Red Bulls and Sounders Spurn the Creative Game

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 operandi is 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 should be 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 want to play this game?”
12 comments about "Red Bulls and Sounders Spurn the Creative Game".
  1. Allan Lindh, December 19, 2013 at 8:59 p.m.

    Don't be so hard on Dax, he's not big enough to be a Rottweiler. And for my money, he's not the least skilled mid-fielder in MLS. Agree with most of the rest.

  2. feliks fuksman, December 19, 2013 at 10:13 p.m.

    Agree strongly with the article! Creativity is crucial for any successful team.

  3. Sam Rogers, December 19, 2013 at 10:56 p.m.

    Wrong for you to mention McCarty as part of the problem. Granted that he is not a "creative" solution in central midfield but his work rate and tactical ability will allow Red Bulls or any other team to give the creative freedom to someone else. You shouldn't downplay Red Bulls correct confidence in McCarty the way you have.

  4. Jogo Bonito, December 20, 2013 at 1:15 a.m.

    Let's face it, we are not dealing with intelligent people here. The men that get MLS jobs in management and coaching are typically ex-jock white dudes that like to drink with other ex-jock white dudes. They cannot relate to anyone that doesn't live in their simple world. So naturally they will seek out more of their own in the places they're likely to find them. They're too stupid to understand anything other than what they're comfortable with. They have little tolerance for players that they deem "unpredictable." Unpredictability is what people all over the world love to see in our sport. These simpletons that have been running US coaching schools, MLS teams, the MLS itself and the English speaking US soccer television coverage are drugged by the British accent and can't speak Spanish. These Anglophiles think they're doing a great job. Which is why we need Paul Gardner now more than ever. I hope NYFC learns from the mistakes of others.

  5. Tom Symonds, December 20, 2013 at 2:43 a.m.

    No surprise, actually. Somewhere Don Garber has a focus group which probably posited a la Henry Higgins, "Why can't the MLS be more like the NFL?" And Garber answered, "Let it be done and MLS shall be known as football the American way." Exactly what Klinsmann is trying to change, but MLS is submarining him with more of the same thuggery, ineptness, aimless movement, lack of vision or soccer sense, etc. that he's trying to overcome…but, in MLS we're tough, we're physical, we've got heart, did I mention we're tough?

  6. beautiful game, December 20, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.

    MLS is a showcase of brawn with a limited soccer IQ mentality. The few players that make things happen are hampered by the refs who are consistent with not punishing the perps that manipulate the rules of the game. Indeed, Jogo Bonito is spot on citing that the MLS pool of players for NT duty is Klinsmann's nightmare. Garber is woefully blind to the way the game should improve.

  7. Pat Mahoney, December 21, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.

    Things would improve if the refs wouldn't shy away from early yellow cards. How many times have we seen an extremely hard tackle from behind on Rosales or any other creative player here in Seattle inside of the first minute? It took it's toll on Rosales which you can see in his loss of mobility. When they go down easily, the refs just think they are divers. Quit awarding violent play by lack of calls/cards. It happens in every MLS game in watch with rare exceptions!

  8. Lamont Granquist, December 23, 2013 at 1:48 p.m.

    You're shooting the messenger.

    Sigi is clearly going with adding brawn and muscle to the team because of the pounding that Dempsey took at the end of last season. That's the result of the refereeing. The commentators also train the fans offenses that in some cases are yellow cards in the EPL aren't even fouls in the MLS.

    If the refs, the commentators and the fans were less concerned with 'flopping', 'diving', 'going down easy', and 'simulation' and were more concerned with protecting the attacking players then we wouldn't be headed this way. In EPL matches you never see any comments about diving in clear cases when a player is touched from behind and (in MLS parlance) "flops". The result is not an epidemic of flopping, but defenders that are restricted in how physical they can be and they don't hit from behind at all. You also don't see the aerial challenges with arms up and heads together all the time (and don't have the lousy announcers giving the 'how can you jump without raising your arms up???? that's not a foul in my book, just accidental contact' excuse all the time).

    As a sounders fan, I'm hoping that Cooper does what is clearly going to be his job and the threat of him running through defenders draws the brawn of the opposing team to him and opens up space for Dempsey and whichever other forward he's paired up with. Welcome to the MLS.

  9. Gary Bolen, December 23, 2013 at 3:14 p.m.

    Ozzie is a defensive midfielder who SHOULD be a DP. As a result of his position he's also usually too deep to provide assists. He is a defensive mid for Clint Dempsey, who is one of the top creative mids in MLS at the moment. He has the freedom to continue to create because of Ozzie.

    And finally, Honey Badger don't care about your article!

  10. e j, December 24, 2013 at 1:09 p.m.

    God forbid you look at any data before posting from your...posterior.

    Name Fouls/90 Red/90 Yellow/90

    Alonso 1.55 .21 .015
    Beckerman 1.67 .24 .01

  11. Bobby Bluntz, December 26, 2013 at 6:03 p.m.

    Lamont, Dempsey was terrible for Seattle, don't make excuses that he was fouled more than any attacking player in the league. I agree with the poisoning of the broadcast. "Went down too easy for me" when a guy gets plowed in the penalty area. Best line of the article was PG's "High fouling" to describe KC's version of the 4-3-3. Get it back quickly in their end turns into, foul to get it back and hope they don't call every one or give you cautions.

  12. Frank Cardone, January 5, 2014 at 1:23 p.m.

    I agree with the many fans who feel that MLS must protect its creative players and advise referees accordingly. What is preventing Don Garber and his management team from hearing our voices?

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