By Paul Gardner
No joking now -- this is a heartfelt statement: I can genuinely declare that the Red Bulls’ Hans Backe is the most likeable coach I have ever encountered at the pro level. And during over 50 years involvement in this sport, I’ve met a lot of coaches.
Unfortunately, being an amiable guy does not in any way guarantee being a good coach. But there we are. This is something I don’t really want to believe, but the evidence has been piling up for two years now that Backe’s version of soccer, his thoughts on how the game should be played, are -- to put it bluntly -- crude.
I recently asked Backe if he would agree that his current team played crude soccer -- he smiled and scoffed at the idea. But his answer was not credible. During this season, the Bulls have been getting more and more physical, more and more devoted to a long-ball game. An insidious process that maybe has not been as obvious as it might have been had Luke Rodgers been fit to play every game.
With Rodgers on the field the primitive nature of the team’s soccer always more visible, for it is Rodgers’ game to chase down long balls, to charge about, to harry and physically belabor opponents. Sophisticated he is not.
During the season, the Red Bulls, by some extraordinary aberration, did sign a highly skilled player -- Dwayne De Rosario. He didn’t last five minutes. Traded away -- we were told -- to free up salary cap money that would allow the Bulls to sign a top goalkeeper. So we got Frank Rost, supposedly a top goalkeeper, who cannot be said to have contributed anything at all to the Red Bulls season, either good or bad. Just nothing. And for that, he was signed as a Designated Player!
The other effect of De Rosario’s quick departure was the arrival of Dax McCarty. “What a player!” enthused Backe, after McCarty’s first game, a typically high-energy, low-skill performance that presaged McCarty’s contribution for the rest of the season. Again, nothing.
So the Red Bulls just managed to stagger to the finishing line for the playoffs, before collapsing in an unsightly heap (accompanied by a lovely post-game melee with the L.A. Galaxy) and departing from the scene, a poor team leaving behind nothing memorable at all.
How could that be? This is a high-spending team, with three DPs -- a team that evidently believes itself to be the elite of MLS. When, some months ago, GM Erik Soler told all the other Eastern clubs to forget about the Conference title, as the Bulls had it sown up, he sounded like an offensive braggart. Now, he and his words simply look ridiculous.
Worst of all is that nothing has been learned. Backe, as conscious as anyone of the way that his team’s challenge for the 2011 MLS title came so badly off the rails, has now told us what he will do to remodel the Bulls. The crude Bulls of 2011 are about to become the even cruder Bulls of 2012. Welcome to Hans Backe’s New York NeanderBulls.
As always with Backe, there is no beating about the bush here, the renovations that he considers necessary are clearly spelled out: “We definitely need to get more physical strength in this team. I think we were a little naive to think we could play a more possession-type game than a physical game. We need some physical strength for next year.”
There you have it. Nothing about better players, or more skilled players, or playing better soccer. No sirreee, not us! Just bring on the big guys!
Can it possibly be that simple? No, it cannot -- and the reasons why it cannot are there in Backe’s statement, in his tangled reasoning. To start with, it comes as a surprise to hear that the 2011 Bulls were aiming for a “possession-type game.” You could have fooled me. I don’t think Backe ever wanted that. He warned us, way back at his introductory press conference in 2010, that “too much possession can be boring.” That was just before I feebly suggested that maybe a Swedish coach plus a Norwegian GM might result in a team that played like Norway? Backe and Soler ridiculed the idea.
But that is where we have now arrived. We have two Scandinavians already ensconced on the team, the Norwegian Jan Gunnar Solli and the Finn Teemu Tainio, two workmanlike players with all the flair and charisma of a bag of brussels sprouts. A good base on which to build further dullness by adding a couple of big guys who can throw their weight around.
Built into that simplistic approach is a massive non sequitur that is worth pondering. Backe is downgrading the “possession-type” game, contrasting it with a more physical approach. A view that hides a dismissive attitude toward skillful soccer, belittling it as somehow not manly.
Evidently, for Backe, it has to be one or the other, and he’s opting for the physicality. In other words, you can’t win -- at least in MLS -- by playing possession soccer. Spelled out in terms of personnel, we arrive at the preposterous notion that Dax McCarty is a better player than Dwayne De Rosario.
As the Bulls’ 2011 season fell apart, the team did get more physical, it did rely more on a crude-long-ball approach. It was ugly to watch, and it didn’t work anyway (rejecting my label of “crude”, Backe preferred to call it a more “cynical” approach, as though that somehow made it more acceptable).
A possession game, with skilled players will work in this league -- we saw Real Salt Lake win the league a couple of years back with just such a style. But it won’t work if the coach doesn’t believe in it, if his efforts to put it into practice are half-hearted -- in short, if he prefers McCarty to De Rosario. And Backe has let us know, clearly, that he prefers banal soccer (sometimes called, rather hopefully, effective soccer) to anything that might resemble skillful soccer.
The NeanderBulls, in other words will be a slam-bang, macho team, relying on physical defending and smash-and-grab goals. A team fit for Dax McCarty and Luke Rodgers, not for Dwayne De Rosario and Juan Agudelo.
I’m not about to say that is a formula that can’t work. Of course it can -- crude physical soccer is always in there with a chance. But I am saying that for one of MLS’s marquee teams to choose that route is not only a disgrace, it represents a huge step backward in the attempt of MLS to gain acceptance among the world’s top leagues.
But we’ve all been warned, Backe is hiding nothing. MLS has it within its power to let Backe -- and any other like-minded coach -- know that the physical approach is not to its liking, and that its referees will not look kindly upon it. Will that happen, I wonder?