By Paul Gardner
Whether Jerome de Bontin, the former Red Bull general manager, resigned or was fired early in March hardly matters when trying to assess the health of the franchise.
Either way, the departure of a key administrator just five days before the new season begins -- and the day before the club held its media day -- was a clear sign of turbulence. De Bontin has not been replaced, so we have a club operating without a business leader. Or so it appears.
Maybe the Red Bull people in Austria are calling the shots. Maybe Gerard Houllier, the Red Bulls’ Head of Global Football, can take care of the club while also dealing with Red Bull Salzburg, RB Leipzig, and soccer academies in Ghana and Brazil. Maybe Andy Roxburgh, the American club’s Sporting Director, has the last word.
If there is a business vacuum at the top of the Red Bull organization, things look somewhat better on the team side. A couple of weeks ago, the club announced that it had given Coach Mike Petke a new contract. A move that could be seen as a sign of stability -- were it not for the fact that the team is a mess. Its performances on the field so far this season have been erratic, bordering on chaotic. The reality is a lot worse than the 1-loss-three-ties record indicates.
This should not surprise. While, during winter months, other MLS clubs have been making moves to strengthen their teams, the Red Bulls have done nothing.
I’ll elaborate: The moves of other clubs may or may not produce the required upgrade, but they can be clearly identified as moves intendedto improve matters. From Toronto’s lavish spending spree, to Portland’s acquisition of two more Argentines and on to the lesser signings of Seattle and Columbus, one can detect the purpose behind the changes.
But the Red Bulls moves betray no such intelligence. The crucial need for the team is -- and has been for at least a year now -- a soccer brain in midfield. The current midfield features a rotating selection from the following: Dax McCarty, Jonny Steele, Tim Cahill, Lloyd Sam, Bobby Convey, Eric Alexander, Bobby Convey and Thierry Henry. Henry should be the leader there, the controlling mind and the playmaker -- but that is a role that he rarely plays, presumably because he doesn’t want to.
Without Henry, that midfield is a barren area. Plenty of athletic ability, desperately short of creativity. It certainly doesn’t come close to containing a player of the quality necessary for a championship team.
Apart from the evidently reluctant Henry, there is no one on the Red Bull roster with any playmaker credentials. Of course the Red Bulls know that they need a playmaker. Yet the team has not moved to fill that yawning gap. Last Saturday they cast Peguy Luyindula in the playmaker role. We are supposed to take that seriously?
The Red Bulls have acquired a couple of defenders. On the cheap, it seems. The Spaniard Armando comes on a free transfer. The case of Richard Eckersley, traded from Toronto, is revealing. The rumors are that this is a highly paid player, and that Toronto will, for this season, be paying a substantial chunk of his rumored $350,000-plus salary.
This is unbelievable. Or it ought to be. All that money for an average English second or third division defender -- and a crude, rough-house one at that? Roxburgh sees Eckersley rather differently: “We were impressed with Richard’s play at Toronto FC ... He has a good soccer brain and is an energetic defender ...”
I would seriously entertain the notion that Roxburgh had mixed Eckersley up with another Toronto player -- except that the meticulous Roxburgh wouldn’t do that, and anyway Toronto have been uniformly dreadful for several seasons, so I can’t think of any other player who would live up to Roxburgh’s paean.
Any doubts about the crudity (I’ll use that word -- charitably) of Eckersley’s version of soccer should have been erased after the first 25 minutes of Sunday’s game against Chivas USA. At the ninth minute Eckersley planted his right elbow firmly into the face of Chivas’s Erick Torres. Two minutes later Eckersley, having clumsily mis-controlled the ball, chased it and slammed his knee into the back of Torres (yes, Torres again, Chivas’ star player).
(An important aside: Referee Juan Guzman was well-placed to see both incidents, but did not call a foul for either of them. Nor did he issue a card later when Red Bull defender Jamison Olave elbowed Torres (yes, Torres again) in the back of the head. Guzman preferred to chat with Olave. Both of the elbow fouls to the head of Torres, certainly, were violent and dangerous and should be looked at by the MLS Disciplinary Committee. We shall see.)
Saturday’s Eckersley horror show reached a splendid climax in the 25th minute when he pulled down Thomas McNamara and gave a penalty kick to Chivas, from which Torres scored. This was the sort of play that had impressed Roxburgh? In the 47th minute, Eckersley saved himself and the Red Bulls any further embarrassment by departing with a muscle pull.
A couple of years back, there were rumors that the Red Bulls were looking to sign Kaka as a Designated Player. Instead, they got Cahill. Not quite the same thing. And now Richard Eckersley. One awaits, with no great confidence, the arrival of a controlling midfield soccer brain who can turn this team into one of championship quality. Or at least, who can start that process.