Kenny Arena had always talked about coaching with Pat Noonan again if either one of them ever became a head coach. They were assistants together under Kenny’s father, Hall of Fame coach Bruce Arena, with the L.A. Galaxy for three years and during one especially trying stint with the U.S. men’s national team in 2017.
After Team USA failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena resigned and the members of that staff all went their separate ways. Kenny Arena had a chance to keep his family in California with a job offer from Bob Bradley on the first staff of expansion team LAFC, and Noonan joined Jim Curtin’s staff with the Philadelphia Union.
But, Kenny Arena and Noonan kept in touch through the next four seasons, and when Noonan accepted the job as FC Cincinnati’s head coach in December, the timing worked out well to bring Arena with him.
The reunion with an overall solid staff so far has proven fruitful for the club. The sixth-place Orange and Blue (6-5-1, 19 points) head into Saturday’s game against Bruce Arena’s New England Revs on a four-game winning streak.
“The most important thing for me was working with Pat,” said Kenny Arena, who began his coaching career as an assistant at alma mater University of Virginia in 2006. “We developed a really good relationship at the Galaxy and the national team. And when we separated, you know, it was a really tough time, not qualifying for the World Cup. But, as we were both finding our next jobs, we always knew that if we had the opportunity to work together again, it would be great. And then just the way we’ve kept in touch over the last four years, our relationship got stronger and stronger. So, I’m really excited to work with and for him and help him as much as I can.”
Kenny Arena had other opportunities to consider this offseason after it became known Bradley was leaving LAFC to take over in Toronto, where he was united with his son, midfielder Michael Bradley. He likely could have stayed in L.A.; he was considered for a job in Miami — the city where he got his first taste of head coaching with Florida International University began — and another option would have been joining his father’s staff with the New England Revolution.
FC Cincinnati seemed like the best opportunity for his own career.
On top of his relationship with Noonan, Arena had known fellow Virginia alum and current FC Cincinnati general manager Chris Albright for a long time, and he played with FCC scouting director Hunter Freeman in college.
A chance to join a club with so many strong ties was appealing. He also liked the idea of helping turn around a team that struggled its first three years in the league, as FCC had finished last in the Supporters Shield standings all three seasons.
“I knew this would be a big challenge,” Kenny Arena said. “I knew it’d be a lot of work. And at this point in my career, that was something that I was looking for. I think there was a possibility of staying in LA. But, you know, the prospects of working with Pat, and the challenge of helping this club move forward, outweighed staying in LA.”
Noonan says he is fortunate to have Kenny Arena on his staff. He saw what kind of coach Kenny was during their time together in L.A. – with both the Galaxy and national team – and enjoyed talking about the game in general in conversations they had over the last few years.
As a first-time head coach, Noonan especially has benefited from having experienced coaches like Kenny Arena around him, and he trusts his assistants with much responsibility.
“He brings a lot of knowledge, experience and passion for coaching,” Noonan said. “You can see it every day. And in training, he loves being out there working with the guys. He holds players accountable, he holds staff members accountable because he’s been in successful environments, and he knows what those conversations look like and how to challenge people to keep us moving forward and improving. So, I’m really pleased to be working with him again, and he’s doing a really good job of helping our staff and our group continue to move forward and improve on a day-to-day basis.”
“He’s his own coach”
Noonan gives much credit for his own development as a coach to Bruce Arena, who was his last coach during a 10-year professional playing career and his first coaching mentor after retiring. So, it’s not surprising he would connect well with Kenny Arena.
The father and son have similar personalities and mannerisms. And no doubt Kenny Arena picked up a lot from Bruce Anrea over the course of his childhood and his own coaching career working alongside him. Bruce Arena is considered one of the most successful coaches in American soccer history, having won five NCAA College Cup titles and five MLS titles and serving as U.S. Soccer’s longest tenured coach (1998-2006, 2016-2017).
Kenny Arena was disappointed he never got to play for his dad. His playing career took him to stops where Bruce Arena had coached, like Virginia and D.C. United, but his dad had already left by the time he arrived in both places. Still, he had watched him work plenty growing up around the game and learned much along the way – especially when he began coaching with him in 2014 with the Galaxy.
“I’ve been around my dad’s teams my whole life,” Kenny Arena said. “So, even as a kid, whether I wanted to or not, I was around all the conversations he had with other coaches, with the teams, with players. And then I think what really made it all come together was when I started working with him. So I learned a lot from him, obviously from afar, being like a fly on the wall, training with his teams. But then finally, being one of his colleagues, that detail in how he works, how he builds a team throughout the year.”
Kenny Arena had always dreamed of coaching with his dad but wasn’t sure if he would ever get the opportunity. He was coaching at FIU in 2013 when Bruce Arena offered him a job to join his staff with the Galaxy. He was grateful to get four years on the sidelines with him. The two won an MLS Cup championship together in 2014.
Asked what he learned most from his dad, Kenny Arena had a hard time naming just one thing because successful people like him are “really good at a lot of things,” he said.
“His leadership, with his personality, is incredible,” Kenny Arena said. “He’s strong and insightful. He has all the details. He leads by example. But he has a calming presence in the most chaotic moments or bad moments. He finds a way to keep people going, keep people confident. And I swear 99% of the teams that he’s had, they’ve always felt like they could win. It’s really an incredible quality. And it’s because of all those things that he brings kind of this aura with him wherever he goes.”
Naturally that aura follows Kenny Arena by name association, but Noonan likes that he is trying to make his own name.
Kenny Arena could have joined his dad’s staff in New England this year and potentially lined up to become Bruce Arena’s successor at some point if he decides to make another attempt at retirement. It would have been an easier task, joining an established group, but Kenny wants to do things his own way, too.
“They are similar in different ways, but he’s his own person and he’s his own coach,” Noonan said. “One thing I really admire about him is he’s carving his own path and he has his own ideas of the game that differ from his father’s, from having experience working with both of them. And he’s finding ways to have messages and relationships that take his father out of the equation because he’s his own coach, and he’s his own person, and I really respect that.
“But there’s no doubt that he’s also brought a lot of ideas and experiences on and off the field from the time he spent with his father. That would be silly to think that there weren’t some of his strengths as a coach that he picked up from working around his father every day. But, he’s his own coach and his own person, and I admire that about him.”
Saturday will mark just the second competitive MLS match Kenny and Bruce Arena will be coaching against one another, though they also faced each other twice in preseason and the Revs also just beat FCC in the U.S. Open Cup last week when the Orange and Blue played a lineup full of backups against a starting-caliber lineup for New England.
The Arenas met once during the 2019 season when Kenny was with LAFC and just two months after Bruce took over at New England, replacing Brad Friedel and also assuming the role of sporting director. LAFC won that one but Kenny says this one will be more competitive because for the previous matchup, the Revs were still in a period of transition after Bruce Arena inherited the team midseason.
“So this game I think is going to be really competitive,” Kenny Arena said. “I think things line up well for both teams to go out there and give their best. But I always tell everyone, he’s playing with house money. He wins or loses against me, it’s not going to make a whole lot of difference for him. I would sure like to beat him. But for him, I don’t think it matters. And his funny quote from the first time we played each other, he just said, you know, ‘If a fight breaks out, I’m gonna take my son.’ This time, he said, ‘If a fight breaks out, I’m going to take Noonan.’”
Bruce Arena joked on a Boston-area radio interview this week that Kenny wouldn’t get his allowance if FC Cincinnati beats New England.
Kenny Arena said he will hug his dad if he gets a chance Saturday. The two talk almost every day even during a week they will face each other because there aren’t many secrets in this league anyway. They also planned to have dinner together Friday, according to Bruce Arena on his regular radio interview.
The only person who might be torn Saturday on who to root for is Kenny’s mom and Bruce’s wife, Phyllis. Kenny said she flew in Wednesday and he expects he will see his parents more often now that he is in Ohio and that flight from Boston isn’t as taxing as it was going to L.A. from the East Coast.
“I tell everybody I think she likes me more than him,” Kenny Arena joked. “I think he knows that too. He’s realistic. I think he knows who she’s rooting for this game. But it’s a win-win for her too.”
Kenny Arena does have aspirations to be a head coach, and he’s faced big challenges that should have him prepared if that opportunity comes.
One of the most trying experiences of his career was during his time with the U.S. men’s national team with his dad. Bruce Arena was tapped to replace Jurgen Klinsmann on Nov. 22, 2016, after Team USA suffered two disastrous losses in the first two matches of the Hexagonal qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup.
Bruce Arena and his staff led the U.S. to a 4-1-2 record over his first seven games but the heavily-favored team needed just one more draw against Trinidad and Tobago in the finale Oct. 10 to qualify and ended up losing 2-1. It was the first time the U.S. hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986. Three days later, Bruce Arena resigned, saying there were no excuses for failing.
“We took on that huge challenge, which was an incredible experience, and even though it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, it’s an experience that I will take with me forever,” Kenny Arena said. “Even though it was one of the hardest results of my life. I feel like we all grew a lot from it. So and you see how he’s doing now. And you see how Pat is doing now and a lot of people have gone on to be successful after those tough results.”
Kenny Arena had fully anticipated going to the World Cup, so he hadn’t lined up a job for 2018 but was grateful for another job in L.A. with the LAFC expansion team in 2018.
That experience was more difficult than what he walked into with FCC, even though LAFC found quick success and the Orange and Blue are still trying to figure it all out in their fourth season. Kenny Arena felt like his expansion team experience could be beneficial to Cincinnati.
“Being an expansion team might be more challenging than coming into this situation,” Kenny Arena said. “So I kind of felt like my experience with an expansion team would help me here, where the team’s trying to start fresh and establish themselves as a more competitive team. And, like, at LAFC, I mean, we started from scratch, so I think coming in and being able to watch the team play games for seasons, gave me such a good idea of what we had to work with and kind of a good picture of where we wanted to go, that I kind of believed from the start that we could be okay. It’s been nice how it’s turned out so far. But we’re not fooling ourselves. We know there’s a lot more work to do.”
FCC is just a third of the way through the season but already has surpassed last year’s win total and matched the club’s all-time win total from 2019. A win Saturday would be the fifth straight in league play.
Certainly, if the Orange and Blue continue on this path, being a part of an impressive turnaround for a three-time last place finisher would look nice on a résumé, but Kenny Arena said that’s not on his mind right now.
“I’m trying to just take it day by day, week by week and get better and hopefully prepare myself one day to be a head coach as well, but while I am an assistant and while I’m here, I really like the role of an assistant,” Kenny Arena said. “I think it’s just a great opportunity to fill in all the cracks and do whatever your head coach needs and I try to build relationships with the players and the staff and people around you. And that’s it for now.
“Anyone in this profession should want to get to the highest level they can, but the only way to do that is to win, be a good person, like my my father, like Pat,” Kenny Arena added. “Incredible integrity, people you can trust and count on and obviously then the results speak for themselves. So that’s all I’m trying to do is prepare myself to do that in whatever role I have. And I’m super happy to be at FC Cincinnati. And honestly, I think more about today and tomorrow than I do about being somewhere else.”
Today he’s thinking about beating his dad’s team.
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