Less than 24 hours after New York Red Bulls crashed out of the MLS playoffs to arch-rivals DC United, the club's senior management announced that head coach Hans Backe would not be returning for a fourth season at the club.
NYRB also announced the appointment of Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager, and recently departed head of UEFA technical development, as Sporting Director.
Roxburgh may not be the last Scot to arrive at the club. Gerard Houllier, the head of Red Bull's global football operations, is thought to favour his former Aston Villa protege Gary McAllister as a future head coach. For now, former New York player, and fan favorite, Mike Petke will temporarily take charge of first team affairs, with Backe's assistant Jan Halvorsen also leaving the club.
It was perhaps the worst kept secret in MLS that Backe was on his way - regardless of the outcome of the Red Bulls play-off campaign. Despite spending more heavily than any other team in the league, the New York team have failed to lift the MLS Cup - an achievement their Red Bull owners regard as the minimum standard of success.
Instead, Backe's team has been eliminated from the Conference semi-finals of the playoffs in each of his three years in charge, and with the departure of Erik Soler as Sporting Director last month, the writing was on the wall for the head coach, who had come to the club with Soler before the start of the 2010 season.
The Backe years
For a franchise that seems to thrive on chaos and turnover, Backe's three year tenure may yet come to be looked back on as a model of stability. In his first year in charge the Swede's side opened the brand new Red Bull Arena by topping the Eastern Conference, only to fail, in what was to become a familiar story, in the semi-finals of the playoffs. They would make the playoffs again in the following year, 2011, and again this year, but each time would be undone at the first two-legged round. This year, as in 2010, the frustration was compounded by the fact that the draw was opening up for them, as they went into winnable second legs at home. On each occasion a frantic finale came up short.
MLS is an unforgiving league for a foreign coach to parachute into - the salary cap, draft system, and ever-evolving ecology of the academy/college systems in relation to the league, make for a steep learning curve. Initially the impression of Backe and Soler was that they regarded the salary cap as something to be pushed up against with your top eleven players - last season, the abiding impression of the Red Bulls was Backe's famous unwillingness to make substitutions, even as his older European imports tired in games. It seemed the coach did not trust his squad depth.
Ironically, given their departure, 2012 was widely held to be Backe and Soler's best year in their positions. Soler seemed to have belatedly adjusted to the trade system and was wheeler-dealing with fellow MLS clubs as well as moving for European players, while Backe seemed to overcome his presumed aversion to young American players, as the likes of Ryan Meara and Connor Lade became first team regulars. When the Red Bulls had first traded for, then moved on, Dwayne De Rosario in a few short months in 2011, the exchange with DC United for Dax McCarty was widely treated as an example of Soler and Backe's lack of savvy about the league, yet McCarty has had a career year as a defensive midfielder.
Ultimately though, the failure to blend ageing superstars such as Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Marquez with younger Americans and select middle of the road additions told on Backe. His (relatively) expensively assembled side were capable of big wins when their talent clicked and equally abject losses when the lack of team identity was all too apparent. On Wednesday night, it was hard to ignore the striking contrast of DC United's young American coach Ben Olsen chomping at the bit for his team to play their semi-final against a team whose heart they doubted, while Backe looked dubiously at the weather conditions.
Backe leaves a side built to peak with an MLS Cup this year. Andy Roxburgh arrives, as all foreign sporting directors do, with a steep learning curve ahead of him during the four month MLS off-season - and well beyond. Immediately he will face challenges in reshuffling the pack - Kenny Cooper's 18 goals may not keep him at New York, now that Portland Timbers are not paying part of his salary, and the new director faces potentially difficult decisions about the likes of Wilman Conde and possibly Rafa Marquez too.
Roxburgh's history in technical development and personal history with Gerard Houllier may suggest the start of a more direct relationship with the team's Austrian owners, who since the building of the stadium have tended to be hands off, beyond the occasional splash of a big signing. With Houllier leading their global football strategy, and his own history with youth development at France's Clairefontaine closely tied to Roxburgh's era as UEFA head of technical development, it's possible there'll be a cultural change in the organization's ethos. Just maybe, the era of designated player-dominated top down team management might be tempered by a legitimate commitment to growing the next generation of homegrown players to come through the ranks. Though as our immediate reaction from supporters and bloggers show, nobody in New York is holding their breath, given past experience.
Whoever takes over as head coach alongside Roxburgh — and the McAllister rumours are gathering pace — if they are not to take the New York franchise back to square one, they would do well to observe closely just which MLS teams do well consistently and why, and quickly learn the local dialect of their common sporting language.
Responses to Backe's departure
Dan Ryazansky, Metrofanatic:
"Clever" Hans Backe wasn't the worst coach in Metro history; not even close. One cannot forget the turnaround in 2010, when he took the core of the worst team in league and led them to the biggest turnaround in MLS history. After that, however, he couldn't match the original success. His lack of subs in 2011 would be comical if it wasn't detrimental; his decision to bail out of the Open Cup was just plain foolish. In 2012, the team failed to see success once again despite a deep roster, with Hans, who originally promised not to play players out of position, continuously doing just that. At the end, he joins the long line of coaches who were successful elsewhere but failed in New York... but his grizzled beard and his long leather trenchcoat are forever entrenched in Metro lore, in a way.
In the history of MLS, you don't need fingers to count the number of successful GMs/Sporting Directors without American soccer experience: there are none. The closest to a success was Erik Soler, and he was unceremoniously dismissed by this very club. Even at that, it took Soler three years to learn the nuances of MLS, and the roster he built, although competitive, is extremely flawed. The path to success in MLS is to build with young American players and augment with foreign signings; only by realizing that will Roxburgh -- or anyone else -- be successful in New York.
Jason Corliss, Viking Army Supporters group:
I think that a new regime always likes to put its stamp on an organization from day one... With Soler already out and with Backe's expiring contract and the lack of "success," during their tenure, it was inevitable that Backe would be out too. Sure, Backe was the "winningest coach" we've had, but without any silverware to show for his W-L record, it just wasn't/isn't good enough.
Regarding Roxburgh, he certainly has some nice items on his resume, but as we've seen time and again here, there's an MLS learning curve for those with no experience in the league. It takes time to get a feel for the arcane salary rules, calendar and roster issues, development system, etc. And, ironically/unfortunately, time is the one luxury that RBNY Managers and Sporting Directors don't have. As I've said before, it's always interesting, if nothing else. Keeping Petke on is a step in the right direction ...hopefully, he'll still have a place here if/when a permanent manager is hired. I'd love to see him get a proper chance to actually manage the club, but I have a feeling that that's not in the cards.
Tim Hall, author of "The view from 101" blog, First Touch:
Hans Backe will go down as one of the greatest head coaches in Metrostars/Red Bulls history as well as one of the worst, which speaks volumes about the franchise's history. Three straight playoff appearances with good-to-great records in each season, but with one of the most star-studded lineups in the league, failure to reach - let alone win - a final goes down as a disappointment. But how much control could Hans Backe have had over a locker room with Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez in it? Backe's personality was never one, outwardly, of a take charge leader but rather a laid back tactician. Whatever direction the Red Bulls look for a new head coach, if they think of doing away with interim coach Mike Petke, the anger the supporters are feeling now will be tenfold.
Fans of the New York team have asked for two things: 1) cups, and 2) stability. One will inevitably lead to the other, but until then, we're subjected to a revolving door in the coaching position as well as in the front office. What will the new power structure of Gerard Houllier, Jerome de Bontin, and Andy Roxburgh bring to the table? Nobody knows. What they AREN'T bringing to Red Bull Arena is any MLS experience between them, which is an oft-repeated trope around here. It's never worked for New York before; why should it work now?