|Red Bull Arena. Call it the Hamster Cage.|
Within the confined space of the Red Bulls' war room, I imagine there to be a constant, frantic bleating noise emanating from 20's-era bullhorns mounted on the bare, concrete walls. As the roof periodically shakes, the earth rumbles and dust particles cascade downward, a red 'caution' light strobes its way around this crumbling shelter, illuminating the clutter and detritus accumulated from a weary backlog of poor decisions and decisionmakers. A row of wall-mounted televisions flicker ominously between gray static and strangely private hidden camera feeds. They chart the comings and goings of various 30-plus, over-the-hill DP prospects in Europe. The provenance of these cameras is unknown.
At the helm, a freshly-knit Red Bulls scarf wrapped around his neck, is Jérôme de Bontin, his incisors digging into his fleshy bottom lip and his brow furrowed in consternation. He sinks into a plush leather chair, his eyes flicking hyperactively between the screens, a mountain of paperwork shooting down clear tubes into his bunker and both hands gripping joysticks that are, apparently, not connected to anything in particular. His desk is littered with Erik Soler's leavings, things the man did not have time to pack. Occupying an entire wall is a trophy case purchased by John Kluge in 1996, by far the most ornate piece of furniture in this space. A family of monkeys has taken up residence in its barren eastern quarter. The bunker shakes again. Marquez has arrived at training and wonders where Tim Ream is. "This man is not professional." Connor Lade informs him Ream is long gone, has been in England for months. Marquez bristles, poses for nobody and nothing in particular, then struts away.
De Bontin shakes his fist at the screens. There is nothing he can do.
The dust particles loosen again from the trembling ceiling and one of the screens flicks onto Frank Lampard preparing for bed in London. Lampard applies a generous portion of Ben Gay to his lower back, settles into an ice bath and groans audibly as he lowers himself down. De Bontin flicks one of the joysticks and a Red Bulls scarf bubbles up from the bath. Lampard looks confusingly at the article, then laughs, throws it in the waste bin next to a photo of Chelsea hoisting the Champions League trophy.
De Bontin shakes his fists at the screens. There is nothing he can do.
There are times when the Red Bulls management makes a hamster cage look downright palatial. There have been 13 coaches, none of whom have lasted more than Hans Backe's current stint, which is laughably small. The idea that Backe can stretch that even further diminishes by the minute. There was the cult figure of Bora Milutinovic, who presided over one of the worst MLS teams in history in the '99 MetroStars. That team, that year prompted the journeyman coach once labeled a miracle worker to respond this defensively to a time that can, yes, be referred to as an unmitigated dumpster fire.
“You have to look the conditions I have to work,” he launches in. “You know who is Tom Howard?”
As in Tim Howard?
“You know who put him in first team ever?” he continues, not missing a beat. “You know what they tell me. I’m nuts. But you know what happened. Two years after, he go in Manchester, and now how you going to judge me?”
The conditions I have to work. The fragmented thought spoken in broken English is such a perfect microcosm for New York's problem, what has always been New York's problem. And what of the coaches who lasted longer? Two years is an eon in New York. Three a millennium. There was Octavio Zambrano, who lasted two years before then-GM Nick Sakiewicz decided, quite belatedly, that his relationship with Zambrano could not weather the storm he had created for himself. To wit:
"Look, he wants to be the head coach of a professional team, and we needed to focus our energy on the academy and youth system," Sakiewicz told the Newark Star-Ledger. "Octavio needed to focus his energies on finding another job."
Then there was Bob Bradley, he of bald head and strictly regimented demeanor. Where Bradley failed was, again, in man management. He never won over then-GM Alexi Lalas and the endless legion of bean counters at his flanks, and the floor fell out from underneath when times got tough. In the thick of the playoff hunt, Lalas fired Bradley (sound familiar?) before the 2005 season ended and the Red Bulls behind just the Wizards for the final spot in the playoffs. The Red Bulls had lost two straight. It was enough.
Then there was Mo Johnson (who's hiring puzzled), and Bruce Arena and two interim coaches and here we have Backe in a mixer to which he says he is oblivious but any human with eyes can see that he is not. Backe does not have all this under control because there is no control. It is not entirely his fault. Confusion and failure and disillusionment are ironed into the fabric of this franchise. De Bontin's flailing limbs and unctuous nature have solidified all that for those who would have ignored it all. What has changed? What lessons that were visited upon the fathers have been handed down to the sons? What will de Bontin say about past mistakes that he can put in a blender and squeeze out into something edible? Because it has been Red Bulls policy since time immemorial to ignore the past. It is so gross a thing that it makes little sense to dwell on it, they say. Our bare trophy cupboard? Forget it. All the parting shots coaches and GMs have left us with? Avert thine eyes. Forward, always forward. The problem is that, as lemmings, that leads you over the cliff.
And so went Erik Soler, off the cliff, like so many before, at seemingly the most inopportune time. New York has a real shot at its first MLS trophy this year (how real is up to your interpretation of how hard that loss to KC hits), and out the door goes Soler (though, typically, not totally out the door) in the midst of it all. Timing is everything and the Red Bulls are a program without a hint of it. And leave it to this franchise to hire a general manager who is not a general manager, essentially a brand analyst, leaving the actual player decisions up to some unnamed wisp of wind vapor on Gerard Houllier's lips. Houllier of course is not NYRB's alone. He is the head of global soccer for Red Bull brand, meaning he also presides over Salzburg and Leipzig. Keep tugging at this thread and it becomes clear that Red Bull has so many thickly-spread tiers of bureaucracy that decisions pile upon decisions and personalities grate and bean counters rule the roost. How else to describe this miserable situation with Marquez, who, when he sits, actually makes New York better? The decisions seem to be made on some atmospheric level, with the condensation gradually dripping down to the field level in a viscous, sludgy, toxic mixture that is rarely pleasing and never truly successful.
There are many facets to this story, many people involved and many decisions that don't necessarily overlap. Not everybody involved with the MetroStars/Red Bull name over the years has been nefarious and terrible. But a lot of them have, more than you would expect with this kind of financial backing and seeming commitment to success.
But. I can come to only one reasonable conclusion after 17 years of this franchise's meandering existence. It is a dumpster fire. And the blaze rages.
- Will Parchman