Steve Cherundolo has a lot on his plate this weekend. Fresh off a semifinal series win over the Philadelphia Union that advanced his side into the 2023 Concacaf Champions League final, he’ll lead LAFC north to the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, where the San Jose Earthquakes will aim to ambush the Black & Gold in front of a bumper crowd expected to run well beyond 40,000 spectators.
But Cherundolo says he’d just as soon plop down along the Lake Ontario waterfront at BMO Field, where his former US men’s national team coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley will lock horns when the MLS-leading New England Revolution visit Toronto FC in the same Saturday evening timeslot (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
“If I wasn't in San Jose enjoying my work at LAFC, I'd love to be there to watch those two go at it,” said Cherundolo on Thursday afternoon, “because they are two amazing competitors.”
Bradley (age 65) vs. Arena (age 71) marks a faceoff between the two oldest coaches in the league, whose names top the two most extensive coaching trees in US soccer. They’re the two active coaches with the most career MLS wins, most Audi MLS Cup Playoffs wins and most Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year awards. Their roots trace back to the dawn of MLS when they worked together to build the D.C. United dynasty that set the standard for what was to come. Yet they’ve also had a big hand in some of the boldest, newest stories of the present.
Arena’s five MLS Cup wins and four Supporters’ Shields are the most ever in both categories, and his USMNT’s 2002 quarterfinal run is the deepest World Cup run in US and Canadian men’s history. Even in the wake of his biggest-ever setback, the national team’s stunning failure to qualify for Russia 2018, his Revs set a new single-season MLS points record in 2021, showing his particular blend of player empowerment, adept psychological management and acerbic wit still had legs.
“He's probably better than anyone I've ever met at identifying the right guys and the right players that can win you a championship,” former LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire start Mike Magee told MLSsoccer.com this week. “Now, when you're doing the right things and winning, and he believes in you and trusts you, you can do whatever you want. But if you stop performing, you're not a good teammate, and you're not doing the right things, then you'll be out the door. Once you learn that and understand that, it just kind of makes you bleed for the club.
“Bruce finds a way to make guys keep playing and dig down deep and win for him, and win for the front office. And that's what makes him the best American coach of all time.”
That LAFC juggernaut that won an MLS Cup-Shield double last season (in the process displacing the Galaxy from the high ground that Arena guided them to), has yet to taste defeat in league play this year and is well on course to rack up further hardware in the coming months?
While now led by Cherundolo, the Black & Gold’s front-foot, slick-passing ethos was crafted and launched by Bradley on his Stateside return from several adventurous years abroad in charge of Egypt’s national team, Norwegian overachievers Stabæk, French side Le Havre and Swansea City, the latter marking the first-ever American to manage in the English Premier League.
“The last four years we did here at LAFC were a very intensive education into a certain style of play,” Ante Razov, an assistant in Los Angeles since the club’s 2018 debut and a key striker on Bradley’s Chicago Fire and Chivas USA teams.
“[One] that I was a fan of in discussions with [Bradley] for many, many years before LAFC ever came around, ideas of football, and to put it now on a blank canvas and to be able to work and really dig deep into a very specific style of play that the league hadn't seen, to be fair, up to that point. And to continue now with Steve here, continue this model of play, it’s had a massive effect on me. I'm forever indebted to him for allowing me to work within that space.”
The Landon Donovan MLS MVP in 2013 after his return to his hometown club, Magee won two MLS Cups and two Shields with Arena in LA. But he began his professional career as a teenager under Bradley, who’d spotted his potential well before bringing him to the MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls) via the 2003 SuperDraft presented by adidas.
“He played a huge role in getting me to the U-17 national team back when everyone was in ODP [Olympic Development Program] – I didn't do ODP, I played baseball and soccer, I’d probably never watched a soccer game at that point,” recalled Magee, who today runs his own liquor business, Sneaky Fox Spirits, and will field a team under the same name in the new TST 7v7 tournament taking place in North Carolina next month.
“If I didn't play there, who knows where I'd be? Bob was huge for me. He drafted me at a time when I was a child, 17 or 18 years old, wasn't by any means a great pro yet. He really started kind of beating some things into me and I wish I’d gotten to play for him longer back when I was a little more mature. But the things he did for me, the places I got, I never would have gotten without Bob.”
Revs center back Omar González was Magee’s teammate on Arena’s best Galaxy sides, and says the coach’s trademark sarcasm is even spicier behind the scenes than on camera. But he values the way in which it was deployed to coax the best out of himself.
“He doesn't let you lie to yourself. He cuts straight to the point, no bulls--t. And that's nice in a way,” said González. “Sometimes you try and give yourself excuses of why this didn't work out. He's like, ‘No, no, no, you can do this. Just get it done.’ And that's it. And it causes you to really be honest with yourself and say, ‘I can do this. I need to do this. I will do this.’”
As Revs striker and longtime USMNTer Jozy Altidore put it: “[Arena’s] man management is terrific. He has a way of making sure the entire squad feels needed, feels respected, and I think that's a big part of it. When you're managing professionals, men who have their own families, their own everything, you have to know the way to deal with them and talk to them. And to Bruce's credit, I think he's done it for a number of years. I've seen, just being here in New England, I feel like he's totally transformed this place, making it a destination.”
Speak with those who’ve worked with both coaches, and a contrast takes shape: between Arena’s smart-aleck minimalism and Bradley’s intensity and hands-on idealism.
“Personality-wise, they are so different,” said Sacha Kljestan, who retired last winter before becoming a lead commentator on MLS 360. “Bruce is so much more laid-back and Bob was so much more, like, just on top of things, and held everybody accountable, which I loved. I loved playing for Bob because you knew where you stood. He held people accountable. He said it like it was.
“I always kind of had a healthy fear of Bob as a young player, like when I was a rookie, just because he was so serious,” added Kljestan, who played for Bradley at Chivas USA and worked under both coaches on the USMNT. “And he didn't laugh all that often. But when he did, it was the loudest laugh in the room. He never took it easy on me, and I liked that. I always wanted to be coached throughout my entire career; whether I was a rookie or whether it was my last year, I wanted to be challenged. And he always challenged me the most.”
Therein lies another notable distinction between the two legends.
“When you install a game model such as the one that was here at LAFC, it has to be very detail-oriented,” said Razov. “When it's from the beginning, you don't leave anything to chance. Organic things develop as you go through trainings and the games, but he had a specific idea in mind and it needed to be executed.
“Bruce definitely is more of a laid-back style of management, probably better for older players. We have a lot of younger players at LAFC … I think Bob likes to mold, young players, young minds, trying to open them up to different things. Bruce is more of the classic manager where he's got some veterans and they kind of lead the thing."
Just as not everyone warms to Arena’s sharp tongue and disdain for complexities and chalk talk, Bradley’s forceful personality and attention to detail are not universally appreciated.
Altidore achieved great things with Bradley and his son Michael on the USMNT, including a run to the 2009 Confederations Cup final, before winning a historic treble alongside Michael at TFC in 2017. Saturday marks his first return to Toronto since leaving the Reds after the 2021 season, and he still considers it “a club that I love.”
Yet while Altidore is thrilled at the chance to reconnect with friends, fans and former teammates in The Six, he says he found the Bradleys’ father-son dynamic a challenging factor to work with.
"It's never easy, but I think it could be managed better,” said Altidore. “Hopefully it's something that he continues to work on and improve with. Obviously, his history speaks for himself – did a great job in Egypt, a number of good years with the national team, top coach. But I think he's got a real challenge out there [at TFC].
“I know it's a hot topic about nepotism, favoritism. I'm not taking a dig at Bob,” he added. “I'm just saying it's a challenge I feel like he can deal with better. And it's something he'll have to navigate. So I have a lot of respect for him. I hope he can figure it out because I know it's not easy.”
The Toronto job has shaped up to be uniquely challenging, even for a coach of Bradley’s stature. The Reds splashed out the biggest wages in MLS history to bring Italian superstar Lorenzo Insigne to Canada last year and also invested heavily in his countryman Federico Bernardeschi. Yet that’s contributed to a top-heavy roster packed with youth that will have to be adroitly managed if TFC are to reach their past heights.
With Insigne hampered by injuries after a midseason arrival, they went 9W-18L-7D in Bradley’s first season in charge. After a flurry of draws in the opening stages of 2023, Toronto produced their most impressive outing of the season in last week’s 1-0 win over New York City FC and can make a statement with a strong showing against the Revs.
That can only add further spice to the latest edition of the Bob vs. Bruce matchup – which somewhat surprisingly has only taken place six times before.
Their career head-to-head record is presently balanced at two wins, two losses and two draws apiece. It’s important, though, to note one of those meetings looms larger than the rest: The epic 1998 MLS Cup final in which Bradley’s Fire upset Arena’s D.C. 2-0 at the Rose Bowl, becoming the first and only expansion side in league history to win a championship. Notably, a raft of future pro coaches wore Chicago colors in the win, including Razov, Jesse Marsch, Frank Klopas, Chris Armas, CJ Brown and Josh Wolff.
“That was a real special feeling on that day,” recalled Razov, “and I know Bob was really proud.”
While Saturday’s Matchday 11 clash might not pose quite the same stakes, their former players are certain Arena and Bradley will want this W just a bit more than usual, even if they’d never admit as much.
“I guarantee you they both say no,” said Magee. “And they’d both be lying.
“They're both two incredibly competitive guys. incredibly successful. And I'm sure they look at each other as the best, and everyone wants to beat the best. And that's what those two guys are.”