By Paul Gardner
We've had more than our share of false dawns out there in New Jersey, with the recurrent bouts of enthusiasm aroused first by the MetroStars and lately by the Red Bulls.
Let’s see. We’ve had a dozen assorted coaches to admire. Four of them with serious World Cup experience, Carlos Queiroz, Bora Milutinovic, Bruce Arena, and Carlos Alberto Parreira. And two of those were World Cup winning coaches -- Queiroz has won two under-20 World Cups with Portugal, Parreira led Brazil to the big one in 1994. And we’ve had Bob Bradley, the current U.S. national team coach.
Players? Well, the odd thing is that we’ve had fewer stars than we’ve had coaches. Which might explain a thing or two, but probably not, because the players have not exactly been a roaring success. Among Roberto Donadoni, Branco, Lothar Matthaeus, Youri Djorkaeff, and Juan Pablo Angel, only Angel really lived up to his billing.
That’s the foreign contingent of players -- we’ve also had a selection of the USA’s best: Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Jeff Agoos, Tim Howard, Clint Mathis, Claudio Reyna and Edson Buddle. The sole outcome of 15-years-worth of glamour has been one -- losing -- appearance in the final.
With a trail of futility as persistent as that, you have to suspect the presence of the evil eye, or at least a mischievous gremlin or two. In which case, maybe the malignant spirits have been sent packing by the team’s relocation to the splendid new Red Bull Arena. So there could be hope, flying in the face of all the past evidence, that things are about to get better.
The Red Bulls now have a non-celebrity coach, Hans Backe, an earthy man who seems to have no illusions of glory, a man who speaks his mind with refreshing clarity. They also have the necessary quota of foreign stars -- Thierry Henry (Report Card: must try a lot harder) and Rafa Marquez (Report Card: Patchy, lacks focus).
But the most solid reason for predicting that things are about to come up roses for the Red Bulls is their most recent, semi-foreign, signing, the Canadian Dwayne De Rosario.
The difference between DeRo and all the others, of course, is that we’ve seen a lot of him -- we know he can be a terrific player, and we know that he can play in this league. No period of adjustment is necessary, no getting used to “a physical league” -- a phrase that MLS seems prepared to accept as a description of what it has to offer -- and none of those conflicts that seem to assail big European names as they try to adjust to the more limited horizons of soccer.
Given all of that, DeRo ought to be able to make an immediate impact on the Red Bulls. Well, quite possibly he did just that on Saturday night, against the Houston Dynamo. He sat watching from the bench for the first 45 minutes, which were pretty standard, stodgy Red Bull stuff. No goals, though the Dynamo had the better chances. Uninspiring it certainly was -- Backe later came up with various mildly critical adjectives, calling it sloppy, lazy, and static, saying his players were too comfortable.
Then, on came DeRo, and “he changed the game for us.” Well, something certainly did. Immediately, just like that. There was probably more action and excitement in the first 5 minutes of the second half than in the whole of the first half. Within a minute, DeRo had sent Dane Richards flying down the left wing, an exciting moment and one that Richards turned into a goal with one if his patented hard, low cross-shots.
A spectacular beginning, but the greater promise shone through with DeRo’s ability to introduce pauses into the game, a second or two of thoughtfulness allowing for the intelligent rather than the merely rapid pass. These were pauses that for a vital moment or two took the fidgety frenzy, and the accompanying inaccuracy, out of the Red Bulls’ game. But they never reduced the Red Bulls’ game to a damaging, predictable slowness.
DeRo has the brain of a soccer playmaker and with that, with the ability it gives him to be the cool, calculating ice cube in the boiling water of an MLS midfield maelstrom, there is hope that the Red Bulls can develop a rhythm to their play, maybe even a style. Two qualities that we don’t see too often from MLS teams, because of the coaches’ insistence on playing the “physical” game.
In short, the Red Bulls now have a player around whom to build a team. I’m not sure the franchise has ever had this before. It might have been Tab Ramos in the early days, but the competition between him and Donadoni ruined that prospect. Matthaeus was certainly capable of filling the role, but clearly wasn’t interested in the effort involved. Reyna was a good prospect, but injury-related poor form scotched that.
DeRo has all that it takes to be a playmaker. He can also score goals, and that will be necessary because the Bulls still haven’t found the scoring touch. Juan Agudelo, of course, looks like the real deal, and Backe had better hope it works out that way, because the new English striker Luke Rodgers looked sadly out of his depth during the 12 minutes that we saw of him.
But the biggest absentee on the score sheet is Thierry Henry. The all-time top scorer for Arsenal, one of the world’s great clubs, yet he can barely get a shot on target for the Red Bulls. Logically, this should merely be Henry going through a dry spell -- but recalling his awful miss in the final playoff game last year, this spell does seem to have been going on rather a long time.
Maybe I’m stretching my DeRo-dependent scenario a bit too far, but it does seem to me that his signing has the potential to be the best one yet in the history of the New Jersey franchise.