BY MIKE VALLO
In my one week away from Sucka Free Soccer, a lot has happened. The team signed some Aussie no-namer and a draft pick who got away during the bad old days of Jeff Agoos. Mehdi Ballouchy is no longer a Red Bull. Ballouchy went from being despised to being mostly accepted by the fans, but he was always mediocre and his $135,000 salary was too much for a bench player, so he finds himself in San Jose. I doubt he is upset about it.
For me the most exciting news is the departure of Chris Heck. It’s uncomfortable to feel happy about a guy losing his job but Heck has the job security that only a corporate hack could enjoy. Everybody has worked for a Chris Heck, an empty suit getting by on a buzzword filled resume and an ability to say whatever makes management happy – all while actually contributing nothing and getting in the way of those who do. I guarantee he’ll land another position he has no business getting, making way more than all the people in the ticket sales office he fired upon his arrival in Harrison (The ones who were doing a better job selling tickets than the current staff).
In the end it wasn’t Heck’s inability to sell tickets that made him so unpopular. He’s not the first executive in Metro/Red Bulls history to fail in that regard and sadly I doubt he’ll be the last. What set him apart from the previous failures was his openly antagonistic attitude towards the fans and the sport he was trying to sell. He showed no desire to learn about the sport or the league or work with the already small fan base.
His predecessor, Erik Stover, was brought in to oversee the construction and opening of Red Bull Arena – something he did well. He also struggled to fill that arena when it was built and ultimately resigned. However his report with the fans could not have been more different. He listened to the supporters groups and helped create workable solutions to an escalating problem with security. Food trucks, membership points and the never waste a ticket program all made gameday a better experience than it is today.
Neither men were given the proper resources to market the team successfully and unless that changes, the next sucker to take the gig will also fail. However, Heck was sending the team backwards, and doing it surprisingly quickly. Hopefully the new head of business operations will be a little more Stover than Heck.
The excitement and mostly positive moves off the field are almost enough to make you forget that New York’s last couple of performances on the pitch were atrocious. In two weeks the Red Bulls went from well positioned to win the East and maybe compete for the Supporters shield to barely clinging to third in their division.
It’s understandable that a team with new faces and guys coming on and going off the injury list would struggle to find form, but there is a difference between underperforming and being god awful. Playing away from home is difficult but from recent Red Bulls road results, you would think it‘s a completely different sport. New York needs to find a way to turn some of their away losses into draws if they are going to compete at the top of the league – a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the man in charge.
Is Hans Backe a good coach? That’s the question I’ve repeatedly asked myself for the last few years. At times I’ve thought that Backe was a misunderstood genius slowly putting the championship pieces together. At other times, including in recent weeks, he seems more like a neck-bearded clown hoping that no one notices he has no clue what to do with the most talented team in the league.
Lately I’ve been asking a different question in an attempt to judge the enigmatic Swede. How would I feel if keeping my job was contingent on Hans Backe winning a trophy? The imaginary terror elicited by that thought is all too real for Erik Soler. Soler and Backe have always been paired together and I very much doubt that one would be fired without the other. That’s unfortunate for Soler who has done pretty much all you could ask for from a General Manager.
Sometimes it’s easy to point out Backe’s mistakes. Teemu Tainio should not have been thrown right into the starting lineup after missing months due to injury. Kenny Cooper should be an automatic starter. He should have used the maximum subs possible during the hellish six day, three game stretch last month. He shouldn’t call out Joel Lindpere, his hardest working player and arguably the best player of the last two seasons, while coddling Rafa Marquez every chance he gets.
Other times his failings are less apparent. You can usually tell within the first five minutes of a game whether the Red Bulls are going to lose. They come out inexplicably flat, like they weren’t expecting to play a game. Ultimately preparing the team mentally is just as important a job for the coach as picking the right formation and players.
Soler has given Backe a team that should be favorites to win MLS Cup. It seems unfair that if Backe fails to do so, Soler’s only reward will be a pink slip.