By Paul Gardner
The Red Bulls will be without Juan Pablo Angel next season, which is a pity -- they’re losing a hell of a player, a terrific goalscorer, and a class act, a real gentleman.
Do they know that? Does coach Hans Backe care? I ask because we now have confirmation of what sounded merely like a sick joke when it started to be rumored earlier in the year.
The news is that, instead of Angel, the Red Bulls are arranging to give us one Luke Rodgers. No one will have heard of Rodgers. Logical enough, for the guy has spent his 11-year pro career laboring in the lower levels of the English league.
Last April the word was going round that Rodgers was on his way, but then he ran into problems getting a work permit, and the move never happened.
Why would Rodgers have trouble getting a work permit? Well now, it seems the U.S. authorities found Rodgers’ lifestyle not to their liking -- he had been convicted of involvement in an October 2009 pub brawl in Nottingham. There had been other offenses in the past as well, including a criminal conviction dating back to 2002 when he set off a firework in a pub parking lot -- the firework hit a 14-year-old girl in the face and severely injured her.
But Rodgers has an English agent who dismisses all of that as just minor growing-up disturbances: “The incidents of the past were unfortunate and, in some ways, a young person doing silly things," says Mark Cartwright, "Luke has grown up 100 percent and now has a young daughter to look after, so yes, he has moved forward.”
Well, that’s nice to know, though Cartwright’s labeling as part of “the past” an offense committed by Rodgers not much more than a year ago seems rather odd.
Whatever, the U.S. authorities have relented, and Rodgers now has his work permit. MLS itself presented a further possible obstacle -- though surely not a serious one. It’s difficult to imagine MLS taking Rodgers’ misdemeanors seriously -- after all, this is the league that was prepared to welcome the serially delinquent Paul Gascoigne back in 2002.
Even so, MLS has insisted on a “behavioral clause” being inserted in Rodgers’ contract. Difficult to know what that means, for MLS says merely that it does not discuss contract details -- though it did say that “similar” clauses have been used for other (unnamed) players in the past.
So Rodgers arrives with a less than ideal personal profile. That would be true whichever club he was joining -- but if the Red Bulls have any ambition to be the class of MLS -- and that is exactly the ambition they should have -- then this is a rotten move.
Time to listen to agent Cartwright again (Cartwright, as it happens, has already deposited a Brit player in MLS -- the technically challenged Chris Birchall at the Los Angeles Galaxy): “Luke won’t have any problem, in my opinion, adapting to the style of play in the MLS ... In fact, I believe -- with his style of play -- many defenses won’t know how to handle his strength and pace.”
Well, he would say something like that, wouldn’t he? But Rodgers’ scoring stats, 108 goals scored in 344 pro appearances, are pretty impressive ... at first glance.
Those figures are the harvest of an 11-year pro career in which Rodgers has never managed to get a contract with a major club. He has spent his soccer life with mostly 3rd and 4th division clubs in England.
This is most unusual. Goalscorers are probably the most highly sought-after players in the sport; when a young forward with a lower-division club shows goalscoring potential, he is invariably snapped up by a richer club. Yet here was the 20-year-old Rodgers scoring prolifically with 4th division Shrewsbury Town (38 goals in two seasons 2001-2003) but no one came calling. Rodgers moved on to other clubs -- but to Crewe Alexander (2nd division), Port Vale (3rd), and Yeovil Town (3rd), ending up with 3rd division Notts County where he met up briefly with Hans Backe who was an assistant coach during Sven Goran Eriksson’s brief stay there in 2009.
The Backe connection has resulted in Rodgers being offered what his coach at Notts County, Steve Cotterill, describes as “a big, lucrative contract” by MLS (with a behavioral clause, of course).
This is a transaction that, frankly, the Red Bulls do not need. Finding a young goalscorer -- I mean one without a police dossier -- should not be that difficult. But Backe and the Bulls have opted for Rodgers, with his dubious background.
That is bad enough. There is more. I have never seen Rodgers play, but I have seen plenty of the play in the lower English divisions. It is not something to be either recommended, or- - I should have thought -- worth importing.
Agent Cartwright, praising Rodgers, mentions only his strength and pace. That’s probably about the limit of it -- technical skills are not abundant in the English 3rd division. Whatever Rodgers brings, rest assured that it won’t look like Barcelona.
One begins to wonder exactly what Backe - whose general approach to the game I found admirable last season -- does want the Red Bulls to look like. Another new signing is a Norwegian international midfielder, Jan Gunnar Solli. Another obscure player, another 29-year-old, and another player who, like Rodgers, will do nothing to infuse any style into the team. Among the world’s soccer-playing nations, Norway must be near the top when it comes to producing utterly bland, characterless, and just plain boring soccer.
I was writing, only the other day, about the need for more pizazz in MLS. If I were looking for an antonym of pizazz, I might just settle on Norwegian.
Well having read your columns for many years now, I recognize the "fear of the long ball lower division British" player talk... and by and large I even find myself sharing in much of it, but having not seen either of these players I'm willing to hold at least some of my judgment until they at least have had a chance to kick a ball around a bit.
But the truth of the matter is that the Red Bull can't keep Angel... he's too good a player to take the pay cut to stay and isn't going to be another "role" player, he's too good for that but also getting a bit long in the tooth to be "The Man"... and the fact is that unlike back in the 80's when the COSMOS could continue to have more aging stars than they could actually use... the MLS won't allow teams to spend money they don't have on players they can't use, no matter how talented.
I'm really not that surprised that Coach Backe has seen fit to bring in a player from his past, that is what most coaches tend to do, and while this guy certainly isn't going to be the second coming of Denny Tueart, the fact is that just as you've stated... a goal scorer is something most any coach looks to find or buy...well the rules that a MLS coach must play under make buying a proven scorer something that is prohibitive, so signing this guy, likely on the cheep, is not all that crazy an idea... my main worry is that he will squeeze out playing time from a younger player, say like Agudello... but that is always going to be a coaches dilemma.
As far as a Norwegian midfielder goes, well who would have expected last springs signing of Joel Lindpere to have been the success it was, really what was his pedigree before arriving here? How about Tony Tchani? ... it really is a matter of both luck and the ability to coach just what you have to work with... look at the trade that brought over Mehdi Ballouchy, that was the sort of move that a club that has limited options, read money...that shows both good sense and good luck...
I realize that nearly all things British push your buttons, and not without reason, but this coach has shown far more good sense than most of the others that have preceded him and while I'm hesitant to get all Rah Rah about anything and everything that the Red Bull do... they have shown a marked improvement in nearly all aspects of their game... and Hans Backe has impressed me to a much greater degree than I would have expected before this last season started... I wish Bunker Bob Bradley was half the coach Backe has been, but that's a whole other kettle of mediocrity... I say, at least wait until preseason to start worrying about these two new players.
How about you let us know why Angel is not coming back to the Red Bulls?
Hey, Paul...I don't know anything about Jan Gunnar Solli and perhaps he's not going to set MLS on fire, but lighten up on your myopic dissing of Norwegians. The likes of Tore Andre Flo, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Steffen Iversen, John Carew, Oyvind Leonhardsen, Jon Arne Riise, Morten Gamst Pedersen, Henning Berg and others have graced the Premiership since its inception and, in my opinion, don't deserve to be tagged as "bland, characterless, and just plain boring" as you have done in your column.
Well good--another team I don't have to bother to watch next season. Re: Rodgers agent--I know the majority of agents don't go to college, but if they did, they'd have to major in "lying."
The basic flaw in your article is that Rogers is not supposed to be the replacement to Angel. That player is Henry. Although I love Juan Pablo and thank him for all he has done for the Red Bulls, there comes a time in every player's career where their teams go in a different direction and they are no longer part of the picture.
Today's game is a business and teams cannot afford to carry an aging star bases on sentimental reasons, specially in a league like MLS where there is a cap and you cannot afford those luxuries.
As per Rogers, I reserve my opinion until I see him play. Who knows? Maybe he will be a surprise.
Paul, I know you cringe at the mere mention of anything English, and to some degree I do concur, but MLS will not turn into a beautiful Spanish or South American style until we stop looking at the physicality of the players instead of ability, and the refs stop allowing the mauling that takes place in the game.
Great balanced analysis "Real Pico". You hit the nailon the head regarding over-emphasis of the physicality of players in MLS. The announcers could be a positive influence but instead constantly remind us of how big and strong certain players are or how player X is really good despite his small stature!!! Also as you noted, MLS referee's generally act more like NFL refs than soccer refs. Without sounding too paranoid is it possible that they are acting on the directions of league owners who probably feel that soccer can't become popular in the US without emphasizing the physical aspects???
Well I tend to think that the officiating is no worse than that of other "mediocre" players playing and dominating in other less than stellar leagues... the sad fact is that if you look at most teams other than the elite few, the tenancy to depend on being physical rather than technical is more the norm than most would admit and even in the big money leagues the teams trying to keep from being relegated nearly always will be giving more than a little stick to those available... think of Athletic Bilao's Andoni Goikoetxea badly injuring both Bernd Schuster and Diego Maradona or more recently a player like Nigel DeJong... and DeJong managed to plant his cleat directly into a players chest in a World Cup Final and was only shown a Yellow by the Referee... no while I agree that officiating can be a problem, let's not start thinking it's limited to MLS, because that simply is not the case... but what is true is that MLS has and likely will continue to have limited funds to spend and despite much big talk, little real success in growing it's own players so they will need to continue to look elsewhere to find players to stock their teams... and that means more than likely more "robust" types rather than great finesse players, so don't expect tremendous changes to either the style of the product on the field anytime soon. I just hope that we start seeing a higher level of youth player in this country for those teams to go after...but that to might be a pipe dream.