By Paul Gardner
I regard the Red Bulls' Hans Backe as a jewel -- a coach who speaks his mind, who never minces his words, who doesn’t dodge questions, who has a sense of humor.
Such a combination -- it reflects an honesty about his work -- was bound to land Backe in trouble sooner or later. And now it has. Big time. Luckily for Backe, as far as I know he’s in trouble only with me. He should be in serious trouble with the bosses at MLS -- even at the Red Bulls -- but the betting here is that they will not even notice what he has been saying.
It is his remarks after Saturday’s game against Dallas that are so objectionable. The game -- to get that out of the way -- was worse than objectionable, it was utterly emetic. This is soccer?
And the reason for the dreadful game came out clearly -- things are always pretty clear when Backe describes them -- in his postgame comments.
For a start: “We didn’t have that much of an attacking game, maybe two or three good chances.” My translation: “We were not particularly interested in attacking, from the start we were there to defend and maybe steal a goal.”
My translation happens to be 100 percent correct -- for later Backe came up with this: “Over all it was a good game for us. Defend, defend, defend ...”
OK. The Red Bulls have injuries to cope with. Part of that, it needs to be said, is Backe’s fault for his addiction to signing elderly players. But the absence of key players is no excuse for giving us this appalling insult to the game. The rationale of course -- it’s always the same -- is that this was all they could do, this was the only hope.
Well, we don’t know that. We do know that it’s the easy way to handle things, no great expertise or tactics needed here. Because it takes the emphasis completely off actually trying to play soccer. The players can now concentrate on all those wonderfully admirable qualities like grit and guts and togetherness and so on and so on.
We’ve seen this time and time again from all sorts of teams. The players -- to their credit -- never seem entirely happy about it. They offer lame admissions that maybe it wasn’t a great game, but what the heck, we won didn’t we? Carlos Mendes: “That was a battle from start to finish. The guys played well, defended hard. It wasn’t pretty but it’s three points ...” And Chris Albright: “We’re not going to try to hide behind some veil of beautiful soccer - that certainly wasn’t the case ...”
Plus Luke Rodgers, who scrambled in the only goal of a blighted game -- a game that he described as “The best performance I’ve seen in a long, long time. The defending was just unbelievable. We played as a team tonight, we looked solid. The togetherness has been brilliant.”
If all that vapid boasting sounds familiar, no doubt it’s because it echoes faithfully what the Colorado Rapid players were mouthing after last year’s MLS Cup win (Dallas was again on the receiving end). A win for a poor, unattractive team that played virtually no soccer and reduced MLS’s gala game to a bore.
So where do we go from here? If this performance was so brilliant, then presumably the Red Bulls should keep playing this way, even when Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez return to the lineup. (Though these macho wins always raise the question -- if things are so brilliant without the stars -- well, are they really needed?).
It is not an appetizing prospect -- quite puke-inducing in fact -- but Backe has now suggested that this is the way things are going to be, at least on the road. And he did so with words that should be totally unacceptable at MLS headquarters: “This is the way we probably need to do it on the road. We just need to get back to the basics, to the formation. Fill in for each other and play a bit dirty.”
Dirty? Right away, it needs saying that the Bulls were called for 11 fouls in this game -- which is not a huge total. But they did pick up three yellow cards. Statistically, then, it may not have been a foul-fest, but that doesn’t alter the impact of Backe’s intention “to play a bit dirty.”
OK, Commissioner Don Garber, here’s the coach of one of your teams saying, unequivocally, that he wants his team to play dirty. Are you going to let that go? Is it OK for teams to methodically play dirty in your league and to publicly boast of it? Is that what you want?
Of course, only the referees can actually stop the Bulls from roughing up opponents (and what else can Backe’s words mean?) -- but we need to hear from Garber on this matter.
Garber has fined coaches and general managers before -- for criticizing referees, for drawing attention to the league’s shortcomings, and we have had a stern, annoyingly high-minded statement from the league when fining a player alleged to have dived. But this is something different. It’s worth recalling that MLS started this season with a rash of appalling injuries.
Is it OK, Commissioner Garber, to advocate dirty play in MLS?