Before he became one of the best-known soccer coaches in the U.S., Bruce Arena spent a memorable year coaching at Puget Sound.
Steam poured out from the grille of the “Loggermobile,” the University of Puget Sound’s team bus.
It was not an elegant vehicle. Built sometime in the ’60s, it wasn’t really even a bus at all—it was a 15-passenger stretch Chevy Suburban, the type of ungainly behemoth typically reserved for use as an airport shuttle or an ambulance. Now, on the way back from playing a match at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the Loggermobile had given up the ghost.
The entire men’s soccer team—some 18 players and coaches jammed together—emerged from this veritable clown car to wander the side of the highway in rural Washington state. A few older players made their way to a gas station, picking up some beers to kill the time.
The team’s coach—a 24-year-old, promising professional goalkeeper named Bruce Arena—jumped into action, heading over to a nearby payphone.
“(Bruce) and his assistant, Frank Gallo, they called UPS and the school just said, ‘Get home any way you can,’” remembers former UPS goalkeeper Ken Tallquist ’78, who laughs as he paints the rest of the picture. “They rented this U-Haul moving truck, I remember. No windows, it had that little area above the cab, like some of them do. Guys were laying up there, or rolling around all over the place. I mean it was pitch black in the back of that thing. We’re hurtling down the road at 70 miles per hour. It was crazy.”
Some 45 years later, Arena is widely regarded as the greatest coach in American soccer history. Five MLS Cups, five College Cups, three Gold Cups, multiple World Cup appearances. Last November, the 70-year-old was named the 2021 MLS coach of the year, marking the fourth time he has won the award (previously winning in 1997, 2009, 2011).
But before the multiple national championships at the University of Virginia or the underdog run to the World Cup quarterfinals in Japan/South Korea, or his time leading the David Beckham-era LA Galaxy, Arena was an unpaid graduate student moonlighting as a rookie head coach.
As origin stories go, Arena’s is humbler than most, featuring those long bus rides and a practice field with sidelines that were burned into the ground with gasoline rather than marked with chalk.
His stature and reputation has swelled over the years, but those who were there from the beginning all seem to parrot a similar phrase when reflecting on their coach: “Bruce has always been Bruce.”
"Hey, do you wanna try soccer?"
Bruce Arena sits at the desk in his corner office at the New England Revolution’s training facility in Foxborough, Mass. The view out the window is a nice one—a pair of lush, verdant training fields tucked neatly into the woods behind Gillette Stadium.
Moments earlier, he’d been leading the Revs through a spirited training session. Just a day before the club is set to meet NYCFC in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the mood is light. Arena’s Revolution have waited three weeks to play their first playoff game, and you can feel the eagerness as they practice taking penalty kicks.
But the purpose of this visit isn’t to talk to Arena about his current team, which is among the league’s greatest ever. It’s to discuss his roots at University of Puget Sound. We rattle off a list of former players and coaches who we’ve spoken to, eventually arriving at Gallo. Arena interjects his own question before the interview even starts.
“Did Frank tell you about our first road trip?”
That’s a story that involves Gallo rolling a joint in the Loggermobile. “I told Frank: ‘You can’t do that, Frank,’” says Arena with a chuckle. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind just a little bit further to Arena’s first day on the job.
Had you happened to be walking through the Puget Sound quad on some random afternoon in the autumn of 1976, you might’ve noticed a pair of young men wearing tracksuits and flagging down every male student who looked vaguely athletic. Back then, years before the existence of the PAC-10, Puget Sound shared a conference with the much larger University of Washington, five-time Division II national champion Seattle Pacific, and Simon Fraser, maybe the best soccer program in all of Canada. The Loggers lost far more often than they won. Enthusiasm was low. Which is how the man who would become the most accomplished American soccer coach of all time started his first coaching job by approaching random students alongside his assistant on the first week of school in order to fill out the roster.
“Hey, do you wanna try soccer?”
“We were a ragtag bunch of players from the Pacific Northwest,” remembers Jim Lekas ’78, who played on that team. “This was back in the day when soccer was just starting to take some wings and ignite. Just the very beginning of it.”
“We were honestly not a very good team,” says Hans Ulland ’80, MBA’85, a first-year player who Arena took to calling his “flashy freshman.” “I came in and was instantly one of the best players. Not that I was a great player.”
The quality of the team was a secondary concern to Arena, whose primary motivation for moving to the Northwest was to play for the Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League. Arena was a few years out of Cornell University, where he was a standout goalkeeper, helping lead the Big Red to the Final Four in 1972. He was even better at lacrosse, a second-team All-American.
His professional career was off to a rockier start. Although he had been drafted by the New York Cosmos in the fifth round of the 1973 NASL college draft, he was released before the season. He then signed with the wonderfully named Montreal Quebecois of the National Lacrosse League, only for the team to fold after the season. (This was something of a trend during this era; if you wanted to make it as a pro in an off-brand sport, you really needed to want it.) Dan Wood, Arena’s coach at Cornell, was hired by the Tides and he successfully recruited the goalkeeper to join him in Tacoma.
“I thought I could make a run of it as a pro soccer player,” Arena remembers, but another unpleasant surprise awaited him upon his arrival.
Arena drove Wood’s car all the way from the Northeast to get to Tacoma, and yet as soon as he got there, the first day he walked into Wood’s office, he was informed that the Dallas Tornado wanted to trade for him. Did he want to go play in the NASL?
“I just drove your car across the country to get here,” Arena told Wood. “I’m not going to f---ing Dallas.”
Perhaps he should’ve taken the hint: Arena ended up spending most of that year as the Tides’ backup, on the bench. So, as confident and ambitious as he was, when the vice president of University of Puget Sound approached him after the season to ask whether he might be interested in coaching, Arena was open to the possibility. Plus, even though the position was unpaid, there were a few perks. Arena was offered three complimentary grad school courses, which he used to get started on his MBA.
“I tell people this all the time,” Arena says, “possibly the best education I’ve ever gotten was at UPS."
That went for schooling, but it also went for soccer. The lack of resources, expectations, and talent might have been drawbacks in many ways, but there were certain benefits to that, too. The Loggers were a blank slate, and Arena was able to learn through trial and error. The coaching philosophy that would go on to fuel so much success was first tested on rainy fields in front of sparse crowds throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Jim Lekas ’78 takes the ball downfield. Courtesy of Tamanawas
It sometimes feels like there have been countless reflections on what makes Arena a successful head coach. So many of them arrive at the same conclusion: he simply knows how to deal with players. The development of that personal touch started at Puget Sound, where he had to strike a difficult balance. He was just 24 at the time, barely out of college himself.
"I was on campus and he came to my door and, 'I'm the new coach,'" recalls Russell Steele ’77, another former Logger. "He also asked me where the uniforms and the balls were, because I had those. My first impressions—I don't really know how to put this. For me, who had always lived in the West, he was very exotic. That Long Island accent, the posture of him, he was a professional athlete and an All-American. But he was also my peer, only one or two years older than me."
Tallquist, the team's goalkeeper, remembers Arena regularly shoving him out of goal during training sessions when he felt he wasn't cutting it. Arena, at the time, was a physical specimen, built "more like a linebacker than a goalie," according to Earl Nausid ’79, a midfielder on the team. "He had a deep voice. He had a character where he commanded respect, almost instantly. He had a good sense of humor, but it he told you to something, you did it. If he said, 'OK, we're gonna do fitness work' or whatever, you didn't lollygag around, you took it seriously."
Arena and Gallo’s fitness routines are still the stuff of legend amongst his former Logger players. You can almost hear the flashback energy in Tallquist’s voice as he describes Arena running the club through the “Swedish mile.” The team would run laps around the pitch, single-file, for a mile. The player at the rear of the line would sprint to the front of the line. Then another player, and another player, over and over again until the line of players looked ready to collapse.
“They really enjoyed that,” says Tallquist. “You just kept going and going and going. I just remember thinking, ‘Why are we doing this?’—but sure enough, later that year, I remember just thinking to myself, ‘We are so much better this year than we were last year.’ So obviously that’s a credit to Bruce.”
It’s not to say that Arena didn’t have a heart, or know when to take his foot off the gas. Most of his former players remember even the hardest training sessions with fondness.
“He’d do dumb little things like bringing popsicles to our two-a-days in the summer, when we were dying out there,” says Lekas. “He’d know when to bring a calming sense—for example, we show up at [the University of Washington’s] Huskie Stadium. It was so big, none of us had ever seen anything like this before, and we’re about to play the Huskies— we got creamed, by the way. But Bruce just talked about the stadium, talked about where we were—he calmed us down and brought joy to that. He just said, ‘This is going to be great, this is going to be fun,’ and I think that really helped bring us together as a team.”
Former Logger soccer coach
"I tell people this all the time. Possibly the best education I've ever gotten was at UPS."
Others remember Arena’s confidence emerging in different ways; Gallo says there was one training session where Arena lined up a bag of balls at the edge of the 18-yard box and challenged him to score on him. Just one time. Gallo, a professional himself and a former teammate of Arena’s at the Tides, simply could not put one past him. Arena relished in it, parrying away shot after shot while trash-talking his assistant coach the entire time.
Things didn’t turn out so well for Arena on another occasion, when he challenged Ulland to put a free kick by him, offering the freshman a particularly tempting reward: He’d call off training for the day if he succeeded.
“Hans took a bunch of shots,” remembers Steele, “but Bruce saved every one. And then the very last one hit the post.”
Arena laughed at his player. He stopped laughing when the ball that had hit the post ricocheted off his backside and went in the goal. True to his word, he sent his players home for the day. “He had that joyful side to him,” says Steele.
Off the field, Arena roomed with Gallo for a time. Or, more accurately, he let Gallo live for free in the basement of his rental house. Another glimpse of Arena’s more magnanimous side: He always referred to Gallo as his “co-coach” rather than his assistant.
“Realistically, he wasn’t just a year older,” Gallo explains. “His insights and perspective, I think, would suggest to any outsider that co-coaching was a generous label for him to offer.”
Arena’s hospitality had limits, though. When his fiancée, Phyllis, arrived from back East, Gallo was forced to move out and find his own place. This was another interesting nugget about Arena’s time in the Northwest, brief as it was: It’s the place where the Arenas got married—right there in the living room of the rental on the south side of Tacoma, with every one of his Tacoma Tides teammates in attendance. So while it was a period of transition in his life, there were milestones, too. Steps toward a more stable future.
“I remember him having me over for dinner at the end of the season,” Steele recalls. “Phyllis was walking me around their place and she showed me this room and said, ‘This is Bruce’s soccer room. This is where he does his thinking.’ It was an indication to me then that the wheels were turning on how he was going to be a coach, long-term. That’s obviously the path he charted for himself.”
All these years later, Arena laughs about the “soccer room.”
“I can’t say I remember that,” he says. “I don’t know how accurate that story is!”
A member of the Logger soccer team coached by Bruce Arena
Jim Lekas ’78
"He’d do dumb little things like bringing popsicles to our two-a-days in the summer, when we were dying out there."
The Tacoma Tides eventually folded, continuing the theme of Arena’s athletic career, but he later got word that the NASL expansion team in Honolulu might be interested in picking him up. This felt like an even more obviously doomed prospect than all the rest—and it was. Team Hawai`i lasted just a single season before relocating to Tulsa. Arena was by now growing weary of so much professional uncertainty.
“My (lacrosse) team folds in Montreal, now the soccer team folds in Tacoma,” Arena describes. “I said to Phyllis, ‘We’re gonna end up in f---ing Hawai`i and the team is going to fold in Hawai`i.’ I said ‘f--- that.’”
Arena did get one last chance to extend his playing career, just up the road from Tacoma, with the NASL’s Seattle Sounders. Tony Chursky, Seattle’s first-choice keeper, was hurt at the time, and they needed somebody to fill in. “They had another goalkeeper, believe it or not, who was in prison,” Arena recalls. “He was in a prison release program, I swear to God. He’d come out late for training every day. This is the God’s honest truth.”
(He’s not wrong, by the way. Mike Ivanow was convicted of embezzling more than $70,000 from the Russian-American Credit Union in San Francisco while he was the manager there. He would go on to help lead the Sounders to Soccer Bowl ’77, joining what is undoubtedly a short list of players in American soccer history to have won a top-flight playoff match post-conviction.)
“I’d drive up from Tacoma every day,” Arena says. “We’d practice at Memorial Stadium in Seattle every single day on this hard, cement field ... I’m just getting my ass kicked out there. I did this for probably 45 days. I think the Sounders never wanted me there.”
Sounders coach Jimmy Gabriel didn’t even use him in exhibition games until their final preseason match—alongside what was very clearly the rest of the second-choice scrubs. “We’re playing the LA team somewhere in the state of Washington,” Arena recalls, “and the team he put me out there with was like their youth team. We lost the game 6-3. I must’ve made 15 saves.”
About the only positive spin to be put on his whole Sounders experience was that it shoved him down the path to coaching once and for all. He moved back East to become an assistant lacrosse coach and a year later, in 1978, the University of Virginia posted a job listing for a pair of roles that Arena fit just about perfectly: assistant lacrosse coach, but also head soccer coach.
Rick Cabral ’80 clears the ball with help from Francis Hind ’78 and Russell Steele ’77. Courtesy of Tamanawas
“I think I felt that I was probably going to coach one day,” Arena says. “But I thought it probably would’ve been lacrosse more than soccer. I was very fortunate that I played for a bunch of good coaches. I was prepared to coach. I think I’m better prepared than a lot of coaches in our league today—I had outstanding coaches, and so when I got into coaching it wasn’t easy by any means, but I had a good starting point. And then when I went to UVA it was really the first time I’d coached like a real soccer team, so to speak.”
But while the University of Virginia certainly represented a step up in quality from Puget Sound, Arena still looks back on his time in Tacoma fondly—you sense that in his tone and in his smile, even more than 40 years later.
“I think it continues to be my story,” Arena says. “I’ve never felt like I’ve had a job. These are things that I’ve loved to do, and it’s the same with players. I tell them that whether you’re making $100,000 or a million dollars, we’re very fortunate in what we do and the opportunities that we had. That’s what I’ve taken from that job. I was at UPS basically making nothing and now I make a pretty good living, but I’d still do it again like that. That experience helped me to start at UVA. I could fall back on that experience.”
Although they didn’t win all that many games, the Loggers’ one year with Arena was inspirational enough that a couple players ended up becoming coaches themselves—the earliest branches on a coaching tree that now includes nearly every notable coach in modern American soccer history. Gallo, Arena’s assistant at Puget Sound, went on to coach the University of Washington, while Lekas just put the finishing touches on over three decades of coaching at the high school level.
“(Arena) was a taskmaster, no question,” Lekas says. “But again, in spite of all of that, he brought that sense of loyalty to a team, a band of brothers coming together. That is what inspired me in my time as a high school coach. How do you get a team to come together? He did that for me. When you talk to him, tell him hello from Jim Lekas. I’m sure he’ll be like ‘who?’”
For the record, Arena remembers him.
“Bruce has touched many, many players and many lives,” Lekas continues. “In my case, his ‘pebble in the pond’ with Jim Lekas has rippled out to hundreds of kids playing soccer and enjoying the game. And I credit that to Bruce Arena.”
Where are they now?
We caught up with five Loggers who played under Bruce Arena.
Jim Lekas ’78 played in men’s amateur leagues in Portland, Ore., then was an English/social studies teacher and soccer coach with the Beaver- ton School District. He later coached “mostly discouraged and disconnected high school students” at the Early College High School.
Earl Nausid ’79 continued to play amateur soccer until he was in his 50s, while pursuing a sales career in Tacoma. He also coached two state champion high school girls’ teams, and for 30 years coached Tacoma’s top entry in most premier amateur soccer leagues and tournaments.
Russ Steele ’77 married Elsa Brueggeman ’78 and moved to Seattle, where he played club soccer into his 40s. He played against Frank Gallo, Bruce Arena’s assistant at Puget Sound, in the Greater Seattle Soccer League in the 1980s. Steele spent 24 years with Seattle Audubon as its Nature Shop manager and then finance and operations director, retiring in June of this year.
Ken Tallquist ’78 was a schoolteacher and assistant principal for many years. He also was an assistant soccer coach at South Kitsap High School and, later, head basketball coach at Burlington Edison. He retired in 2013.
Hans Ulland ’80, MBA’85 played soccer for 18 years after college, until the constant pounding necessitated hip replacement surgery. He also coached in the Kent Youth Soccer Association. He worked as a financial director in the aerospace industry.