By Paul Gardner
The remaking of the New York Red Bulls gathers speed. That is to say it gets faster, but it is difficult to work out whether this headlong rush for change has any direction to it.
Any intelligent direction, I mean. There are various possibilities, none of which exactly recommends itself as an example of brilliant planning.
There is, for a start the possibility that the Bulls management has decided that Americans don’t know anything about soccer, that all the soccer wisdom in the world resides in Europe, and in Northern Europe at that. So, at the beginning of the season (Feb. 28) we saw the sudden (significantly, that word crops up repeatedly) firing of assistant coach Richie Williams, along with goalkeeper coach Des McAleenan (an American resident at least since 1988). The reasons? The Bulls had “decided to go a different direction with our coaching staff” said general manager Erik Soler. A standard PR banality that could mean anything, an empty, almost insulting evasion in place of an explanation. Around the same time another longtime American employee, Jeff Agoos -- the team’s Sporting Director -- also left the club.
Something similar has happened within the past week, with the news that two more longtime Red Bull employees, Ernesto Motta and Robert Sierra, have been -- suddenly -- “let go.” Motta and Sierra were the Latino, Spanish-speaking arm of the club, the link with the local Hispanic communities.
This move, we are told, is part of a “reorganization within the club.” Evidently, a reorganization that downgrades the importance of Hispanic fans. That does not come as a surprise. If Hispanic fans meant anything at all to the club, that would be reflected in on the field.
It is not. Ever since the arrival of the Swede Hans Backe the club has been moving steadily away from Hispanic players, from any sign of Hispanic influence. At the press conference introducing Backe, I asked whether his arrival meant -- along with the presence of Soler, who is Norwegian -- that we would now have a Scandinavian, even Norwegian style team? As I recall, my question was framed in a way that left no doubt that I considered such a possibility to be a disaster. Soler answered, denying such a happening, indeed, scoffing at the idea.
Well, now. We have Soler and Backe. We have Backe’s assistant Jans Halvor Halvorsen, a Norwegian, who replaced Goran Aral, a Swede. On the field, we have the Estonian Joel Lindpere, the Finn Teemu Tainio, and the Norwegian Jan Gunnar Solli. Recently joined by the German goalkeeper Frank Rost.
There have also been the Brit signings -- Welshman Carl Robinson, a midfield mediocrity with the bad luck to be constantly injured, and two Englishmen, John Rooney, whose status as Wayne’s brother seems more of a recommendation than any obviously outstanding soccer talent. And then there’s Luke Rodgers, a lower-division English player, also injury prone, whose ugly crash-bang style does not suggest that he was signed as an exponent of the beautiful game. He was signed, as it happens, as a replacement for an unwanted Hispanic, Juan Pablo Angel, who made it pretty clear that he was not comfortable on Backe’s increasingly Euro-style team.
Rodgers, of course, whenever he can be adequately patched up, will be considered good enough to keep Juan Agudelo (who suffers the double disadvantage of being both American and Hispanic, plus the impertinence of not being Norwegian) on the bench.
Fullback Roy Miller, a Costa Rican, got around that problem by having played for three years in Norway before being signed by Backe, who evidently considered that was enough to rid Miller of any Latino excesses.
Which leaves us with Rafa Marquez, as the sole Hispanic representative. A pretty good presence, but one reduced this season to a defensive role. I say “reduced” because I see this as similar to the quandary that faced the old Cosmos when they signed Franz Beckenbauer. But he was considered, quite rightly, too talented to play in the back, so Beckenbauer took on, with great success, a midfield role. A midfield Marquez would surely make better use of his undoubted -- but Latino -- talents.
Creative midfield play is not an area that sparkles in Norwegian soccer. Indeed, I doubt it even exists there. The Swedes may be a bit better, but not much. As for the Red Bulls’ midfield, there have been constant problems, even before Backe’s arrival. No dominating presence has appeared -- the MetroStars tried the highly touted Europeans Roberto Donadoni, Lothar Matthaeus and Youri Djorkaeff, and they had the highly touted Americans Tab Ramos and Clint Mathis, yet none of them functioned with any great brilliance.
Bob Bradley brought in the talented young Bolivian Joselito Vaca, but lost interest in him when his own son, Michael, recovered from injury to fill his position. Exit Vaca.
Probably the most successful midfielder was the Honduran Amado Guevara, but Bruce Arena soon put a stop to that, by trading him away to bring in Claudio Reyna -- another move that did not work out well.
Backe, all too clearly not a devotee of beautiful soccer, has a plebeian approach to midfield. Functional, I suppose, is the word. Players like Lindpere and Robinson and Tainio seem to suit him very well. He was content, for anything more elaborate, to rely on college players like Mehdi Ballouchy and Tony Tchani. A short while ago, Backe, maybe, did feel the need for something more creative because -- suddenly -- he ditched Tchani and signed Dwayne De Rosario, a player of considerable skill, a potential playmaker, certainly a game-winner.
Evidently an aberration. The DeRo move lasted only three months, during which a strangely subdued DeRo played a muted second fiddle to Thierry Henry. Then -- suddenly -- DeRo was gone. A highly interesting development. In his place came Dax McCarty from D.C. United -- which surprised me. Earlier this year I had a chat with D.C. United coach Ben Olsen during which I questioned his high praise for McCarty, who, for me, is a rather typical, nothing-special, college-style midfielder. Olsen was indignant, piling praise on McCarty as his best signing -- the disagreement ended, as they always do, with “Well, we shall see.”
Well, we’ve now seen. After half a season, Olsen has traded away his prize signing. And McCarty has been welcomed by Backe with quite insanely inflated praise. After McCarty’s debut for the Bulls (it was a 5-0 blowout against an almost non-existent Toronto team), a smiling Backe beamed at me “What a player!”
But in the Red Bulls’ next game, De Rosario returned with D.C. United and scored the winning goal. We saw the difference between DeRo the player , and McCarty the hustler.
The DeRo-McCarty affair had another aspect. No, absolutely not, Backe assured me, there had been no locker-room tension between DeRo and Henry. None at all. Shipping DeRo out had been simply a matter of saving money on his salary. McCarty was paid a lot less, freeing up some salary money for ... well, what?
For something that MLS should never permit. The signing of a goalkeeper ... as a designated player . Back in 2007, when the DP rule was passed, Commissioner Don Garber, agreeing with me that DP slots should be used to sign exciting, match-winning players, added that he did not expect MLS clubs to use DP slots “to sign goalkeepers.”
The Red Bulls have now done exactly that with the signing of Frank Rost, a 38-year-old goalkeeper, and they got rid of DeRo to sign him -- and considering that the Red Bulls knew all about their goalkeeping frailties before they signed DeRo, why did they even bother? An ill-thought-out maneuver that says plenty about the sort of team that Backe wants.
Basically, I’d say, he’s building a standard English second-division team (which may be the equivalent of a Norwegian first division team, I’m not sure about that). A team loaded with average Northern Europeans and, of course, most important of all, a solid goalkeeper. When you can’t rely on your team to score goals, you need a top goalkeeper. And when you don’t put much faith in midfield play, you need a goalkeeper who can whack long goal kicks, something Rost is reportedly good at. It makes for really intelligent, entertaining soccer, too.
While West-Ham-Kam begins to take shape on the field, there are plenty of signs of the Europeanization (which means the simultaneous de-Americanization and de-Latinization) of the Red Bulls administration.
Erik Soler likes to sit on the Red Bull bench during games, a curious position for a GM, I always think. But, unlike many of the GMs in MLS, Erik Soler does have soccer experience. It is a pity that he seems to think that entitles him to play the bully with MLS -- recently telling them how MLS games should be refereed, and that his superstar Thierry Henry should not be given red cards. To the credit of MLS, this arrogance fell upon stony ground, resulting in a $10,000 fine for Soler.
That may or not put a stop to Soler’s superiority approach, but it has not had any effect on Thierry Henry. Even though his on-field performances have, so far, not exactly been in the super-star range (shall we say, slightly above the Beckham level), Henry has added his grumblings to the already existing anti-Americanism to be felt around the Bulls.
Where Soler told MLS that its referees are not good enough (not good enough for West-Ham-Kam players, that is), Henry has chimed in with a criticism of MLS playing fields. He doesn’t like artificial turf, and is making noises like he might refuse to play on such fields (meaning that he wouldn’t play at New England, Portland, Vancouver and Seattle). Well, OK -- no one is delighted with plastic fields -- but hundreds of MLS players (including Beckham) do play on them without threatening to strike. Though the sycophantic way in which grass fields are -- suddenly -- getting put down to accommodate touring European teams is a reminder that the Europeans usually do get their way, and that is probably why Henry feels entitled to sound off.
He has even more disturbing things to say about another MLS activity. Actually, this is not simply an MLS matter -- this is something deeply American. Henry doesn’t like the fact that he is expected to speak to the media so frequently. Something that was not required in his European days, so why should he have to bother with journalists now? His recent replies to journalists’ questions have been noticeably terse and testy. Well, Thierry, if you don’t like it here ...
While the Europeanization of the Red Bulls proceeds -- along with the unpleasant arrogance that accompanies it -- on the field we find that the Bulls (aka West-Ham-Kam), even including star DP veteran goalkeeper Rost and Dax “What a player!” McCarty, have collected one point from their last two games, have scored no goals, and have looked like -- well, like a stodgy middle-of-the-standings team from -- well, you know where.
And this just in: the Red Bulls have traded away Austin da Luz, one of their few remaining Latinos.