By Paul Gardner
Stand by ... your intrepid columnist is about to go where few dare venture -- and of those who have thus ventured, none has so far survived intact.
I propose to take a look at the New York Red Bulls and work out what, exactly, they are up to. More specifically, what sort of team their latest coach has in store for us.
Here goes. Best to admit right off, that I have absolutely no idea. So nothing has changed there. I’ve had no idea, not even a glimmer of one, each year since 1996. That’s hindsight, of course. In the first maybe six years, I thought I knew what was going on. I now realize that I hadn’t a clue. I was in way over my head, into the world of coaching theory and team-building, and I should have known better,
But those were the years of Eddie Firmani and Carlos Queiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira, Alfonso Mondelo and Bora Milutinovic, who seemed a pleasant enough bunch of guys, certainly with all sorts of impressive coaching credentials, but none of them was able to put a decent team on the field. Nothing ever seemed to work properly with this team -- it was the MetroStars in those days, a team I anagrammed into the RotMasters, Rots for short. The nickname was not unkind, the team was pretty bad. Later we got the best that the USA could offer -- three years of Banality Bob Bradley that got predictably more boring the longer they went on, and then two seasons with Bruce Arena, the doyen of American coaches, but the Rots remained the Rots.
Juan Carlos Osorio arrived and at least one understood what he was trying to do -- to give the team a strong Latin flavor. In came Venezuelans and Colombians and Costa Ricans, but they brought no sign of a Latin style with them. As before, it was just desultory incoherence on the field.
Osorio is now history and we have Hans Backe, a name unknown to me and, I would guess, to 99 percent of Red Bull fans. A Swede and -- this is how these things work -- he has hired another Swede as his assistant. Goran Aral, also unknown to me, and to 99.9 percent of Red Bull fans.
So, what to expect from Backe and the Scandinavians (we also have Erik Soler, a Norwegian, as the Red Bulls GM)? Gawd knows. I asked that question a couple of months ago -- I was quite worried that the Red Bulls would start playing like Norway. Oh, good heavens no, I was assured, as both Soler and Backe smiled and shook their heads in mock horror, not that.
What a relief. But when Backe was asked how his team would play, my fears returned. “I’ve watched around 20 or 30 MLS games,” he told us, “it’s a physical game, it looks rather like Scandinavian soccer . . .” Yikes! Things did not get any better. Backe talked of the Bulls needing “pace ... and technical skills of course.” Of course, I hope. Backe went on to characterize the Spanish La Liga as “A possession league -- and too much possession can be boring.” There’s never been any fear of too much possession as far as the Rots have been concerned, very much the opposite. Backe then came up with one of my least favorite soccer coaching cliches, stating that his team would be “very well organized.” Which nine times out of 10 is coachspeak for “boring.”
Well, all of that was in January, before Backe had made any moves. Since then, he’s got rid of all the Latinos brought in by Osorio. That was to be expected -- after all, they had hardly set the place on fire. But I’m looking at the players that Backe has so far brought in. First came a defender -- an American, the occasionally spectacular but on the whole famously impetuous Chris Albright. After that, north we go, up into the Baltic, and we come back with Joel Lindpere, from Estonia. I’ll confess to knowing next to nothing about Estonian soccer, except that I can’t recall any great Estonian players. So I’ll swallow, for the moment, all the praise heaped on Lindpere, and wait for confirmation. Though I’m a bit scared by the fact that Lindpere has been playing in Norway for the past two years. Then we got Roy Miller, a Costa Rican -- who has also been playing in Norway.
No discernible pattern in any of that (soccer pattern, I mean). Now comes the big letdown. From Toronto FC -- a consistently under-performing team that has failed to make the playoffs in each of its three years of existence -- comes Carl Robinson. A 33-year-old Welsh midfielder. I’ve watched Robinson throughout those three years of Toronto incompetence, I’ve seen a lot of him. And I have nothing to report. Nothing. I cannot recall a single moment when Robinson, during those three barren seasons, did anything memorable, impressive or unusual, and as for spectacular, you can rule that out. A very ordinary British player who, in typical Brit fashion, likes to argue with American referees. Enough said.
I’m wondering who decided to sign him. Backe cannot know much about him, nor can Aral. So presumably we can thank either assistant coach Richie Williams, or Jeff Agoos, the Director of Scouting. It’s not encouraging. This smacks of the same sort of workhorse team-building that Bruce Arena did last year at the Los Angeles Galaxy, basically recruiting a supporting cast for David Beckham. So, while we wait for either Raul or Thierry Henry, we seem to be still saddled with the Rots. As I feared, my foray into Red Bull territory has proved totally baffling. But I suspect soccer history has been made here. Anyone ever hear of a Welsh-Estonian midfield before?