By Kristian Dyer
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Hans Backe deserved better than this.
He might not be a name that registers among the head coaching ranks of the tri-state area like a Rex Ryan or a Tom Coughlin or a Joe Girardi or whoever coaches the Mets right now, but the former Red Bulls head coach deserved a mention among that group. When Backe took over the Red Bulls in the winter of 2009, he was inheriting a MLS team that had finished bottom of the league the year before.
An Eastern Conference title came in his first season, part of three straight postseason trips in what was arguably the snake bitten club’s most successful run in history. Last week, the Red Bulls unceremoniously dumped Backe after yet another trip to the playoffs and an early exit.
In New York, just making the playoffs isn’t good enough but Backe did far more good for the club. He deserved one more year.
He wasn’t without his flaws, including an alarming lack of trust of his bench players and the team did seem to underachieve despite having the highest payroll in MLS, but Backe was still among the best coaches in the league. How Backe, who never had a losing season in MLS and brought the Red Bulls from among the worst sides in the league to a respectable team somehow gets canned is systemic of a bigger problem in New York.
And now in typical Red Bulls fashion, the club will throw money at the problem and bring in a big name European manager who will have a limited knowledge of American soccer and its many challenges.
The Red Bulls are supposed to be the glamor club of MLS. Blessed with deep pockets from their energy drink ownership, they do have the top payroll in the league and haven’t been afraid to pursue big names. But in their 16-year history, they’ve yet to win a major trophy and that certainly included Backe’s tenure with the team. Yet the Red Bulls problems extended beyond what he could control.
The cash wasn’t spent wisely during Backe’s tenure, the directive from ownership in Salzburg, Austria was more about names than building a winner. In MLS, the good teams always have a strong American core sprinkled with the big name foreign talent. Instead, the Red Bulls wanted to create a European style team with heavy foreign influence who didn’t understand the intricacies of the league, the amount of travel and even subtle things such as the temperature shifts on the continent. Big names were wanted to push a brand and an energy drink and wins were expected to follow, almost magically.
What Backe did, despite his errors, was bring a certain amount of stability to the team despite the constant flow of players brought in as quick fixes from management.
MLS is a unique league, different than any other soccer league in the world. With a college draft, a salary cap and allocation money offsets, the Red Bulls aren’t a typical team in England or Spain who can spend relatively freely within their budget to acquire players. An understanding of the league is needed and that is what Backe after three years had achieved. He knew how to work in MLS and he knew the type of players needed to succeed.
He saw firsthand in 2012 how American players such as Brandon Barklage, Connor Lade and Ryan Meara stepped into the starting lineup and had a significant impact over bigger name Europeans on the roster. He understood the importance of a strong home record and getting road points and after the difficulties of last season, knew how to cope with players being called away for national team games. Backe got all this after three years in MLS.
Will the next head coach pick up on things so quickly? If he comes from outside of MLS, he likely won’t. Backe is one of the rare foreign coaches who acclimated to the league and seemed to understand it.
He may not have been the perfect coach – there is no such thing in the rest of the world let alone MLS – but Backe knew and understood his team and the league he was in. His style, his ability to coach players and egos remained the same no matter what. His three years in MLS may not have produced a major piece of hardware but being let go by the Red Bulls does something much worse to this team.
It sets them back to the proverbial “Square One” again and with a veteran team, nothing could be worse.
Did the Red Bulls make a mistake in tossing aside Backe or the does the club need a new direction? Sound off below…