Coming to a stadium near you: The New York NeanderBulls

 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?

15 comments about "Coming to a stadium near you: The New York NeanderBulls".
  1. Matthew Conroy, November 9, 2011 at 4:08 p.m.

    Please - someone take Paul Gardner out behind the barn.

  2. cony konstin, November 9, 2011 at 5:22 p.m.

    Paul has been, is, and will continue to be the pulse of soccer in the US. If you don't like his articles than don't read them. There is a delete button. You are right Paul there are many teams that just play rock n sockem soccer and I will never spend a penny to go and watch that ugliness. I don't care who wins. I just want to see the spectacular. Anti football is what most coaches bet on. They live an die by it. There are very few coaches that are risk takers. Coaches are hired to be fired so why not go out blazing. Fear of losing one's job is what holds coaches back from bringing the spectacular. One day US teams will bring it. Meanwhile it is easier to destroy than create.

  3. John Soares, November 9, 2011 at 5:58 p.m.

    Yeah! Got to agree with Paul (perhaps too many words) and Cony. I find it VERY disappointing that players of such caliber as Rafa, Henry, and Rogers brought little IF anything positive to NYRB much less the MLS. If Backe is responsible!? Then the MLS would probably be better without this foursome!

  4. ckg beautiful game, November 9, 2011 at 9:32 p.m.

    Wow what did Dax Mc ever do to you Paul G? Your commentary is as crude as the NYRB play.

    As for the Red Bulls, well; what they have is has-been Marquee players. Marquez is the worst of the 3.

  5. Jogo Bonito, November 9, 2011 at 11:26 p.m.

    it's unbelievable to me that some people cannot appreaciate the fantastic work that Paul Gardner does. I find this commentary and most others he writes extremely valuable to the game in our country. It's quite clear that the RedBulls play a version of the game that's pretty much unwatchable. The franchise has built an amazing stadium and spent a ton of money, but can't seem to understand that the soccer itself will ultimately make or break the product. By keeping Backe and Soler, NYRBs simply havn't a clue as to what people will pay to watch. I hope PG continues to bash anyone that endorses a style of play that most soccer fans are simply uninterested in.

  6. Christopher Vreeland, November 10, 2011 at 8:25 a.m.

    Having only watched one NeanderBulls regular season game and the two playoff games, I have to say that Mr. Gardner's assessment is spot on. I like the term "NeanderBulls" - it's catchy, funny, and, as an added bonus, it's accurate.

    Rafa will never grow up and Rodgers is a thug, like so many of the Brits that come over here to "show us how it's done." Guess what - we know how to play the game and don't need 3rd division castoffs to teach us anything.

    Can't say that I'll be spending any money to attend a NeanderBulls game in person and five minutes on TV is about all I can tolerate.

  7. Christopher Vreeland, November 10, 2011 at 8:28 a.m.

    Oh yeah, I forgot "You've got to hand it to him" Henry. Both Rafa and Henry can be beautiful skilled players and have been so when playing for Barca. Why they exhibit such gaucheries when playing in our country is beyond me, unless, of course, they are secretly (or not so secretly) contemptuous of soccer in the US. Oh, yeah - I think I remember a little contretemps earlier this season from Rafa.

  8. Walt Pericciuoli, November 10, 2011 at 9:38 a.m.

    The owners have the right to hire and fire anyone they want. We have the right to buy tickets or not. They are my local team and I keep trying to become a fan of the Red Bulls, but so far,I can't. They have built a beautiful stadium,I wish the would do the same with the team.

  9. Walt Pericciuoli, November 10, 2011 at 10:03 a.m.

    Super Man, I do go to a lot of the games, and watch on TV, but after each one, I curse myself for wasting my time.

  10. beautiful game, November 10, 2011 at 11:17 a.m.

    I hear your pain Paul. Yet, u fail to address the obvious eyesores in the RB line-up, Rodgers,buzzing around with no purpose or efficacy; Richards, the speedy one with no idea of where to turn or run; Miller, a sad liability on defense throughout the season; Rost, who can't properly distribute the ball with his foot, team chemistry ?, no leadership on the squad, etc,; add Backe's incompetence to adjust game plans and the season becomes a bust.

  11. Carl Walther, November 10, 2011 at 12:33 p.m.

    NY Red Bulls trying to be the Man United of MLS, playing thug soccer instead of any real skill.

  12. Gak Foodsource, November 10, 2011 at 3:09 p.m.

    Man United does not play thug soccer. Not even close.

  13. Alex Michalakos, November 10, 2011 at 6:35 p.m.

    I have watched more games than most fans since ‘96. The reality is that coaches have to win; putting on a show is secondary at best. A team could win with an attractive style if the rules were properly enforced, but that the style of play in MLS is dictated by the refereeing. We see this in several respects like fouls, delaying tactics and free kick plays.

    For example, suppose there is a ball played on the ground to a forward. His torso and arms are immediately pulled and pushed by the defender and even wrestled to the ground. No foul is called. This happens in midfield as well. (I won’t even mention the other hard fouls—this tugging and grabbing is enough). So it is easy for the defense to win the ball back and hard for a team to build an attack. The coach sees this and says let me put in Will Bruin or a big striker to battle for the ball and hold it up; and let’s bypass the midfield and send long balls. Makes sense. Now consider that, remarkably, in other sports like football and basketball, the rules keep being modified to restrict this type of contact and to allow more freedom to the offensive player. A cornerback can’t touch a receiver after 5 yards, a defender can’t bump a player dribbling the ball, etc. We don’t need new rules—just enforce the old ones.

    Next, every foul in the box on a cross seems to go against the attacker since the ref is afraid to give a penalty because there are so few goals (which wouldn’t be the case if he called more fouls). We all know what muggings occur on corners and free kicks in the box. If the players are warned in the beginning of the season and the refs are instructed to start calling all those fouls, eventually it will stop. At first there may be a few “harsh” penalties but players will adapt and it will stop.

    Finally, it is a tradition—and I was taught it—to stand in front of the ball when a foul is called, to stop a quick attack. The rules already say you must retreat, and when it was publicly enforced with a yellow in an U-17 world cup a few years back it was great to watch. There was more flowing soccer, less frustration. Can you imagine in basketball a player not giving back the ball and then flinging it high in the air to the ref while his defense got set? No way. A sure technical. Or can you imagine a player dribbling and being grabbed and pushed but no foul called? No way.

    I suppose it has gradually gotten to this point—what is acceptable, that is. I do give lots of credit for the spray paint rule for 10 yards. It works, and it has made the game much less frustrating to watch.

  14. Alex Michalakos, November 10, 2011 at 6:35 p.m.

    As an aside, the Premier is considered the most exciting league, but watching anything but the top 4-6 teams is difficult because of its lack of nuance and subtlety. However, one thing that I admire about the play of almost all the teams is that the offense gets players in to the box! Pay attention and you can see when those crosses come in there are several players there, sometimes there can be 6-7 players in the box! In MLS (and the national team) we are lucky if there are two. In England they say we are going to get ‘round the back to the end line and cross it in, and so they know what to do. It seems like in MLS and the US team the crosses come in at an angle and as an afterthought. So there’s one guy in the box. This is something coaches can add, even with an ugly, direct style.

  15. Bill Anderson, November 13, 2011 at 4:58 p.m.

    Hans Backe was not and will never be strong enough to handle the "personalities" that make up the NY Red Bulls. The thuggish play of Marquez, Henry, and Rodgers is a disgrace to the game (not the MLS). A stronger manager would have found a way to give these "stars" the message that it will not be tolerated, but Backe is not that man.

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