Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
It was the kind of brutal ending that long-time New York Red Bulls fans have seen too many times before. Another playoff collapse. Another season ending in disappointment. Another chapter to the saddest history of results in MLS playoff history.
Thursday night’s loss seemed like the perfect ending to another dysfunctional season and now that the 2012 campaign is over for the Red Bulls, an off-season of major changes is already in the works. From head coach Hans Backe, to a good chunk of the current roster, there will be plenty of people walking out of Red Bull Arena for the last time.
Multiple sources within the team, and around the team, have helped paint a vivid picture of what has been going on with the Red Bulls in recent months, and what lies ahead for the club, and as you might expect, major change is on the way.
As much as Backe tried putting a brave face on things after Thursday night’s loss, insisting that no decisions have been made in his future, his fate is as certain as anything you can count on in MLS this winter. His three-year contract is set to expire in December and he has a better chance of his hair turning black on its own than he does leading the Red Bulls again.
Then you have Rafa Marquez, the disappointing designated player who managed to show signs of quality play only to overshadow those moments with his latest acts of rage-fueled stupidity. He has one more year left on his Red Bulls contract, but if he isn’t shipped off to the highest Mexican bidder this winter then that could be a sign that the new Red Bulls leadership isn’t all that much smarter than their predecessors.
The buzzards have been circling Red Bull Arena for weeks now, starting with the dismissal of former general manager Erik Soler and hiring of Jerome deBontin, but much more has been afoot. Gerard Houllier is the head of Red Bull’s global soccer operations, and has been plotting the reconstruction of the Red Bulls front office for some time, a reconstruction that won’t include Backe.
New power brokers have entered the picture in New York, some hiding in plain sight. Darren Dein, Thierry Henry’s best friend and agent, has emerged as a powerful figure behind the scenes at the Red Bulls, and he has spent weeks in the area, serving as Houllier’s surrogate and as one of people tasked with figuring out how to fix the Red Bulls. He hasn’t been doing it in private either. He has been spotted for several weeks in the team’s locker room after games, and around the stadium.
The club is also on the verge of naming a new technical director, with former Scotland manager and UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh the favorite to land the position. The 69-year-old Scot recently concluded an 18-year run as UEFA’s technical director, and has a strong relationship with Houllier, who is also expected to strongly consider his former Aston Villa assistant, Gary McCallister for the Red Bulls head coaching job.
All the behind-the-scenes maneuvering couldn’t have helped matters in Red Bull camp, where some recent meltdowns showed clear issues developing within the team. According to multiple sources, defender Wilman Conde was effectively banished from the team after blasting his high-priced teammates and Backe after the team’s loss to the Chicago Fire a month ago (a match Conde was subbed off at halftime in). Conde ripped into Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, as well as Backe, leading the team to ask Conde to take some time off, which was spun as him needing time off for personal reasons.
Conde never played another minute for the Red Bulls, and will almost certainly be part of the team’s roster purge this winter.
The team’s dysfunction continued into the playoffs, where sources tell SBI Rafa Marquez and Hans Backe had a verbal altercation at halftime of the team’s first-leg draw vs. D.C. United, which was proceeded by Marquez leaving the match for what was called a mild calf strain. That story seemed curious to begin with, but the mood in the team’s locker room after that first-leg draw, a very good result for the team, suggested that things were far from normal that night. Marquez was presented to the media after the match, where he sold his injury story, but he came off about as believable as a three-card monty dealer.
Despite all that, the team still had the Eastern Conference finals in their sights, the team’s considerable talent managing to help overcome all the behind-the-scenes drama. The Red Bulls played a good game on Thursday, and created good chances, but ultimately failed to deliver in train-wreck fashion. From the team’s botched penalty kick set-up, which saw the team encroach on Kenny Cooper’s made first attempt, to Rafa Marquez’s bone-headed red card, to Thierry Henry’s indefensible decision to defer to playoff pariah Roy Miller when a 23-yard free kick stared him in the face with the playoffs on the line, it all served up the most fitting end to what has been another disappointing era for the Red Bulls.
Hans Backe will leave after three seasons with the team, and while some may look at his tenure as moderately successful, the fact remains he was given more resources than any coach in the team’s history and couldn’t produce a single trophy of consequence, or even a single playoff series victory. The Swedish manager has a charming personality, and worked the media like few others, but when it came to running the team, his inability to nurture young talent and his hands-off approach made the Red Bulls a soft team that had plenty of talent, but no leadership.
Even the squad’s considerable talent couldn’t overcome Backe’s shortcomings, or the locker room’s lack of true leaders (it should be noted that Tim Cahill has the makings of a strong team captain, but he clearly chose to stay in the background as one of the team’s newest players. That is something that should change in 2013).
The team’s new bosses will appoint a new coach, and build a new roster, and Red Bulls fans will have to endure yet another makeover. Fans of the team formerly known as the MetroStars have grown accustomed to plenty of things in the past 17 years. Big-name players, playoff disappointments and wholesale changes to the team. Their only hope this winter is that this team, this historically inept team, will finally figure things out, and finally turn the club into a winner.
After so many failed attempts, and so many nightmare endings like we saw on Thursday night, there won’t be anybody in the New York/New Jersey area, or anywhere in MLS for that matter, holding their breath for that.