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Bruce Arena on MLS is Back: ‘I’m excited for this competition to start’

Outside of the occasional card game with his coaching staff, New England Revolution head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena said it is “all soccer time here for the most part” ahead of his team’s first match at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida.

“We’re pretty active each and every day, so it’s not like I have a lot of time where I’m going surfing in the hotel pool,” Arena said during a video conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “We’ve been pretty busy.”

New England will restart its season Thursday versus Montreal Impact in Group C play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Ironically, the Revs opened their 2020 campaign against the Impact in Montreal in February in what seems like another lifetime as opposed to a few months ago.

“First of all, we played Montreal at the end of February. We traveled to Montreal during a snowstorm, delayed with our travel. Then we played on a piece of cement inside a building, and it was not much of a soccer game,” Arena said of the 2-1 loss to the Impact. “I think you can throw that game out the window, this game is going to be entirely different.”

Of course, the most significant difference is that MLS has been shut down for four months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, all MLS teams are in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin Resort, though FC Dallas, with 10 players and one coach testing positive for COVID-19 was withdrawn from the tournament, and Nashville SC, also with a high number of positive tests, was officially withdrawn from the tournament on Thursday. Arena said the Swan and Dolphin Resort is a “safe environment” and that the team isolated from the worrying surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida.

“Listen, there’s going to be issues along the way with everything, with testing for the virus every other day. We’re getting on buses and traveling to training and all of that, and it gets a little bit of wear and tear on you mentally but, for the most part, our guys have had a real good approach to the whole thing,” Arena said. “And as I said at the beginning of this, this is what we’d rather be doing anyway instead of just sitting quarantined in a house or an apartment in Boston. I don’t know why anyone would be complaining about being here. This is what we do for a living, and we’re going to get the opportunity to do it. I’m excited for this competition to start.”

With a four-month layoff and staggered return to full-team training across the league, Arena said players’ fitness in central Florida’s hot-and-humid weather conditions will be something to watch, especially in the second half of games.

“I think like every game you’re going to see in group play here the conditions are going to be challenging, the second halves are going to be wide open, so we’re hopeful that our fitness that we worked hard on in the month of June is going to pay off, and we’re going to be decent from minute one to minute 90,” Arena said. “However, we know that every team is going to have some difficult moments in the second half of these games.”

Five substitutions per team will be allowed for the tournament. Asked when was the last time he used five substitutions in a match that mattered—as opposed to a friendly or preseason match—Arena conceded it was likely while he was coaching men’s soccer at the University of Virginia and “I probably avoided using five substitutions as much as I could there.”

Arena added that the three-substitution rule “may have seen its last days.”

“In this tournament, with these weather conditions, there will be games, and you’ll watch, and I can promise you, the 9 a.m. games, five substitutions is not enough,” Arena said. “We see in the games now in Europe that are being played, most teams are utilizing three, four, five substitutions. I think it’s good to have. I think it’ll be interesting to see if we can utilize those substitutions to our advantage.”

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