By Paul Gardner
The Red Bulls will be without Juan Pablo Angel next season, which is a pity -- they’re losing a hell of a player, a terrific goalscorer, and a class act, a real gentleman.
Do they know that? Does coach Hans Backe care? I ask because we now have confirmation of what sounded merely like a sick joke when it started to be rumored earlier in the year.
The news is that, instead of Angel, the Red Bulls are arranging to give us one Luke Rodgers. No one will have heard of Rodgers. Logical enough, for the guy has spent his 11-year pro career laboring in the lower levels of the English league.
Last April the word was going round that Rodgers was on his way, but then he ran into problems getting a work permit, and the move never happened.
Why would Rodgers have trouble getting a work permit? Well now, it seems the U.S. authorities found Rodgers’ lifestyle not to their liking -- he had been convicted of involvement in an October 2009 pub brawl in Nottingham. There had been other offenses in the past as well, including a criminal conviction dating back to 2002 when he set off a firework in a pub parking lot -- the firework hit a 14-year-old girl in the face and severely injured her.
But Rodgers has an English agent who dismisses all of that as just minor growing-up disturbances: “The incidents of the past were unfortunate and, in some ways, a young person doing silly things," says Mark Cartwright, "Luke has grown up 100 percent and now has a young daughter to look after, so yes, he has moved forward.”
Well, that’s nice to know, though Cartwright’s labeling as part of “the past” an offense committed by Rodgers not much more than a year ago seems rather odd.
Whatever, the U.S. authorities have relented, and Rodgers now has his work permit. MLS itself presented a further possible obstacle -- though surely not a serious one. It’s difficult to imagine MLS taking Rodgers’ misdemeanors seriously -- after all, this is the league that was prepared to welcome the serially delinquent Paul Gascoigne back in 2002.
Even so, MLS has insisted on a “behavioral clause” being inserted in Rodgers’ contract. Difficult to know what that means, for MLS says merely that it does not discuss contract details -- though it did say that “similar” clauses have been used for other (unnamed) players in the past.
So Rodgers arrives with a less than ideal personal profile. That would be true whichever club he was joining -- but if the Red Bulls have any ambition to be the class of MLS -- and that is exactly the ambition they shouldhave -- then this is a rotten move.
Time to listen to agent Cartwright again (Cartwright, as it happens, has already deposited a Brit player in MLS -- the technically challenged Chris Birchall at the Los Angeles Galaxy): “Luke won’t have any problem, in my opinion, adapting to the style of play in the MLS ... In fact, I believe -- with his style of play -- many defenses won’t know how to handle his strength and pace.”
Well, he would say something like that, wouldn’t he? But Rodgers’ scoring stats, 108 goals scored in 344 pro appearances, are pretty impressive ... at first glance.
Those figures are the harvest of an 11-year pro career in which Rodgers has never managed to get a contract with a major club. He has spent his soccer life with mostly 3rd and 4th division clubs in England.
This is most unusual. Goalscorers are probably the most highly sought-after players in the sport; when a young forward with a lower-division club shows goalscoring potential, he is invariably snapped up by a richer club. Yet here was the 20-year-old Rodgers scoring prolifically with 4th division Shrewsbury Town (38 goals in two seasons 2001-2003) but no one came calling. Rodgers moved on to other clubs -- but to Crewe Alexander (2nd division), Port Vale (3rd), and Yeovil Town (3rd), ending up with 3rd division Notts County where he met up briefly with Hans Backe who was an assistant coach during Sven Goran Eriksson’s brief stay there in 2009.
The Backe connection has resulted in Rodgers being offered what his coach at Notts County, Steve Cotterill, describes as “a big, lucrative contract” by MLS (with a behavioral clause, of course).
This is a transaction that, frankly, the Red Bulls do not need. Finding a young goalscorer -- I mean one without a police dossier -- should not be that difficult. But Backe and the Bulls have opted for Rodgers, with his dubious background.
That is bad enough. There is more. I have never seen Rodgers play, but I have seen plenty of the play in the lower English divisions. It is not something to be either recommended, or- - I should have thought -- worth importing.
Agent Cartwright, praising Rodgers, mentions only his strength and pace. That’s probably about the limit of it -- technical skills are not abundant in the English 3rd division. Whatever Rodgers brings, rest assured that it won’t look like Barcelona.
One begins to wonder exactly what Backe - whose general approach to the game I found admirable last season -- does want the Red Bulls to look like. Another new signing is a Norwegian international midfielder, Jan Gunnar Solli. Another obscure player, another 29-year-old, and another player who, like Rodgers, will do nothing to infuse any style into the team. Among the world’s soccer-playing nations, Norway must be near the top when it comes to producing utterly bland, characterless, and just plain boring soccer.
I was writing, only the other day, about the need for more pizazz in MLS. If I were looking for an antonym of pizazz, I might just settle on Norwegian.