March 29, 2012
WHEN BRUCE MET SHEP
Messing coached Arena at a Nassau CC four decades ago
By Michael Lewis
It's funny where life takes us and who and when we meet.
Just look at the journeys of Bruce Arena and Shep Messing. They met each other and bonded together as fellow goalkeepers before the world knew who Shep Messing and Bruce Arena were.
In 1969, Messing had left New York University. His former high school coach, Bill Stevenson, had joined Nassau Community College as its soccer coach. Messing's mother had gotten a job at the school. So, it was a perfect fit on a temporary basis.
Messing was ineligible to play for the Garden City, Long Island school, but Stevenson allowed the former Olympian and New York Cosmos to work out with the team and become the goalkeeper coach.
There was a freshman goalkeeper from Franklin Square, N.Y. on the team who had played with the N.Y. Hota/Bavarians -- Bruce Arena, a great athlete but more or less a novice in the nets. He had forged his reputation -- at least up until that time -- as a superb lacrosse player.
"I guess you can call me a walk-on at Nassau Community College," Arena said. "I showed up there one day to take my shot at playing goalkeeper there."
Stevenson saw potential in Arena and had Messing, then 20-years-old, guide him off the field.
Messing remembered what Stevenson told him:
"You have a great athlete in goal. He's a newcomer and he is a lacrosse player. You coach my goalkeepers."
Which he did.
"The relationship I had with Shep was unique," Arena said. "My situation was obviously a little unique because I was the goalkeeper. And a goalkeeping is like an individual sport rather than a team sport. I had all that time with Shep and Shep had such a wonderful relationship with Bill when Bill was his high school coach."
Realizing he had an opportunity to learn from one of the best American keepers at the time, Arena was like a sponge.
"He taught me how to play in the goal," Arena said. "He took over a raw athlete and made him into a goalkeeper. Everything that Shep said to me was consumed. He was the Olympic goalkeeper at the time. He obviously went on to have a professional career. He was outstanding, a brilliant person, an All-American at NYU. He left there, eventually transferred to Harvard. He influenced me greatly, taught me the technical aspects of playing in the goal; just a great influence."
NCC went to the junior college nationals with Arena in the nets. The Lions also won two National Junior College Athletic Association titles with Arena patrolling the midfield. He went on to become an All-American lacrosse player at Cornell.
Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past three decades, you know what both former goalkeepers have accomplished.
Messing backstopped the Cosmos' 1977 North American Soccer League championship team, which included the legendary Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. He also was in the net for four Major Indoor Soccer League titles with the New York Arrows before becoming a player agent and a TV analyst for the Red Bulls.
Arena directed the University of Virginia to five NCAA Division I crowns. He guided D.C. United to the first two MLS Cups in 1996 and 1997 and the LA Galaxy to the very same title last year. He coached the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics and in the 2002 and 2006 World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals in the former.
"I don't get on a soap box often," Messing said. "I've met lots of wonderful people in my life in soccer. Bruce Arena is among the top athletes, human beings and coaches. When people think of Bruce Arena today, they forget what a great athlete he was. His success at every level was not a surprise to me."