Not if you were following the headlines.
News of Erik Soler’s demotion/firing/banishing as General Manager has dominated the sports ticker for fans of this vastly criticized and perplexing franchise. The outcry has been unanimous in its confusion and misery – not for Erik Soler the man mind you, but for the lack of continuity that follows this franchise at the most inopportune moments.
To make matters worse, the ripple effect has already begun to make the rounds. In a time where people should be configuring playoff berth scenarios and discussing the fortitude of the team’s starting XI, the talk has instead revolved around the possibility of either Harry Redknapp or Gary McAllister taking over a head coaching spot that has yet to be vacated.
Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?
This week serves to typify the Red Bulls in a nutshell. Win, lose or draw, this franchise simply cannot get out of its way.
Now many respected pundits will argue that the timing of the firing is perfect. New Boss Gerard Houllier and his friend Jérôme de Bontin will get a hands-on feel for the team, its operations and the product on the field, putting them ahead of the learning curve for the offseason. They will be able to properly scout the College ranks and make informed decisions for next year’s inevitable turnover bonanza. Besides, Soler’s work was done for the season. He isn’t involved in the everyday play of the team. The architect simply built the Fort and can now only sit back and watch it sustain or collapse. Why keep him around?
With all due respect, that argument is a blanket excuse for another rash decision that can potentially cause immeasurable instability. On the one side, promises have been made and expectations set. Judging by every move this season, the Red Bulls were in “Championship or Bust” mode from day one. Soler himself acknowledged it after the Richards for Le Toux trade, claiming his moves were intended for the next “4-6 months,” not 4-6 years. What do you gain by ousting the operational head just days from a playoff berth? Well, besides a multitude of unnecessary distractions?
If this were any other sport and either the Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants, Islanders, Rangers, Nets or even the Liberty were enjoying the best season in franchise history only to have the team cut the legs out from underneath their General Manager just short of the playoffs, the outcry would be enormous. What do you think Yankee fans would do if Brian Cashman were fired and reports linked Davey Johnson and Buck Showalter to the team while Joe Girardi was trying to clinch a postseason berth?
It would be Armageddon – and would only worsen without a proper explanation.
But that has been the modus operandi for years around these parts. How many times has news broken with media and the league beating New York to the details? How often has the fan base been left to linger for answers when large scale decisions take place? Sure, Austria has been giving – an ample salary budget has been bestowed, a beautiful new Arena gifted – but their clandestine operation and hands-off management approach muddies the clarity, communication and outreach of a team that can ill afford to blur any of those areas of operation.
This is not to defend Soler, mind you; he has made plenty of mistakes. From the signing and trading of Dwayne De Rosario to his enormous risk of starting a crucial 2012 season with a rookie keeper thanks to his inability to acquire a seasoned veteran, he has been far from perfect. He takes sole responsibility for the Chris Heck era from hiring to firing and in turn shares blame for this year’s woeful attendance numbers as well.
Nevertheless, on the field, it has been a banner year for him and Hans Backe. He signed the second leading scorer in MLS for a bag of rocks. He acquired Wilman Conde well below market value. Markus Holgersson has settled into an admirable centerback. His Juan Agudelo-for-Heath Pearce deal looked like a dud at the time, but has blossomed into a solid acquisition. His foresight in trading an already departing Dane Richards for Sebastian Le Toux was brilliant in its construction, but when Le Toux couldn’t fill in his shoes, he acquires an explosive Lloyd Sam. And his maneuvering to obtain allocation money (no matter how small) for Alessandro Nesta and Quincy Amerikwa through the discovery process was a stroke of genius.
This doesn’t even account for the last minute acquisition of Tim Cahill and the fact he stacked the roster despite a highly restrictive salary cap.
The result? No matter how ugly they have looked in spurts, the Red Bulls have achieved the greatest record the franchise has ever known with perhaps the deepest roster ever assembled in Major League Soccer history (well, on paper at least). That is a credit to both the GM and the coach.
What this is really about is the running of this franchise as a commodity and not a club. Recently, the Red Bulls faltered against Sporting KC and the New England Revolution (hardly a fire-able offense), but bounced back in dramatic fashion against a weak Toronto FC. The victory served to buoy the team’s spirit – and it was palpable in the locker room post match. In a league that emphasizes strength in the stretch run to attain the ultimate prize, this was a true gift – perhaps one that could propel them towards the kind of streak needed to win their first trophy in 17 years.
Why then threaten that type of potential with a needless move at the top?
Was Soler beloved by the players? Hardly. But his hasty dismissal has caused a foreseeable ripple effect that has now reached the playing field, planting a large target on the back of the team’s coach (as if there wasn’t enough to worry about). If it were all about the club, then the decision could have waited until the postseason run was through. Whether they go on a dominant tear or miss the playoffs all together from here on out is irrelevant. Why would you rock the boat in the first place? Why put your coach’s feet to the fire after a successful season just shy of the summit? Why show outward instability at a time the team needs solid ground?
It doesn’t make sense.
That’s the issue at hand – it isn’t about the club. Instead, it is about a brand that takes precedence over a team – consequences be damned. It’s about the politics of a new brain trust from a distant and disconnected ownership group. It is a reminder that this franchise is not an independent entity, but a cog in a larger sporting conglomerate. It is about a team that has the potential to be great but finds ways of threatening its own progress.
Soler’s firing in and of itself won’t make players or managers lose sleep – but the aftershocks of the decision certainly will. Just ask Hans Backe.
Making this kind of change, with a team that has achieved this kind of success at the most crucial part of the season?
Well, that is just so Metro.