Considered too small to play when he was a 5-2, 100-pound freshman quarterback at Carey High School five decades ago, Bruce Arena switched from one type of football to another.
In Arena’s first varsity soccer game as a junior, the Carey goalkeeper punched an opponent and was suspended for the season. Arena was drafted to backstop the team.
“I played 20 minutes as a midfielder and my career was over. I could have been the equivalent of [Johan] Cruyff,” Arena quipped years later.
The Franklin Square teenager didn’t realize it at the time, but a path began to open up for him to become the finest American soccer coach — college, pro and internationally. Now he has a second tenure as national coach. Arena was named to the position Tuesday, replacing Jurgen Klinsmann.
“It’s really interesting that he should become a guru in soccer because as an athlete, he was a great lacrosse player who also played soccer,” said Mike Candel, his Nassau Community College lacrosse coach, who also covered the sport for Newsday. “Soccer was clearly second fiddle, even though he was really good.”
Like many baby boomers, Arena took a familiar route to Long Island. His parents moved from Brooklyn a month after he and twin sister Barbara were born in 1951 (he has two older brothers, Paul and Mike). His father, Vincent, was a butcher; his mother, Adeline, drove a school bus.
“But there was never anything we didn’t have,” Arena 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.”
Arena’s immersion into soccer was gradual and eye-opening.
He discovered the N.Y. Hota/Bavarians (Cosmopolitan Soccer League) when he was invited to play for a youth team. Arena lived a mile from Hota’s Park Stadium.
“I didn’t know Hota existed until someone invited me to play,” he said. “There were probably like 4,000, 5,000 people. It opened up a world of soccer that I didn’t know. It was a very intimidating experience.”
Lacrosse helped open more doors. When Arena experienced problems attracting a college with a decent lacrosse program, Paul, who played on NCC’s first national championship team, called Candel to look at his brother. He didn’t need much convincing, and the Lions won two more national junior college lacrosse titles while Bruce was there. He earned junior college All-America midfield honors before transferring to Cornell in 1971.
“Bruce was a glue player,” Candel said. “He did the things that we needed to make a difference between a very good team and a great team. He was a star who did all the things you need to be great.”
Former Cosmos and Arrows goalkeeper Shep Messing, a TV analyst with the Red Bulls and Cosmos, attended NCC for a semester, helping out his former Wheatley High School coach, Bill Stevenson, before transferring to Harvard. He mentored Arena, who was a quick study.
“We talked for hours,” Messing said. “He wanted to know every play, every sequence. The way he comes across, a New Yorker and a little brash, he’s underestimated on how intelligent he is. He’s extremely analytical.”
“He taught me how to play in the goal,” Arena said. “He took a raw athlete and made him into a goalkeeper.”
Not unlike today, Arena was no shrinking violet.
“He was very cocky, very confident,” said Red Bulls director of education and former Adelphi coach Bob Montgomery, that team’s center back. “He had his wit and sarcasm. I was probably the brunt of it.”
In his sophomore year, NCC finished fourth in the nationals. Arena earned All-American honors (0.94 GAA, 12 shutouts).
In 1978, he was offered Virginia’s assistant lacrosse job and head soccer post. Arena called his ex-coach for advice.
“I said, ‘Bruce, what do you want to do? You’re single. If you’re going to make a move to become a college coach, now is the time. You’re jumping right into the big time. It’s a great opportunity,’ ” Candel said.
The rest is soccer history. Arena guided Virginia to five NCAA Division I titles and D.C. United and LA Galaxy to five MLS Cups. He is the only coach to direct the U.S. into two World Cups.
“I put him up in the category of the greatest coaches in this country in all sports,” Messing said. “People are so stereotypical about American soccer, players and coaches. He’s as smart as [Manchester United coach Jose] Mourinho or [Manchester City’s Pep] Guardiola. He, in his own way, is in the top echelon.”
The Bruce Arena file
Born Sept. 21, 1951, in Brooklyn (age 65)
High school: Carey
Colleges: Nassau CC, Cornell
* All-time U.S. national team record is 71-30-29.
* Also coached the U.S. Olympic team at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games
* Earned All-American honors in soccer and lacrosse at Nassau Community College and in lacrosse at Cornell
* Helped Cornell reach the Division I soccer Final Four in 1972. Named the tournament’s top defensive player
* Inducted into National Junior College Lacrosse Coaches Association Hall of Fame (2008), into National Soccer Hall of Fame (2010)
* Chosen by Cosmos as the 45th and final pick of 1973 NASL college draft
* Lone U.S. national team came as a sub in a 2-0 loss in Israel Nov. 15, 1973
* Represented U.S. in two World Lacrosse Championships (1974, 1978)