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The bizarre Bruce Arena-New England Revolution saga, explained

FOXBOROUGH, MA - SEPTEMBER 11: New England Revolution assistant coach Richie Williams yells instructions with New England Revolution sporting director and head coach Bruce Arena during a match between the New England Revolution and New York City FC on September 11, 2021 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Bruce Arena (L) and his assistant coach Richie Williams (R) are at the center of a New England Revolution saga full of uncertainty. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The revered head coach has resigned. His former assistants were seemingly warring. Players reportedly refused to train. A second interim coach has been named — but without mention of the first. That, in a nutshell, is the latest in a murky saga that turned utterly bizarre in recent days, suddenly engulfing Major League Soccer and its second-best team, the New England Revolution.

The saga began with an investigation of Bruce Arena, the team’s Hall of Fame coach, who’d allegedly made “insensitive and inappropriate remarks.” Arena was initially placed on “administrative leave.” Six weeks later, this past Saturday, he resigned, and MLS said its investigation had “confirmed certain of these allegations.”

But that’s about all the league has said. And in the absence of clarity, MLS and the Revolution left plenty of room for a mess.

What did Arena do?

We don’t know. Players seemingly don’t know. MLS hasn’t given any details, nor have the Revs. Nothing has been reported. Everybody with direct knowledge of the situation has been mum.

Arena, in a statement accompanying his resignation, acknowledged that he’d “made some mistakes,” and continued: “Moving forward, I plan to spend some time reflecting on this situation and taking corrective steps to address what has transpired.”

Who is Bruce Arena?

He’s arguably the most accomplished American men’s soccer coach ever. He won five MLS Cups with D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy. In between those stints, he was the architect of the deepest World Cup run in U.S. men’s national team history (to the 2002 quarterfinals).

After a second USMNT stint ended calamitously in 2017, he took the Revs job in 2019 and turned a wayward franchise into the league’s top team in 2021. The Revs then struggled in 2022, but rebounded in 2023, and were on course to contend for Arena’s sixth MLS title — until the 71-year-old coach was placed on leave, pending the investigation.

What did the investigation entail?

It was murky from the very beginning. Arena was initially removed from the team without any public notice or explanation in late July. As word of his absence began to trickle out, a few days later, the Revolution released a short statement confirming the investigation. MLS tabbed law firm Proskauer Rose to lead it. Neither the club nor the league said anything further until Arena resigned.

When asked Wednesday about the lack of transparency, Revs president Brian Bilello deferred to the league, and said: "I have faith in the league, I have faith in their processes, and I understand their needs for confidentiality in terms of protecting subjects, witnesses, reporters, all those people involved in these investigations."

What happened after Arena resigned?

Richie Williams, a longtime Arena mentee, had been serving as interim head coach during Arena’s leave, and was set to retain that title. But also on Saturday, The Athletic reported that complaints filed by Williams were subjects of the investigation.

By Monday, public support for Arena began crescendoing. Revs assistant coach Shalrie Joseph had already tweeted last week: “Thank you for being the man you are. I appreciate every lesson and early morning conversations we used to have… love you big guy.” On Monday, Dave van den Bergh, another Revs assistant, wrote on Instagram that he was “going to miss you my coach, mentor and friend.” A third team staffer also thanked Arena in an Instagram post.

On Tuesday morning, Bilello met with players, who reportedly demanded answers, including from Williams and the coaching staff. During a lengthy meeting, Williams, as he has all along, told the players he couldn’t comment, according to ESPN and The Athletic. The players, unsatisfied and seemingly distrustful of Williams, reportedly responded by refusing to train. (Revs execs have characterized the cancellation of training as a "mutual" decision.)

Several hours later, the Revolution announced that they had “parted ways” with Joseph and van den Bergh, and that Clint Peay, head coach of the club’s reserve team, would become interim head coach of the first team “effective immediately.”

Williams was not mentioned in the three-paragraph news release. The following day, Bilello said: "Richie Williams is a valuable member of our organization, and he remains with the organization. As everyone can imagine, this has been a really difficult time for Richie, these last few days and weeks, and we've offered Richie some time off during this window."

So the players and coaches support Arena?

That’s the assumption, though it’s tough to know, and tough for players to express support without knowledge of Arena’s alleged conduct.

“It’s just bizarre what’s going on, we still really have no idea what happened or what’s going on,” veteran defender Omar Gonzalez told CBS Sports last month. “The guys are hoping that Bruce will be back soon and get ready to kick off the second half of the season and continue the way that we’ve been going.”

And although Joseph and van den Bergh have backed Arena, Williams and Onalfo notably haven’t.

So there’s a schism between coaches?

Yes — and it reportedly predates the investigation. The Athletic reported that Arena, Williams and Onalfo had been clashing over soccer decisions since 2022. (Arena, in addition to his role as head coach, was also sporting director and in charge of player personnel; Onalfo, who'd previously been technical director, replaced him in the sporting director role on an interim basis.)

The Athletic also reported that, during Arena’s leave, with Williams running the team as interim coach, Joseph and van den Bergh had walked out of training sessions multiple times.

Is there history between Williams and Arena?

A lot of history, but it had all seemingly been positive until recently.

Williams played for Arena at the University of Virginia from 1988-91. The two reunited five years later, when Arena took charge of D.C. United and drafted Williams ahead of MLS’ inaugural season. After Arena took the USMNT job in 1998, he immediately called up Williams for his national team debut. Williams, a diminutive midfielder, ultimately played 20 times for the USMNT, all under Arena.

Williams then went into coaching after his playing career. He served as an assistant under Arena with the New York Red Bulls in 2006 and 2007, and later with the USMNT in 2017. Arena then brought him to New England in 2019.

Who are Joseph, van den Bergh and Onalfo?

Onalfo, like Williams, played for Arena at Virginia and has been one of Arena’s acolytes ever since. He served as an assistant coach during the second cycle of Arena’s first USMNT stint, from 2003-06. Arena later brought him to the Galaxy as an assistant coach in 2011, and to New England as technical director in 2019.

Van den Bergh, a Dutch winger who began his career in Europe, came to MLS in 2006. After a half season in Kansas City, Arena, then head coach of the Red Bulls, traded for van den Bergh. Three years later, after retiring as a player, van den Bergh began his coaching career. He spent several years with U.S. youth national teams. In 2019, Arena brought him to New England as an assistant.

Joseph, on the other hand, had no history with Arena. He was a Revs legend who played 10 seasons for the team (2003-12), then rejoined the club as a coach in the its academy in 2020. After two seasons working with youth players, he jumped to Arena’s first-team coaching staff in 2022.

Joseph, van den Bergh and Arena have all now departed the club. Onalfo remains the interim sporting director. Williams’ status is unclear.

"In terms of his role with the club, I don't have anything to share today," Bilello said of Williams on Wednesday. "But we’re continuing to have conversations with Richie about his future role with the club."

What’s next for Arena?

Arena is about to turn 72 years old. He is respected throughout MLS, and if not for the cloud of the investigation, he could surely walk into another job by next season. But, in its Saturday statement, the league said that, “should Arena wish to pursue future employment within MLS, he must first submit a petition to the Commissioner.”

What’s next for the Revolution?

The Revs, meanwhile, are still in second place in the Eastern Conference, with the joint-second-best points tally in the league. They'll soon clinch a playoff spot.

But they’ve won only one of their four MLS games since Arena’s initial removal. Their new interim coach, Peay, has never coached in MLS. They're talented, but the entire saga remains very unsettled and threatens to derail a promising season.

"This has all been a distraction, for everybody," Onalfo admitted Wednesday. "Nobody asked for this."