Rumours of boardroom divisions
22 January ~ If you haven’t grown up watching MLS, many things about a Superdraft event seem a bit odd. This year’s glitzy event took place in a huge conference centre in Indianapolis last Thursday. As clubs plucked college players out of an auditorium bathed in pink and purple light, groups of fans chanted excitedly. It was a bit like a darts championship, with fewer pints of snakebite. Yet the Superdraft is also an important and intriguing part of the North American game. And last week the New York Red Bulls became the first club in the 18-year history of MLS to take part without a head coach.
The Red Bulls sacked Hans Backe on November 9. Backe was an uninspiring Swedish coach, an erstwhile colleague of Sven-Göran Eriksson during those ill-fated Munto Finance days at Notts County. But since then there has been rumour upon rumour, international intrigue and a lot of player movement. But very little has actually happened on the managerial front. MLS pre-season began on Monday and the players have now travelled to a training camp in Florida, still lacking a manager. The season begins in 39 days’ time, on March 2. The Red Bulls let Backe's contract expire 74 days ago.
A new executive team was parachuted into New York by the Red Bull parent company in autumn 2012 to bring about Backe's demise. Gérard Houllier, Andy Roxburgh and French-American businessman Jérôme de Bontin now make the big decisions at Red Bull Arena. But it was rumoured within weeks that there was a rift between the three men. De Bontin has significant US soccer experience but Houllier and Roxburgh are European specialists. De Bontin reportedly wants to employ American talent, while the other two plan to stick with what they know.
The evidence supports the theory that American coaches do better in MLS. Of the 17 championships since 1996, 12 have been won by US managers. But the two names mentioned most often in connection with the vacant Red Bulls job are Gary McAllister and Paulo Sousa. Due to Houllier’s experience with McAllister at Liverpool and Aston Villa, the former midfielder was slated to be given the post immediately. But this never materialised – McAllister is not known for his MLS knowledge and apparently had high wage demands. Then Paulo Sousa, famed for short managerial spells at QPR, Swansea and Leicester, plus a more impressive playing career, resigned from his job in Hungary on January 7. It was immediately reported that he was going to join the Red Bulls. As yet, nothing has happened.
But Roxburgh seems very positive about it all. In a phone conference with journalists on Monday, the former Scotland manager said: "We’re talking to a number of people, a lot with really interesting backgrounds, but we’re still in discussions... We ask that you be patient just a little bit longer. We want to make sure it’s someone who’s available and who’s appropriate... What’s happened in this case is that we’ve spoken to quite a number of people. It’s not a matter of frustration it’s a matter of taking time and doing things properly." Roxburgh's chirpiness was nice to see, but this explained nothing.
In the meantime, 12 players have left the Red Bulls, including the expensive and highly unpopular designated player Rafa Marquez. Several players have arrived, among them Juninho Pernambucano, a free-kick specialist and former Lyon midfielder, who will turn 38 next week.
So the Red Bulls are preparing for the new season, just without a head coach, and no one really knows why. One theory is that the club are waiting to announce an American assistant manager to help Sousa with the vagaries of MLS. Claudio Reyna reportedly turned down the position last week. Maybe there’s some paperwork that still requires completion. What if Thierry Henry didn't approve and exercised his dressing room veto? Perhaps the Red Bull executives watched QPR documentary The Four Year Plan and were put off by Sousa’s bemused cameo role. Anything is possible at Red Bull Arena. Ed Upright