Bruce Arena has been around MLS for a long time, and, for as long as he's been around it, he's been hoisting its trophies on a regular basis. Given his MLS pedigree, it should come as no surprise that when Bruce Arena sits down with a reporter and gives his thoughts on the league, there is a weight and importance to his insights that simply no other MLS coach commenting on the league commands.
Recently, Bruce Arena sat down with Jeff Carlisle of ESPNFC, and the resulting interview was both illuminating in terms of the insights offered and peculiar in the dichotomy it offered when compared with how the LA Galaxy are currently conducting their business.
When I first read the interview, I did an honest to God spit take after reading the following passage:
When asked if dilution of the player pool was an issue, Arena said he wouldn't describe the problem that way. Instead, he said, there is too much of an emphasis on international players.
"This league should be focused on our domestic players, and we're losing that," Arena told ESPNFC. While it's a sentiment many in the world of American soccer would agree with, it's one that is particularly odd coming from the GM of a team bringing in Ashley Cole, Jelle Van Damme and in hot pursuit of Nigel De Jong.
But the perplexities didn't stop there. Bruce Arena then went on to assess the role of academies is MLS.
Arena is of the belief the academy programs that each MLS club now has are an important step in improving the level of play, but he thinks the academies' ability to consistently produce high-caliber players is five to 10 years away..."We still have this gap out of the academy. Are they ready to play for the next team, the second team or the first team? It's not like we're carrying them all the way through."
Here, again, the Galaxy boss seems to be preaching from a place of truth, but also from a place of real disconnect with how things are being run on his own team.
In 2015, Raul Mendiola had 5 goals and 11 assists across USL, US Open Cup and CCL. His per 90 rates are equally impressive, with 0.53 assists p90 and a 0.77 Goals+Assists p90. Obviously, this is against weaker competition, but when 21 year-olds around the world put up those kinds of numbers within a second team set-up, first team minutes are usually not far behind.
Such was not the case with Raul Mendiola in 2015, who saw zero MLS minutes, despite a clear and present need on the first team for some level of chance creation from a stagnant midfield. Bruce can talk about the "gap out of the academy" all he wants, but as long as it's Baggio Husidic coming in as wing sub in that crucial playoff game in Seattle, said gap is partially of his own making.
Let's look at another example. In 2015, Jose Villarreal came out of the gates flying with a Goals+Assists per 90 minutes rate of 0.67. To put that into perspective, that comes out to 23 goals+assists if prolonged over an entire season of minutes.
Of course, goals+assists rates are fairly statistically meaningless, but I bring it up to show that Jose Villarreal was certainly getting the type of results on the field that coaches usually reward with playing time. From an analytics standpoint, Villarreal was putting up 0.38 xG+xA p90, which comes out to 12.83 xG+xA over an entire season of minutes. Not quite as spectacular, but any 22 year-old who's projected to give you a goal or an assist over 1/3 of the time he plays a full 90, is worth attention.
If Jose Villarreal can stay healthy, he absolutely deserves to be in competition with Sebastian Lletget for minutes at left mid. It's not a competition that he will necessarily win, but he certainly brings elements to the table that Lletget does not (mainly chance creation), and, given how often Lletget was subbed off last year, there are certainly plenty of sub minutes to be had playing behind him.
Sure his natural position is as a withdrawn center forward, but if Robbie Keane were to go down, it's hard seeing Arena going with Villarreal over Gordon, and with the recent signing of Mike Magee and soon to be signing of Ashley Cole (thereby giving Arena the option to play Rogers at left mid if the need arises), the path isn't exactly being cleared for Villarreal to succeed at left mid, despite what he's already proven on the field.
Most importantly, the value of Arena's propensity for giving veterans sub minutes over young players (as documented here), hasn't exactly been self-evident to date, especially when you consider how much growth we saw from guys like Jose Villarreal and Bradford Jamieson IV when roster sparsity early on in the season allowed for them to get playing time. Sure Alan Gordon has worked out nicely, but he's also been a tactical crutch for Bruce Arena as his go to sub when down a goal, even in situations where the Galaxy's stagnant midfield was to blame.
Breaking it down
So what exactly is going on with Bruce Arena in this interview? Could he really be this blind to his own sins?
If Bruce Arena thinks there is too much emphasis put on foreign players, why did he make it such a priority in the off-season to go out and sign so many?
If Bruce Arena thinks there is a talent gap to be bridged to get youngsters to first team level, why sign a guy like Mike Magee instead of fostering two homegrown wingers in Villarreal and Mendiola who look clearly poised to jump said gap, if given the opportunity?
Perhaps it's this chai-tea I'm drinking, but I feel like veering this editorial someplace more profound than simply admonishing the hypocrisy of his statements, because I think there is something very human going on here-- A war of idealism and pragmatism.
At one point in the interview, Arena states, "[the Galaxy] don't have any excuses here either. We have international players." It's an interesting statement because Arena clearly measures the Galaxy against the principals he's espousing and concludes the team is coming up short. His word choice is also fascinating. To whom would Bruce Arena, the most decorated coach in American soccer history, have to excuse himself to, and why?
In that one statement, idealism and pragmatism collide and from the debris comes a very human moment. Is Bruce Arena a hypocrite for not practicing what he preaches? Sure, but he admits it, and who among us do not have to face similar self-admissions on a daily basis as we strive and fail to live up to our ideals?
As a manager and a GM, Bruce Arena always does what he feels needs to be done in order to end the season with an MLS Cup, and, in the case of 2016, this appears to mean putting aside his feelings about the value of American talent. This also means taking the pragmatic approach of going with guys who have proven more over their careers than the youngsters waiting in the wings.
And perhaps this is the true key to Bruce Arena's success. As MLS sees an influx of younger coaches and former players, idealism springs eternal league wide. How else can one describe what is going on in Dallas?
But what, ultimately, does idealism get you? Marcelo Bielsa is often described as an idealist, and, undoubtedly, his radical ideas have been fundamental to the success of many coaching giants including Pep Guardiola, but in terms of success, he only has a 46% win percentage and an Olympic Gold Medal to his name.
Idealism is all well and good, but to get anything done in this world, sacrifices must be made at the alter of pragmatism, and no one in MLS history has been better at this than Bruce Arena.