By Paul Gardner
As the 2013 MLS season climaxed we were treated to the unenviable experience of watching the New York Red Bulls and the Seattle Sounders -- two teams that had looked like wiping out everyone -- suddenly suffering hopeless slumps and departing from the playoffs, if not in disgrace, then certainly in disarray.
There was a good side to this. The coaches kept their jobs. At the Red Bulls, Mike Petke, young and promising, deserved more time than just his very first season to put together a championship team. He got it. In Seattle, at the other end of the experience scale, the veteran Sigi Schmid will get another chance at winning MLS Cup. Deservedly, for his Seattle teams have, from the start, always been among the league’s best.
After that, things get rather murky. For both coaches, promising has turned rather quickly into disappointing. More than a month has passed since the clubs fell flat on their faces in the playoffs, and that has been enough time to judge the reaction. It has not been good. In fact -- particularly in the case of the Sounders -- it’s been pretty ghastly.
At the Red Bulls, things are not as clear as they might be. There is a complicating factor here. It is called Thierry Henry. And in its backup form it is called Tim Cahill. Two players with plenty of English Premier League experience, Henry with a solid claim to have been one of the world’s best. To which you can add a third complicating presence, that of the Red Bulls’ Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh -- someone else with tremendous experience of the top level game, as player, as coach, and as UEFA’s Technical Director for 18 years.
An intimidating trio for Petke to deal with. You’re left wondering -- who’s pulling the strings here? Who gets the final say on player signings? These are not academic questions. Last August the Red Bulls decided they needed an extra defender. They brought in David Carney, a player whom, it’s safe to say, virtually no one at the Red Bulls, or in the USA for that matter, had ever heard of.
With one clear exception. Tim Cahill knew about him, for Carney was a colleague of Cahill’s on the Australian national team. Cahill’s choice then -- and predictably Carney turned out to be just about as ordinary a player as you would expect from down under. Carney has gone, but the amount of freedom available to Petke in making player choices is far from clear.
Right now, Petke is in England with Roxburgh. England. Of course. Looking for players? Who knows -- the duo is supposed to be meeting with coaches and studying their methods. Assistant coach Robin Fraser has already been there, with Roberto Martinez at Everton. And so it goes. What benefit Petke and the Red Bulls will get from that is debatable.
When players -- like Henry and Cahill -- or executives -- like Roxburgh -- simply go back to what they know, they are quite deliberately choosing to operate within their comfort zone. The logical result of that modus operandiis David Carney. It is when new frontiers are explored, when something different and challenging is tried, that surprises and excitement and discoveries are made.
So far, the player signings and (mostly) re-signings by the Red Bulls have been, shall we say, bland. Roy Miller, Luis Robles, Andre Akpan, Eric Alexander, Kosuke Kimura, Peguy Luyindula are all back, and Bobby Convey has arrived. Does that sound like a championship assembly? And Fabian Espindola has gone, accompanied by the usual regrets and excuses of “salary cap considerations.”
The big problem with the Red Bulls last year was that it was a team without a midfield brain. Indeed, with far too much midfield brawn. Nothing has been done about that. The brave, and necessary, thing to do would be to trade away either Dax McCarty or Tim Cahill (how about that for relieving “salary cap considerations”?). The team needs creativity -- it won’t get it from a midfield stacked with relentless runners.
Of course, it can never be discounted that a decision has been made -- by whom? I’m not sure who it would be -- that the Red Bulls need to be an overtly physical team, and that midfield creativity is not needed. Creativity can be left to Henry. A simplistic thought and one that, based on last season, is impractical because Henry is too moody, and too injury prone.
Up in Seattle, the vision of a physical team powering its way to the MLS title seems also to have settled into Sigi Schmid’s thinking. Perhaps that approach was confirmed by the success of Kansas City’s high-fouling team (aided by some EPL-style refereeing) in this year’s final.
Sigi’s first move, after being dumped out of the playoffs by Portland, was to announce that his midfield Rottweiler, Osvaldo Alonso, had been re-signed -- as a D.P. Alonso is one of those players whose season record will always more cards than goals and assists. But, not to worry. Alonso is “the ultimate competitor” says the Sounders’ GM Adrian Hanauer, and Schmid praises his “leadership and tenacious play”.
Alonso’s elevation to DP status move that goes quite a long way to ensuring that we shan’t be seeing much of the Beautiful Game at Century Link Field next year. Should you want confirmation of that, take a look at some of the new Seattle signings -- Chad Barrett, Chad Marshall, Corey Hertzog. Logically, the Sounders have ditched their skilled midfielder, Mauro Rosales, gone the way of Fredy Montero and Alvaro Fernandez.
If last year’s budget-busting, record-breaking, precedent-setting mind-boggling acquisition of Clint Dempsey was intended to be the master-move, the final magic touch that transformed the Sounders from also-rans into champions, then it was a pretty clear flop. And if the new-look Sounders are to do better than previous versions, then Dempsey will need to turn in a superman, injury-free 2014 season. And it won’t be pretty.
It is not encouraging that two of MLS’s leading teams -- well, teams that shouldbe leading -- are opting for a style of soccer that needs to be spear-headed by players like Alonso, McCarty and Cahill. Lovely words from Casey Stengel spring to mind -- he once groaned, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” -- for MLS we can modify that -- “Doesn’t anybody here wantto play this game?”