women's league and support this sport at all levels.
Q: What are you seeing in terms of women who are functioning as executives in the sport of soccer, whether with national teams or at the club level or internationally? Has there been growth in that area? And what do you predict in terms of expanded opportunities in the future?
A: We don't see a lot of women involved in our sport on the management or technical side, but we see women involved in marketing and communications, and that's obviously going to be one of the next steps in terms of growth and an area where we can certainly improve as a sport. There are so many women with experience in the sport who are educated appropriately and can start making moves in the management area.
Q: What factors are going to be important for the growth of women's soccer in the future?
A: We're approaching an era where former players now have their own children. They're actively involved in the sport, and that's going to be an impetus in growing the sport, not only technically on the field and [in terms of] participation, but also because of their support [as fans]. The pro league and continued success of our women's national team will provide enough exposure on television to keep the sport in the limelight, and as they continue to have success, I think it only contributes to the growth.
But one thing I see, and it's absolutely remarkable, is the growth at the youth level. We were in Dallas two weeks ago and observed a team of 11-year-old girls training. We were shocked at their technical ability. My [Galaxy] coach's daughter plays on a team of 11-year-olds here in Southern California, and these young ladies and their parents have so much more experience with the sport. I think that's only going to pay dividends down the road.
Q: So it's safe to say you're bullish?
A: I think, in the next 10 years in this country, women's sports are going to take off. I was in awe of the Women's Final Four in basketball a couple of weeks ago. I could not believe that level of play, and I think that is what's happening in soccer in this country. With the competition we now face globally, with the motivation U.S. Soccer has to maintain its stature and with the [new] professional league, I think the future for women's soccer in this country is tremendous.
One hundred years from now, when we look back at the success in the growth of women's sports, certainly Title IX is the story. We see all the good things that have happened because of it. People like myself, at the time, thought it was wrong on so many fronts. I was absolutely wrong on every front.
Q: In what way?
A: I thought it would take away from men. Nothing was taken away from men. It was appropriate to give women opportunities to participate and they've taken those opportunities and have grown them at every level. I think it's tremendous. It really is.